(Art direction: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)

The September 2022 Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russia is hailed as very successful. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the “true heroes” who allowed for a “very rapid liberation” of 8000 sq km by 14 September 22 “in the east, notably in the Kharkiv Oblast, and the south, notably in the Kherson oblast”, (e.g. BBC News, 12 September 22; CNN, 14 September 22).

Yet, U.S. President Joe Biden and other American officials, as well as Germany Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht first cautioned against a feeling of “premature victory”, of a “turning point in the war”, even though they acknowledge the territorial gains (Lolita Baldor and Ellen Knickmeyer, “US leaders avoid victory dance in Ukraine combat advances“, AP, 13 September 22; Reuters, “Too early to tell if Ukraine counter-offensive is turning point, Germany says“, 14 September 22). As time passed, on 18 September, President Biden appeared as far more confident in an interview, stating that “They’re defeating Russia” (Reuters, “Zelenskiy vows no let-up as Ukraine says troops cross Oskil river in northeast“, 19 September 2022).

What lies ahead?

With this article we shall first briefly stress why it is important to look at a comprehensive set of scenarios, and why it matters even more in the context of a war where information is degraded by the use of propaganda or psyops. Then, we shall focus not on the scenario favoured in the West, which predicts a victory of Ukraine, as this scenario is well-known, but describe another scenario, different from the most common narrative. We shall call it the Red Scenario, in reference to red teaming (taking the point of view of the enemy). We mainly present explanations rather than scenario narrative (story-telling), using maps tracking the evolution of the control of the terrain in Ukraine by the two protagonists and established daily by the Institute for the Study of War. First we present our key hypotheses and then develop an explanatory narrative according to phases during the war.

The need for alternative scenarios

Useful and actionable scenarios are constituted in a set with evolving likelihoods

Many commentators tend to focus on a single scenario highlighting a Ukrainian victory and a Russian defeat. The current Ukrainian counter-offensive goes hand in hand with the Russian “debacle”, “rout”, “disaster”, “disintegration”, etc. This is indeed one scenario. Its narrative runs more or less as follows:

The current counter-offensive heralds coming successes for the Ukrainian army while showing deep seated problems within Russian forces that will lead to a string of defeats, until Moscow is vanquished.

However, proper foresight must consider all possible scenarios (see FAQ on scenarios), even those that are unlikely, contrary to one’s objectives or unpalatable. Actually those scenarios are even more interesting because they are those that allow for the best planning, for truly countering the enemy and finally for victory and success.

The likelihood of seeing a scenario taking place actually is something that is separated from the narrative of the scenario itself. The key variables for a set of scenarios are used both to craft the narrative and then to assess the probability of the scenario. Yet, to create a specific scenario for this set does not mean that this scenario is more likely than another. A good set of scenarios must consider all possible scenarios. Then according to reality the probability of each scenario is assessed, varies and evolves. This is where scenarios become most useful, because they help steer policy. However, to be able to reach this lofty aim, we need first to have a complete set of scenarios, and not only a couple of pleasant scenarios that fit our aims, beliefs and wishes.

Overcoming potential propaganda

Furthermore, a swift Ukrainian victory by heroes in the framework of a Russian rout could also be a way to narrate events that is part of the information operations (I/Os – psyops) of Ukraine and its allies (see Helene Lavoix, “Information Warfare and the War in Ukraine“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 24 May 2022). More surprisingly but not impossible, it could even be part of Russian I/Os and deception, as Russia is meant to be a master at using “reflexive control” (refleksivnoe upravlenie / рефлексивного управления).

As during war information is degraded and as we shall not know with certainty what is truly taking place on the ground until archives are opened – i.e. in 30, 60, or 100 years according to cases and countries, we need to rely on scenarios. Scenarios allow to make hypotheses and to take into account uncertainty, which is key when information is lacking or of dubious quality. Furthermore it will help us stretching our minds, asking inconvenient questions and thus think out of the box.

