It is high time for the West to engage in strategic planning to support Ukraine because the fall of Ukraine is likely to lead to an unacceptable increase in risks for Western countries, which, in the end, will NOT avoid conflict with Russia, but will still enter it, but on much less favorable terms.
Russia's Initial Plan
The data obtained over the last week provide a fairly clear picture of Russia's initial plans with regard to the occupation of Ukraine.
The main points of this plan can be summed up as follows:
Russia initially had full confidence in the superiority of its armed forces, which received combat training in Syria and were supposed to be equipped with the most modern weapons as a result of the extensive modernization carried out since 2012.
Based on incorrect analytical data, Russia was confident that the morale of the Ukrainian army would be low and that the population of Eastern Ukraine would support the occupation of their territory due to the fact that approx. 90% of the local population speaks Russian.
Although the military operation was formally intended to "protect the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics," in fact the main objective was to overthrow the Zelenski government and force Ukraine into submission to a new, puppet government headed e. g. by Yanukovich who, from Russia's point of view, is actually the last fully legitimate president of Ukraine. In the future, it was planned to incorporate the predominantly Russian-speaking parts of the country into Russia.
Based on the data available to the Kremlin, a quick operation was planned, consisting of two main phases: a massive attack on army control points, airports and military depots using ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, cruise missiles (over 100 in total) and bombers (about 75) during the first 24 hours of war and then a „deep“ attack by mobile armored groupsto quickly seize significant chunks of territory (eastern and southern fronts) and – most significantly – to attack Kiev (northern front). This operation was intended to lead to a major political crisis in Ukraine, the collapse and physical elimination of the legitimate government in the shortest possible time.
In this “quick win” scenario, the Russians could ignore the risk of economic sanctions, because they could put the West before a fait accompli and force its acceptance. The West was meant to play the role of a frightened spectator who would with trembling hands sign the Kremlin's ultimatum after a demonstration of Russia's intimidating military power.
Of particular note are serious efforts of Russian propaganda, which in advance and quite successfully managed to instill in the minds of Western politicians the false idea that Ukraine is an "artificial state" and will not last more than 24 hours in the event of war against, as it was actively propagandized, "the second strongest army in the world". This idea was initially formulated through formally independent think tanks and then broadcast by numerous Western media outlets and politicians. All of this, of course, was meant to dishearten Western countries and weaken their political resolve to react to the aggression.
In general, based on the currently available information, as well as data obtained by the Ukrainian military, Russia planned to capture Kiev within 48 hours and complete the operation in about 12 days.
Current situation in Ukraine: Reassessment of capabilities and positional warfare
The 18 days of war showed the complete failure of the Russia's initial strategic concept, resulting in low troop effectiveness and high casualties, the total number of which can hardly be assessed right now.
Putting aside some well-known nuances, we would like to point out the following critical problems of the Russian army:
It is obvious that there is a huge problem with independent, objective strategic and military analysis in Russia. Numerous think tanks close to the Russian government and analytical departments of the intelligence services/Presidential Administration have essentially become oracles of the Kremlin's secret dreams, not shaping but merely reflecting Russian political thought in all its deformity.
The tactic of deep breakthroughs did not bring the desired success, only fragmenting the forces of the aggressor. Russia has failed to execute an effective combined arms, multi-domain campaign to enable superiority at the most vital defense points of the Ukrainian army. At this point, it is essentially unclear whether the Russians have the organizational and operational capabilities to conduct such an operation.
In areas traditionally considered to be its strengths, such as cyber/electronic warfare and air strikes, the Russian army has been surprisingly ineffective. Communication between command posts and units of the Ukrainian Army forces has not been disrupted. The Russian forces, on the contrary, are experiencing significant difficulties in terms of communication security. They often use easily accessible frequencies, which are successfully jammed and tapped. The often mentioned air superiority of the Russian Air Force, although felt, is limited. Radars, S-300 mobile complexes and man-portable air defense systems in the Ukrainian army's inventory have shown their effectiveness. A significant number of helicopters, combat planes and at least two military transport aircraft have been destroyed with their help. Overall, it should be noted that Russia's huge statistical advantage in terms of planes is conditional, as not all of them can be transferred to Ukraine (while Ukrainians use 100 percent of available machines), not all are in working order, provided with ammunition and maintenance teams. It takes time to provide all this, especially in a situation where sanctions are imposed on the Russian aircraft industry.
