Following the Initial Scenario analysis, JCOT tries to analysis the tactical situation and its strategic consequences. Contradictions and errors are to be expected.
The Ukrainian summer offensive has now more or less declared to have failed, with the Ukrainian side stressing the lack of air support and demining equipment as major causes for the failure, while the U.S. seeing the tactics of splitting the forces over 3 fronts (south west, south east and south of Bakhmut) and the early change of tactics towards small infantry units as the main reasons. SDFM analysts actually would have suggested a 2 front "devils hand" approach in the south, but now concede that the Russian mine fields and the massive usage of reconnaissance and suicide drones on both sides would have made all of the approaches difficult under the current circumstances.
The F.M. do not understand why the West has not immediately after 2022.02.24 started to train Ukraininan pilots on Western planes, among other issues. It must have been clear to all involved that the political support for Ukraine would slowly erode in an extended war. Now the Russians are expected to try to "sit out" the time until Donald Trump succeeds in being elected U.S. president.
One of the Ukrainian alternative approaches mentioned in the November entry is slowly becoming true, though. Ukrainian forces have stabilized and extended their positions around Krynky on the eastern Dnipro bank. The fact that currently, infantry fighting is the only way forward comes as an advantage here as it is not possible for Ukraine to land heavier equipment on the easten bank. The number of small boats used for transportation is currently being ramped up. We do not expect large gains at the moment, as the Russian forces have had enough time to set up mine fields in this region, but the situation might change as soon as better air cover is available. At least, it might be possible to extend the liberated area, using the forests surrounding Krynky as cover. This could make the Krynky area a protected landing point for heavier equipment, especially as soon as Ukrainians F16 can be used to provide longer distance air cover.
The political situation regarding Ukraine is difficult, with Hungary, Slovakia and the U.S. Republicans sabotaging Western support. There will be short term improvements due to the incoming Polish government, though. We do hope that internal developments in Ukraine will not run out of control.
It now has to be assumed that the war will extend far into 2024 and probably into 2025. The risk of additional conflicts joining this war into a new "WW 3" conflict rises with the length of the Ukraine-Russia-War. The Gaza war can not currently be seen as a part of this conflict as both sides contain authoritarian, Russia-aligned elements - Hamas via Iran and the Nethanyahu government via its attempts to convert Israel into an authoritarian state. But other potential conflicts involving e.g. Iran or China-Taiwan would align fully into a dualistic world conflict model. The West would be well advised to prepare for such a scenario, especially investing into the ability to produce inexpensive battle drones in high numbers, in addition to the conventional weapons arsenal.
In the past 2 months, almost no major changes have been seen. The sentence "In both the Zaporishshia and Bakhmut directions, Ukraine has gained limited territory in very hard fighting." from the last entry continues to be true. Russia is trying to storm Avdiivka, now preparing the third major wave, but without success. The attempt to storm a mining waste heap, seemingly the current equivalent to a 19th century fortress, has cost extremely high losses.
Ukraine has received some ATACM missiles and used them to destroy a Russian helicopter base in the south, forcing Russia to relocate their helicopters further away from the front. Other spectacular attacks on marine headquarters in Crimea, on air defense facilities and on command centers have occurred, but have not given the war a new direction. Russia has reportedly received 1 million artillery grenades from North Korea and receives a steady flow of Shahed drones from Iran. F16 training for Ukrainian pilots has started, but the first planes with fully trained pilots will arrive in Ukraine only in spring 2024.
Ukrainian generals now acknowledge that modern war technology has combined with traditional techniques to create a situation similar to WW I, where a breakthrough becomes almost impossible or at least extremely costly for both sides. In a war of attrition, Ukraine is at a disadvantage. From the numbers rumoured, Ukrainian human losses are about half of the Russian ones. It is probably similar or even better for Ukraine regarding material losses, regarding the numbers of Russian tanks reported to be destroyed. But Russia has 4 times the population and a large and a geographically distributed weapons industry. Aditionally, the Russian leadership has no issue with sending soldiers to their death, as those to a large part come from ethnic minorities (comprising 20% of the population) or from socially disadvantaged groups, e.g. prisoners.
At the same time, the 2023.10.07 attack of Hamas on Israel, and the counterattack of Israel on Gaza, with their future repercussions, are both taking the attention and possibly also military production capabilities of the West.