A Red Scenario – Main hypotheses

Our first hypothesis for this scenario is that Russia has two major territorial aims in Ukraine and only two.

The first territorial objective, as declared when Russia launched its “special operation”, is to free and protect the territory of the two separatist Republics of the Donbass: the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) (Address by the President of the Russian Federation, February 24, 2022, 06:00, The Kremlin, Moscow).

The second aim can be inferred from the same Russian Address, and consists in protecting Crimea (Ibid.). This means creating strategic depth for the peninsula, which would allow protecting it from any Ukrainian threat.

North Crimean Canal. Connects the Denpr at the Kakhovka reservoir with the east of Crimea – Berihert, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The importance of that goal is highlighted by one of the first actions of the Russian army on 24 February 22, thus at the very beginning of the war. It restored water flow to the North Crimean canal (Pivnichno-Krymskyi kanal) between the Dniepr River in Ukraine and Crimea, which had been cut off by Ukraine in 2014 (Reuters, “Russian forces unblock water flow for canal to annexed Crimea, Moscow says,” 24 February 2022).

These territorial aims are shown on the map below. The size of the necessary strategic depth for Crimea is an estimate and may vary according to other factors. It is against this map that operations elsewhere will be evaluated.

War in Ukraine 2022 – Russian objectives – Red scenario (on an ISW map as background)

The second hypothesis is that the Russian leadership is neither mad nor stupid, nor completely out of touch with reality, nor any of the extreme epithets and ungrounded emotional assertions that have been made about the Russian political authorities. This does not mean that leadership cannot be surprised. As for any system, analyses and evaluations may be flawed. Actions may not go as planned. The fog of war operates.

The third hypothesis or rather principle is that if something cannot be explained or understood when using prior reasoning and framework for understanding, then it is likely that the initial line of thinking is flawed.

A Red Scenario – Phases in the war

Phase 1 – 24 Feb 2022 to 29 March 2022

Creating the conditions for the conquest of the South (outside Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts)

Considering the Russian territorial objectives for this scenario, all operations carried out outside Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and the southern part of Zaporizhzhia oblasts are either “decoy” operations or “negotiation” ones.

They aimed at focusing the attention and effort of the enemy and its allies on non-essential, indeed false aims. At best, if gains are achieved, they will be used for exchange during negotiation, against the territory that constitutes the real aim, or against other key objectives such as the neutrality of Ukraine.

This phase ended on 29 March 22. Then, in the framework of the negotiations taking place in Istanbul, Russian Ministry of Defence announced to “fundamentally reduce military activity in the direction of Kiev and Chernihiv” in order to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations to agree and sign a peace deal with Ukraine” (DW; Asia Times 29 March 22).

As far as its territorial objectives are concerned, in one month, the Russian side succeeded in creating strategic depth for Crimea by taking a large part of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. It made the junction with Donetsk Oblast or rather, from a Russian perspective, the DPR. It gave the latter its connection to the sea. Finally, it conquered a large part of Luhansk.

However, hardly any progress was made in the western part of Donetsk Oblast, which remained strongly in Ukrainian hands. There, the 2015 “contact line” acts as a quasi border where an attrition war started and would last.

All other territorial gains and operations – which includes Kiev, despite Western beliefs – were secondary or part of Russian psyops and could be abandoned to consolidate the territory taken that is part of the objectives.

“Contact line” or “line of contact”: “A stretch of land that separates conflict-affected people residing in Government (GCA) and non-Government-controlled areas (NGCA) of eastern Ukraine” (UNOCHA). It runs over approximately 420km. It has hardly moved between 2015 and February 2022 (ICG, Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas). Defined in the Package of measures for the Implementation of the Minsk agreements, 12 Feb 2015.

On 1st April 2022, the massacres of Bucha and other locations around Kiev was then revealed, creating widespread outrage (e.g. Eliot Higgins, “Russia’s Bucha ‘Facts’ Versus the Evidence“, Bellingcat, 4 April 22). The negotiations stopped, despite initial Turkish hope to see them continuing (Daily Sabah, “Turkey expects more Russia-Ukraine peace talks, FM Çavuşoğlu says“, 7 April 22).

