Alternative Ukrainian Future Trajectories: Implications for Russia and the West

Ukraine’s Kherson counteroffensive liberated the village of Vysokopillya in 2022. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

By Dr. Pavel Baev, Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, Dr. Mark Galeotti, Dr. David Lewis and Dr. Graeme P. Herd

This year, the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies’ Strategic Competition Seminar Series focuses on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West. A roundtable on October 18, 2022, examined three aspects of the puzzle: Russia’s vertical escalation potential, prospects of Russian regime change and Ukrainian intelligence covert action. The summaries included here capture key analytical points from the roundtable and serve as a useful tool for policymakers, practitioners and academics.

Russian Nuclear Escalation Potential
Russia has undertaken mobilization, annexation, created a new “joint force” in Belarus (all aspects of “horizontal escalation”) and attacked Ukrainian critical national infrastructure (CNI). Russian President Vladimir Putin states that 220,000 mobiks (conscripts) have so far been mobilized, with 16,000 already deployed to the occupied Ukrainian territories in combat units. Kremlin predictive thinking was that these measures would enable Russia to stabilize its front lines over the winter. This stabilization creates the conditions for the insertion of even more mobilized and trained troops into Ukraine in the spring, allowing Russia to launch counteroffensives and be victorious. The need for vertical escalation is negated by this strategy, though its threat is designed to intimidate the West into pressuring Ukraine to negotiate a settlement on Russia’s terms.

This predictive thinking can be questioned. Russia commits a dual blunder: it annexes territory it does not fully control and mobilizes troops its military cannot absorb/process. In this sense, Russian “forced mobilization” does not immediately boost Russia’s conventional capability. In the short term, rather than consolidation, the cohesion of Russian combat units may decrease. Interethnic tensions (Belgorod shooting) within the Russian military are exposed. The joint grouping in Belarus is not meant for warfighting (it lacks offensive capability) but is designed to increase the length of the front that Ukraine must worry about. Attacks on Ukrainian CNI have an impact in winter but do not materially change the military situation.

Over the longer term, the presence of mobilized troops boosts Russia’s defensive capability and slows Ukrainian advances, increasing the time Ukraine takes to retake territory and blunting breakthrough potential. By March 2023, troops being trained now have a greater utility and numbers count. However, in the context of autumn 2022 rather than spring 2023, a sudden large and damaging Ukrainian breakthrough on the Kherson front, where retreat is not possible, increases the possibility of a Russian military rout. Ukrainian troops “at the gates of Sevastopol” is a less likely scenario over the next month. Nonetheless, in either case, panic in the Russian military leads to large-scale desertion, surrender and mutiny in the Russian military. Panic in the Kremlin may lead to Russian vertical escalation. Already, one component of the Russian nuclear triad — strategic bombers — are in use in the war in Ukraine, and in principle conventional munitions can be exchanged for nuclear.

Several factors mitigate against nuclear use. Since 1991, Russia lacks practical experience in handling nuclear weapons. This raises the possibilities of human error — e.g., mishandling at the delivery, arming or firing stages. Will the munitions explode? Will orders be obeyed? Russia has not brought nonstrategic (tactical) nuclear weapons out of its 12 storage sites, nor has it carried out preparatory nuclear testing (for example, a land- or air-based test above Novaya Zemlya), or “nuclearized” its conventional forces. For these reasons, Russian vertical escalation probability is tied to the speed and scale of Ukrainian advances and the effects of the shock of Russian predictive thinking shattering.

Prospects of Regime Change in Russia
Russia cannot win against Ukraine if the West continues current levels of support, but Putin cannot admit defeat, regardless of Ukraine taking back occupied territory. When victory is not possible and defeat is not an option, we can expect a prolonged conflict. Russia will pressure the West to pressure Ukraine, and at the same time make the war felt throughout Ukraine though drone and missile attacks. Under such conditions, how likely is regime change in Russia?

“Not very” is the short answer: Organized opposition in Russia is destroyed or imprisoned, the regime increases repression, and letting those who do not want to fight leave the country acts as a safety valve, allowing Russia to maintain internal pressure at acceptable levels. Elite splits within Russia are highly unlikely, even if losses continue — public divisions that have occurred so far are focused on avoiding blame for setbacks rather than questioning the whole rationale for war or moving to depose Putin. For the elites and their own cost-benefit calculus, the risks of regime defection are still much greater than maintaining the status quo. Lenin noted that societal revolt is only possible when elites are dissatisfied and divided. According to this logic, stable contemporary Russian elites and limited protest potential means a stable society. If elites and society are stable, then the logic of Western discussions about how Putin must entertain vertical escalation to avoid defeat — because defeat leads inexorably to regime change — need to be reassessed. There is no need, therefore, for vertical escalation.

Though a sudden coup/collapse of the regime is unlikely, it cannot be ruled out. The elites are prepared to be in the “party of a long war,” but not the “party of defeat.” A Kherson breakthrough might change the calculus. If societal attitudes change from apathy to opposition to the war, the security state is less able to respond, given forces like the Rosgvardiya(national guard) are partially deployed to Ukraine, and those remaining are locally recruited and perhaps reluctant to turn on their hometowns. Leaderships can bubble forth and grievances or resentments do not have to be political and directly war-focused. Economic hardship in Russian monoindustrial towns could be a source of grievance, resentment and protest. The dynamic of preemptive purging by the elite, in the context of no opposition and the need to assign blame after military setbacks, may become a factor.

Although it is unlikely, if Putin is removed or dies this could be a “good thing.” Western commentators fear of what comes after Putin is misguided. There is a lot of uncertainty to be sure, but we know that Putin in power is destabilizing. The most likely scenario if Putin goes is internal jockeying for position in a new collective leadership order, which in turn assumes a managed intra-elite power transition, as occurred after the death of Stalin in 1953 or after Khrushchev was deposed in 1964. Collective leadership entails coalition building, a move from the extremes to the center and consensus. Internal consolidation is likely to distract Russia from external fights.