There are serious problems with the maneuvering of army units. The spring thaw has already started, so the Russians remain primarily on roads to enable quick advances. Roads in Ukraine are often narrow, which additionally leads to days of delays for military convoys, as in the famous case of the Russian convoy stuck 25 kilometers from Kiev because Ukrainians flooded large areas with water from a reservoir. This funneling through choke points makes Russian forces vulnerable to Ukrainian drones and Javelins.
The failure to achieve major military objectives within the first 96 hours gave NATO and the EU time to reassess the situation and adopt a strategic course of economic warfare against Russia and provide the necessary financial and military assistance to Ukraine.
The Russian security service FSB worked hard to create a network of spies, disinformers and saboteurs in each of the 26 regions of Ukraine, which were to infiltrate Ukraine's rear and spread terror and panic. This plan also failed.
At this point we can say that virtually 100% of the "professional" contract troops prepared for the occupation of Ukraine have already entered its territory. Their losses are so severe that they forced Russia to take a pause to regroup under the guise of negotiations. In particular, the most elite units, such as the 2nd Guards Taman Motor Rifle Division, the 76th Pskov Guards Air Assault Division and the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division suffered serious losses. Ukraine, on the contrary, seems to be keeping some of its armed forces away from the battlefield, limiting itself to defensive operations and occasional counterattacks. This may be due to reluctance to escalate the war in order to avoid large-scale mobilization by Russia or in order to form deep reserves for the battle for Kiev.
In general, it can be assumed that Russia will not be able to establish control over the territory of Ukraine using its initial strategy, and, having realized its pointlessness, for now fully concentrates on the most important strategic points – Kiev, Kharkov and Mariupol trying to capture at least one of them (most probably Mariupol). However, even this goal cannot be achieved without major changes in strategy in favor of most barbaric warfare including carpet bombings, shelling in squares and using of weapons of mass destruction.
Realistic future scenarios for Ukraine and Europe: Why this war does not end in Ukraine
There is an extremely important and direct logical connection between the war in Ukraine and the future of united Europe that has so far been mostly ignored or underscored in Western political discourse. Most analytical articles about the war in Ukraine are still limited exclusively to forecasts within Ukraine's borders and treat the problem explicitly as an internal matter of Ukraine, as if Ukraine's victory or defeat had no geopolitical implications for the future of Europe. Such an approach appears to be dangerously outdated and misleading, as will be shown below.
The war in Ukraine as a part of the Kremlin's Grand Game against the EU and NATO
In order to understand and foresee further developments in Ukraine, it is first necessary to clearly understand Putin's „grand plan” and the role of Ukraine in them.
Unfortunately, for a long time the West did not really understand Putin. It mistakenly regarded him as a “transactional“ (kleptocrat) or “realist” leader, whose actions are subject to a logic somehow familiar or even relatable to Europeans. Western politicians considered him in general a predictable person, be he a greedy kleptocrat or an autocratic fan of realpolitik, interested primarily in protecting national interests and the survival of the state and the nation. Such attempts to „explain Putin” have been very popular for quite a long time.
Some experts and politicians were quite clear about this years ago, but it only became obvious to the Western elites with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, which was an utter shock for many. Interestingly, despite this revelation, attempts to talk Putin out of the war according to the usual schema of the realist policy continue to this day (regular calls from Macron, Scholz), which shows the vitality of outdated political stereotypes and a certain inertness of political thought in the West.
Just as incorrect is the rapidly spreading notion that Putin is a mad psychopath, the new legend of “mad Vlad“. These rumors are absolutely to the Kremlin's advantage, as they allow it to intimidate the EU and NATO with the rumor that the madman's hand is on the nuclear button and he cannot be angered. Contrary to this propaganda story, Putin may not be in the best mental shape, but „there is a method in his madness“.
Putin is neither a realist, nor a kleptocrat, but a classical ideological leader for whom money and zero sum games are not the end goal, but only a tool to achieve the geopolitical revanche of Russia for the events of 1917 and 1991. However inconsistent Putin's recent actions may seem to Western analysts, they make perfect sense if we trace the logic of his previous behavior and statements based on his revanchist goals.
The overall pattern of Kremlin’s actions fits well into a certain general political framework, which can be loosely termed as the “Putin doctrine“.
It is based on the following theses:
The collapse of the Soviet Union (and the Russian Empire) were the greatest disasters of the 20th century, NOT World War II.