Phase 2 – April 2022

Withdrawal from the north and repositioning of forces on real territorial objectives with, as potential “decoy area”, Kharkiv Oblast

Throughout April, the Russian forces withdrew from all northern territories as stated at the end of March. They repositioned their forces where territory matters in terms of main goals and started consolidating what they had already conquered. Meanwhile they also began the slow grinding progress to conquer or free according to side the territory of Luhansk oblast for the LPR and of Donetsk Oblast for the DPR.

The only remaining territory not belonging to their main goals is in Kharkiv oblast. This area could then be used as “decoy” or way to pin down Ukrainian forces on areas that did not matter to the Russian side. The slow withdrawal from Kharkiv region started then.

Phase 3 – May 2022 to date

Attrition warfare, freeing/conquering Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts territory, keeping as much as possible of the southern oblasts.

Phase 3-1 – The conquest of Luhansk Oblast – Attrition warfare elsewhere

By 25 June 2022, in Luhansk, Severodonetsk fully fell to the Russian army (ISW, Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, June 25). Lysychansk followed suit on 2 July and the border of the Luhansk Oblast was reached on 3 July (ISW, Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 3).

Kharkiv Oblast remains a zone that is dispensable and does not belong to true Russian objectives. It is partly in Russian hands, but by mid-May, Ukrainian forces have regained a small part of this territory, east of Kharkiv (city).

Elsewhere, the frontline hardly moved compared with previous periods. Attrition warfare settled, with rather offensive objectives in Donetsk Oblast and defensive aims in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts.

Assuming the new weapons Ukraine received from Western allies, notably the U.S., as well as intelligence and special forces support, and consequent Ukrainian actions do not change the strategic situation for Crimea, it is likely that Russia will mainly seek to consolidate its gain in the south.

The western part of Donetsk remains, however, apparently stubbornly out of reach. As it is the last objective that needs to be met, then it should be the focus of the next phase.

Hypothetical Phase 3-2 – Conquering Donetsk, Keeping what was taken and Ending the War?

Reflexive control again?

Russia must find a way to conquer what remains of the Donetsk oblast, which represents a large part of territory and demands overcoming entrenched Ukrainian defense. Meanwhile, it must also preserve what matters, the territory conquered that corresponds to its real objectives.

This also means countering the Ukrainian counter-offensive officially started on 29 August 22, but with earlier premises (Reuters, “Ukraine says long-anticipated southern offensive has begun“, 29 August 2022, Oleksiy Yarmolenko, Tetyana Lohvynenko, “The Russian army sacrificed a massive offensive in Donbas to strengthen its position in the south‘, 12 August 22).

By 14 September, Ukrainian troops have re-conquered 8000 sq km of Kharkiv oblast (DW, “Ukraine stabilizes counteroffensive gains in northeast“, 14 September 2022). Notably the Ukrainian army could mobilise enough men, with a smart strategy to surprise “the rather small Russian forces of the 144th Motorised Division reinforced with disparate independent units” (Michel Goya, “1918 en Ukraine ?“, La Voix de l’Epée, 11 September 2022). Russian forces did not really fight and the “massive Russian forces stationned in Izium retreated eastwards” (ibid.). Izium was re-taken by Ukraine (Ibid.). Actually, according to the maps below, the territory liberated seems to have stabilised on 12 September, and even up to 18 September with different declarations however (see below).

Whatever the rhetoric used to explain Ukrainian successes in Kharkiv oblast, be it withdrawal of Russian troops for repositioning elsewhere (Russian MoD Telegram) or plain defeat in losing a territory (by Western analysts and Russian nationalists military bloggers and discussions in the Duma as stressed by the ISW “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 13“), it remains that the territory held in Karkhiv was not part of the main Russian objectives. This area could, of course, have a tactical, operational and strategic use, but yet it was not part of the Russian aims. Furthermore, its value in obtaining territorial gains in Donetsk may not have been that high considering the absence of results of the previous months. Hence losing it may not be as crucial as commentators, whatever their nationality, including Russian, may think, if – and this is a key “if” – a new front line along the river Oskil, or along the border of Luhansk oblast is established.