Ukrainian Intelligence Covert Action
Since last summer, the focus has been on the Ukrainian counteroffensives and changes on the battlefield. But there is also a growing parallel war fought by Ukrainian Special Forces and intelligence agencies behind Russian lines, in the occupied territories and within the Russian Federation. These attacks are characterized by a willingness to take greater risk than Western supporters of Ukraine may be comfortable with and expand horizontally the geography of the conflict. The Crimean bridge attack, for example, while boosting Ukrainian morale also challenged Ukraine’s Western partners’ appetite for risking escalation.

The performance of Ukraine’s domestic Security Service (SBU) has exceeded expectations, given its reputation prior to the war for underperformance and Russian penetration. But it is Ukrainian Military Intelligence, the GUR, that has grabbed most of the headlines in recent months. Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, its 36-year-old chief, oversees Ukrainian intelligence covert activities. Though it is difficult to assign exploits to specific intelligence agencies (as Russia denies in some cases that a covert action occurred or refuses to attribute them to Ukraine), the GUR appears to be responsible for high-risk, high-profile operations e.g., retaking Snake Island and resupplying Azovstal by helicopter under siege.

In the occupied territories, subversion is designed to destabilize Russian control while reasserting Ukraine’s control, and to set the agenda. Attacks in Crimea, including on the Black Sea Fleet Naval Headquarters in Sevastopol on Russia’s Navy Day (July 26) and on Saki airfield and other air bases and ammunition dumps, as well as the Crimea bridge itself, have the effect of softening Russia’s red lines and reaffirming the political importance of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The spread of the war into the Russian Federation, particularly the Kursk and Belgorod regions, through attacks on transport and energy infrastructure suggests how the war may develop behind the lines, even if stalemated on the front lines. The car bomb attack against Darya Dugina on August 20, 2022, has been attributed to Ukraine by U.S. officials (although denied by Kyiv). It highlighted that Ukraine was willing and able to attack individuals inside Russia — including Russian officials — and accept escalation risks in doing so.

While these attacks have served Ukraine’s political and military agendas, some high-risk operations have caused concern in Western capitals. They are a reminder that Ukraine is willing to push its own sovereign agenda to determine the geography of the battlefield, work outside its borders and effectively disrupt the assumptions of Russia. But it is likely that risk assessments in Kyiv and Washington differ, with Ukraine willing to take greater risk than its Western partners, raising questions about future escalation management. The role of the intelligence services will impact the role of the “security-intelligence bloc” within Ukraine. Effective covert action is aligned with a “big Israel” potential alternative future trajectory for Ukraine.

Assessments suggest vertical escalation is unlikely, but so too is Russian regime change. A prolonged war of attrition appears to be the default pathway, with conventional battles along the front line, Ukrainian covert action in the occupied territories and Russia itself, and the threat of Russian offensive action from Belarus. Russian nuclear rhetoric attempts to persuade the West to pressure Ukraine to accept Russian terms. A reconstituted Russian military will likely come out fighting in the spring of 2023.

A final Ukrainian push in November 2022 liberated the city of Kherson and pushed Russian forces south of the Dnieper River, as it is easier to break through in areas where Russian forces are less dug in than where lines have been stable for months. “Attrition by drone and missile attack” appears not to be breaking Ukraine’s will to resist, but rather uniting the nation in anger, bridging internal differences and forging a more consolidated society. Brutal and indiscriminate Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilian population centers undercut potential Western “war fatigue,” and help maintain Western financial and military support for Ukraine. Russia’s remaining military capability and its ability to reconstitute itself is not a given. Belarus’ role remains unresolved and uncertain. A sudden Ukrainian battlefield breakthrough could still constitute a game changer, pushing Russian society to oppose the war. Time is not neutral. Russia looks to surge again in the spring of 2023, but this is one year from an inflection point — Russia’s 2024 presidential election. Does Russia’s inability to secure a “victory” become a defeat for Putin? And then what?

This summary reflects the views of the authors and is not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany or other governments.


About the Authors

Dr. Pavel Baev is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). He is also a senior nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a senior research associate with the French International Affairs Institute in Paris. He specializes in Russian military reform, Russian conflict management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, energy interests in Russia’s foreign policy, and Russian relations with Europe and NATO.

Dr. Mark Galeotti is director of the London-based consultancy Mayak Intelligence, an honorary professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and a senior nonresident fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. He is an expert and prolific author on transnational crime and Russian security affairs.

Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg is senior research scientist in the Strategy, Policy, Plans and Programs division of the Center for Naval Analysis in the United States, where he has worked since 2000. He is an associate at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and previously served as executive director of the American Association of the Advancement of Slavic Studies. His research interests include security issues in the former Soviet Union, Russian military reform, Russian foreign policy, and ethnic politics and identity. He currently serves as the editor of Problems of Post-Communism.

Dr. Graeme P. Herd is a professor of transnational security studies in the Research and Policy Analysis Department at the Marshall Center. His latest books include: “Understanding Russia’s Strategic Behavior: Imperial Strategic Culture and Putin’s Operational Code” (London and New York, Routledge, 2022) and “Russia’s Global Reach: A Security and Statecraft Assessment,” ed. Graeme P. Herd (Garmisch-Partenkirchen: George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, 2021).

Dr. David Lewis is an associate professor of international relations at the University of Exeter. His research interests include international peace and conflict studies, with a regional focus on Russia and other post-Soviet states. He is the author of numerous articles and books on Russia and Eurasia, including “Russia’s New Authoritarianism: Putin and the Politics of Order” (Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

Comments are closed.