The nation-states formed as a result of the collapse of the Soviet empire are NOT „real” states, but political constructs made by the West to weaken Russia. Their entire political and economic infrastructure was bestowed upon them by Russia, which, therefore, has the exclusive right to control these territories.
The collective West has always been and remains Russia's main adversary, Russia's future depends on whether it can take political (through the formation of political lobbies, threats and military action) and economic (through bribing elites and forming dependence on Russian resources) control over Europe.
European countries are weak and pose a threat to Russia only within international organizations such as NATO and the EU. In this regard, Russia's main efforts should be aimed at stopping any processes of EU and NATO enlargement and, ideally, at breaking up the EU and marginalizing NATO's influence in Europe.
Russia as a great country is not subject to any external rules and laws and is guided solely by its own interests. Diplomatic treaties and laws are only means to an end and can be discarded at will.
The formulated provisions provide a good perspective for understanding the reasons for Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
The first thing to understand is that the ongoing aggression is by no means an autonomous project of Putin. It is part of the Grand Game against the West, in which Putin sees Ukraine as a classic proxy for the U.S. and the EU. In fact, the Kremlin stated this directly in the famous NATO ultimatum published on December 17, 2021, now forgotten because of war. This ultimatum actually declares not only Ukraine but also the 14 Eastern and Southern European states that have joined NATO over the past 24 years as a zone of Russian influence and demands a partial withdrawal of NATO from Europe.
After the ultimatum was rejected, gaining control of Ukraine was the first obvious step toward the overarching goal of military and political dominance in Europe.
Possible scenarios for the further developments in Ukraine
Based on the above, it is obvious that failure to take control of Ukraine, especially after a military invasion of its territory, would mean the collapse of the whole Putin’s foreign policy doctrine, demonstrate his weakness and incompetence, thereby putting his status and even his personal security at risk. Therefore, giving up his war on Ukraine is only possible for Putin if the alternatives would be fatal for him, such as an inevitable large-scale military defeat, after which he would lose power.
Thus, at this point there are only two main scenarios for the development of the situation in Ukraine: either Putin loses and withdraws his forces from Ukraine , or he seizes power in Ukraine after all, using any available means. All other scenarios that can be discussed are essentially second order scenarios, depending on Russia's success/failure in the war.
For example, the much-discussed scenarios of a popular uprising or palace coup are possible only in the event of a devastating military defeat in Ukraine.
The relative small liberal part of the Russian population that is now coming out to protest has never been strong enough to ensure a change of power. The majority, unfortunately, have succumbed to chauvinist and militarist propaganda and fully support Putin's policies. This support might even increase now due to the destruction of all independent media in Russia. Putin's electorate wants/expects him to win the war. This support can only be shaken only if the leader shows his incompetence and weakness.
The situation is roughly the same with a coup d'état. This is a very unlikely scenario right now. The Security Council meeting at which the decision was made to "protect the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics" demonstrated the complete impotence and panic of Putin's inner circle. In addition, unprecedented security measures are being applied while guarding Putin. For possible conspirators to get bolder, it is necessary for Putin to become weaker.
Another batch of scenarios branches off from the situation when Putin begins to control most of Ukraine.
Looking at this hypothetical situation, Western experts prefer to focus on the question of how powerful the guerrilla war in Ukraine will be and how Putin will fail to „pacify“ the Ukrainians. This makes a gross logical error in the form of the false assumption that Putin will spend years fighting the Ukrainian partisans while watching the Russian economy collapse under the pressure of sanctions. No, he absolutely will not.
However, before turning to possible second-order scenarios that would be preferable to Putin if he gained control of Ukraine, we must answer the question: How realistic is Putin's military victory in general?
Well, at the moment, as shown above, Putin does not have the capabilities to seize Ukraine within the limits of a “special operation“. However, he has quite obvious possibilities of a different nature:
A successful assassination attempt on Zelenski. It is no secret that there are still Kremlin agents in the entourage of Zelenski. Political assassinations are the Kremlin's favorite trick, and Zelenski has already survived several attempts on his life.
The use of carpet bombing with cluster bombs, thermobaric weapons, large-caliber artillery and multiple rocket launchers to destroy major resistance strongholds quarter by quarter. The Russian armed forces have already used these methods of warfare in Syria (bombing Aleppo in 2016) and could repeat it for exemplary punishment. They could then e. g. demand the surrender of the country, threatening to continue destroying cities otherwise. This would be a horrendous war crime, but what would the punishment be? Right now the Kremlin believes that there will be none.