The Russian “recognition” of defeat in Kharkiv that is hailed in the West as something new (see details in ISW, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 13“) may not matter that much either, as long it is not followed by other defeats or series thereof in areas corresponding to main territorial objectives. In that light, the loss of a very small part of Luhansk oblast on 10 September may be far more important, if it were to be followed by other losses.

Moreover, considering Russian practice of reflexive control and psyops, we should not forget the possibility that not only the change of rhetoric regarding the Ukrainian victory in Kharkiv – i.e. Russia recognising defeat there – but also, most importantly the very swift loss of territory could actually be part of an information operation.

This could be a Russian version of Operation Fortitude, when the allies deceived the Germans about where they would land on D-Day. In terms of reflexive control, we may imagine that the Russians acted in such a way that they prompted the decision by Ukraine and its allies to attack militarily on Kharkiv oblast.

One possible indication that deception could have been at work comes from an inconsistency highlighted by military experts. Specialists wonder about the inability of the Russian army to detect “five armoured-mechanised brigades near the front in Zmiv”, despite all the Russian intelligence capabilities (Goya, “1918 en Ukraine ?“). The only explanations that are offered are a failure of tactical assessment in the chain of command and failure of understanding at highest level (e.g. Goya, “1918 en Ukraine ?“). Of course, these explanations may very well be correct. Yet, one possibility is not envisioned: would it be possible that detection took place and that nothing was done, purposefully, because something else is at work, indeed deception.

The questions we would need to ponder would then be: what would be the interest of the Russian leadership in not defending and thus losing territory? Then in acknowledging defeat? Which goals could this serve? Answers to these questions are multiple. For example, as far as acknowledging defeat is concerned, the ISW details some of them, notably in terms of Russian domestic politics with bearings on Ukraine. To these, we should also add answers, for example, that would be related to really repositioning Russian and pro-Russian forces on major objectives, to pinning down Ukrainian troops away from main Russian objectives, as well as answers related to creating conditions that could favour over-confidence in Ukrainian forces.

Of course, an alternative would be that indeed the Russian tried to focus their war effort elsewhere considering that Kharkiv oblast was not part of the main aims, that American and Ukrainian intelligence spotted it and that they smartly took advantage of the Russian strategy. If ever a “Reflexive Control” operation was at work, then in would have backfired.

Whatever the explanation, the Ukrainian advance also signals the disappearance of the last non-key position held by Russia, while a large part of Donetsk oblast remains to be conquered. A new line of front must be established that will be a defense line to protect Luhansk oblast, i.e. from a pro-Russian perspective, the LPR. This new front line could run along the Oskil River with as main cities Logachevka-Dvorichana -Kupyansk-Boroza-Lyman, possibly joining the Siverskyi Donets river. It would allow Russia to keep use of the railway, and protect le LPR “border”.

However, by 19 September 22, Ukraine would already be on the Eastern bank in some ares, and either fighting to keep that position, while Russia tries to repel Ukrainian forces (e.g. ISW, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, September 18“), or in full control of it according to Ukrainian Armed Forces and President (Reuters, “Zelenskiy vows no let-up as Ukraine says troops cross Oskil river in northeast“, 19 September 2022).

If Russia proved unable to construct and hold that new front line, or if it considered the threat has now increased considerably considering the support given to Ukraine, then Russia might resort to escalate longer range attacks behind the front line to disrupt Ukrainian advances, as signaled by attacks during the first part of September (e.g. The Guardian, “Russian strikes knock out power and water in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region“, 11 September), or to other means. This could mean a change towards enlarging the scope of war. Russia could justify these attacks by a similar strategy used by Ukraine that now utilises longer range armament besides support such as intelligence provided by its allies, notably Americans, as well as foreign “mercenaries” and “advisors”.

Once the retreat, plus holding of the new front line, and repositioning are done, Russian and pro-Russian forces will likely focus on their main objectives, Donetsk oblast, while defending elsewhere, with the right bank of the Dniepr in Kherson Oblast – which includes Kherson – as potential focal line of defence for the south.

The choice of an offensive on Donetsk oblast could be supported by Russian advances south of Bakhmut over the second week of September, as shown on the maps below. Fighting also takes place in Spirne, Adviivka and south of Marinka. Russian advances are still small in terms of area, and the moves forward have only taken place on less than one week. We are thus more in the realm of signals than of certainty.

Ending the war? Patience and length of time…

Finally, we may ponder the following hypothetical situation. Let us imagine that Russia would conquer the whole of Donetsk oblast, and succeed in keeping what it has conquered elsewhere. How would it then end the war?

The polarisation at work in Ukraine and among its allies – i.e. the U.S. and Europe, would probably forbid any peace negotiations allowing Russia and the separatist Republics of the Donbass to keep the territory conquered. (e.g. Reuters, “Zelenskiy vows no let-up as Ukraine says troops cross Oskil river in northeast“, 19 September 2022)

If we assume that the Russian leadership is well aware of this key pitfall, then we may wonder if one possible Russian strategy is not to buy time or to be ready to wait until international conditions have changed.

The key actors which positions would need to change are Ukraine’s allies. The latter, from a Russian point of view, need to favour stopping the war and reaching a negotiated settlement recognising the territory conquered by Russia, the DPR and the LPR, plus probably the neutrality of Ukraine.

The Russian political authorities may thus position themselves for a kind of “intense frozen war” that would last at least over the winter 2022-2023.

Their bet would be that Europe notably will not be able to sustain a winter without energy or with a complicated energy situation, while a deep recession is very likely to be triggered (Blackrock commentary 12 September 2022; Jennifer Sor, “Europe will spiral into a severe recession as the energy crisis hikes inflation and weighs on GDP, BlackRock says“, 12 September 2022).

Relatively, Russia may suffer less of the sanctions it faces, all the more so it benefits from the rise in energy prices. Indeed, for example, a Russian economy ministry document expects to see “Russian earnings from energy exports to $337.5 billion this year, a 38% rise on 2021 revenue from oil” (Reuters, 17 August 22). However, Russia still has to face recession and probably long term economic damage (Bloomberg, “Russia Privately Warns of Deep and Prolonged Economic Damage“, 6 September 22).

Nonetheless, Russia is also most likely to withstand pain with more equanimity, compared with European populations, which are already showing signs of rebellion against energy prices (Reuters, “Can’t pay, don’t pay” – Italian group urges energy bill strike“, 15 September 2022).

Furthermore, the very aggressive American actions worldwide, aiming at remaining the leader of the world and enforcing its international order, notably against China, only strengthen the partnership and friendship between Russia and China (e.g. Al Jazeera, “French, US delegations visit Taiwan as tension with China festers“, 8 September 2022; Helene Lavoix, “The War between China and the U.S. – The Normative Dimension“, 4 July 2022, and “The American National Interest“, 22 June 22, The Red Team Analysis Society)Ministry of foreign affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “President Xi Jinping Meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin“, 15 September 2022). As a result, Russia is likely to have time on its side. Finally, the American stance may get out of hand, fundamentally upsetting the global strategic terrain.

Hence, Russia may choose to wait and keep waiting, while war goes on in Ukraine with its pains and hardships, and both Europe and Russia suffer of deep recession.

Winter is coming.

Featured image: Russian T-90 tanks during a parade in Volgograd region; 2010, www.volganet.ru, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for international relations, national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the war in Ukraine, international order and the rise of China, the overstepping of planetary boundaries and international relations, the methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as new tech and security.

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