A tactical nuclear strike on Zelenski's residence, for example, with a Topol intercontinental missile with a range of 12,000 km, which was specially designed for such purpose. This would allow, with one blow, to break the will to resist and sow terror among Ukrainians. This variant is also called “Escalation for de-escalation.”
What will happen to Ukraine after that?
To fight the rebels, Putin will create an occupation government of collaborators and representatives of the "Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics" and the Crimea. To purge Ukraine from the most patriotic citizens, an artificial humanitarian crisis may be created, as a result of which another 8–10 million Ukrainians will be forced to leave the country. By doing so, the Kremlin will in one strike create a huge migration crisis in the EU and get rid of the most dangerous part of the Ukrainian population. The remaining Ukrainians will be under martial law and fighting not with Russian soldiers, but with mercenaries and pro-Russian militia.
Putin himself, if possible, will demonstratively distance himself from the situation, saying that it is the legitimate right of the new, legitimate government to fight the terrorists.
Therefore, the „pacification” of Ukraine will NOT be the main task of the Kremlin. On the contrary, Putin will immediately concentrate on his main goal of pushing back NATO and disintegrating of the EU, using the new opportunities arising from his control over Ukraine and Belarus. To achieve his goals Putin will use his favorite methods of psychological warfare, sabotage, and nuclear blackmail.
Will Russia have any chance of achieving such bold goals?
Generally speaking, if the problem is not taken seriously, this scenario is much more likely than it seems to many experts and politicians.
Below is a brief list of “tools“ (factors and actions) that Putin can use (and has actually used in the past) to raise the stakes to an unacceptable level for the West, without even formally giving a reason to activate Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
The destruction and occupation of Ukraine will be a very serious psychological blow to the population of NATO countries, especially Poland and the Baltics countries, which already now feel serious risks to their security and begin to view NATO as a "paper tiger". The arrival of Russian troops at the border with the EU along its new length of about 2500 km will cause panic among the population of the border regions of EU countries. This panic will be further intensified by the growing migration crisis and provocations, which will be carried out by specially trained units of Russian and Belarusian troops.
The same event will have a quite opposite effect on Russia. The Kremlin views Ukraine as a proxy of the West, so by defeating Ukraine, it will inevitably present this victory as a defeat for the EU and NATO, which will delight the chauvinist and militarist-soaked Russian population. Unprecedented sanctions by the Western countries will be presented as an attempt to "bring Russia to its knees," as a declaration of war. This narrative will absolve Putin of all responsibility for the sanctions and shift it to the “insidious West”. As a result, Russia, despite its quickly deteriorating economic situation, will be able to mobilize significant human resources to "save the Homeland”.
Putin has already clearly articulated how he understands the economic pressure put on Russia: “Sanctions against Russia are akin to a declaration of war, but it has not yet come to this“. Please note the word „yet“. The West has chosen a strategy of asymmetric response, attacking Russia in such a way that it itself remains safe. But Putin has never played by the rules, so what prevents him from choosing the same asymmetric strategy and responding in the usual way – by cutting through the “Suvalki corridor” on both sides under the protection of nuclear warheads in Kaliningrad? The Russian General Staff is actually fully aware of the organizational weakness of NATO, about which much has been written, including by leading European experts and, most importantly, the psychological unreadiness of a number of NATO members to enter a war, even if it is defensive in nature. This is particularly true of Germany. Such position is essentially an invitation to the aggressor.
The migration crisis orchestrated in Belarus by Lukashenka can now be repeated on a much larger scale, using two puppets at once – Lukashenka and the new “president of Ukraine”. Refugees will be a good disguise for trained agents to storm the border, smuggle weapons, drugs, and arrange provocations, increasingly destabilizing the situation in the EU. The EU and NATO have no defense against this tactic.
It should also not be forgotten that after the occupation of Ukraine, Ukrainian nuclear power plants, including Chernobyl, fall into Putin's hands. Their critical state after "terrorist acts committed by Ukrainian nationalists" could serve as another powerful blackmail tool against Europe.
It seems that even this “short list” clearly indicates that the fall of Ukraine is likely to lead to an unacceptable increase in risks for Western countries, which, in the end, will NOT avoid conflict with Russia, but will still enter it, but on much less favorable terms. The only realistic solution to prevent this is to stop cold Russian troops in Ukraine.
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