Therefore, it is not so surprising that reports are coming up that the West is starting to pressure Ukraine to start peace negotiations with Russia. The winter break could be an opportunity for those, although it can be assumed they will take far into 2024.
The result could be a Korea like situation - an armistice with a "DMZ" separating Ukraine and the occupied regions. Ukraine would be in a situation a bit similar to South Korea - the heavy industry supported by the internal but also international demand for both heavy and high-tech weapons. The country has developed sea drones with an extreme value e.g. for Taiwan. The future of Ukraine in the EU seems to be pretty secured, and it is also probably that it will be accepted into NATO, similar to other historically divided countries with "open issues" like West Germany or Finland.
Ukraine might actually have limited interest in re-gaining the Donbass. Reports on prisoners of war often stress that those prisoners who come from the Donbas are the most inimicial ones. The skirmishes on the Donbass front, over 8 years, have impregnated them with the feeling that Ukraine hates them. Also, a heavily coal based industrial region is no asset in the future.
The only alternative for Ukraine at the moment seems to find a novel way of breaking through the Russian front line. There have been several suggestions of what these could be - an extended landing over the Dnipro (difficult due to the lack of transport for heavy equipment), "super-tanks" with super-heavy artillery combined with mobile bunker technology (high technical effort in combination with dubious historical records) or "Kamikaze Jumbos", using old to-be-scrapped commercial airliners as single use suicide bombers (suicide only in a methaphorical way, as they could easily be steered automatically, at least for the final part). The last suggestion is unconventional and unlikely to be accepted. It may also be uncovered and blocked by espionage.
Regarding negotiations, the only question is if Russia is interested in any peace, or actually more willing to continue the war on a lower level in 2024, for internal reasons. A return of half a million soldiers, with their experiences of horror and mistreatment, will be dangerous to the state. The much smaller number of Afghanistan veterans in the 1980s was poison to the Soviet state. But peace negotiations are a good way of finding that out.
The Wagner threat has now evaporated, with only some 1000 Wagner mercenaries left in Belarus. Thus any attack from Belarus, either towards the Suwalki gap or Ukraine, is now highly improbable. The only exception would be the usage of nuclear weapons now stationed in Belarus against Ukraine in an attempt to insulate Russia against any consequences. It is clear though that this would not work, thus would be seen as highly improbable too.
In both the Zaporishshia and Bakhmut directions, Ukraine has gained limited territory in very hard fighting. More relevant is the reported weakening of Russian artillery forces and destruction of several brigades. The rate of destruction of Russian artillery has risen because Russia has moved artillery systems nearer to the front for precision reasons - artillery barrels are worn out after some time and become less precise. Basically the conflict now is one of artillery and ammunitions supply competition. Western supply is increasing while Russia is attempting to buy supplies from North Korea. But artillery ammunitions is a relatively low tech product which countries like Russia and North Korea can churn out in great numbers.
The approaching autum will impact this artillery duel less than e.g. tank movements would be impacted. It is not probable that Ukraine can reach a breakthrough on either front before autumn. This points towards a war of attrition for the coming months, Russia mainly targeting Ukrainian infrastructure while Ukraine targets artillery systems, ammunition depots and air defense. If the Russians continue to move their artillery in the range of Ukrainian artillery, they will have the same issues as the Spanish Armada in 1588. There might come a point in winter where the ground is frozen enough to allow large scale attacks through the prepared gaps, possibly already supported by F16 fighters.
Another aspect is the increasing influence of sea drones which have enabled Ukraine to push the Russian fleet away from the coast. The liberation of some sea platforms must be seen in this context, as well as the partial reopening of a grain export corridor. The Russian Black Sea fleet also has come under pressure from air based attacks, with some ships and a submarine destroyed. Sea drones will revolutionize marine warfare probably even more than air drones are changing land warfare.
Our position regarding TNW remains unchanged. We hold it probable that Russia will use them against a breakthrough on the Zaporishshia front if all other methods fail. They know that if Ukraine reaches the Azov coast, the Kerch bridge will become an easy target. Together with sea drones, this will make Crimea impossible to hold in the long run. For Russia, it would make sense to combine such a TNW attack with an immediate offer of armistice on all fronts. Western politicians need to be prepared to decide quickly how to react to such a situation.
A final aspect which is coming up again is Russian loss of control over its former colonies. Azerbaijan is currently trying to seize the rest of Nagorni Karabakh, protected by a small number of Russian "peace" troops and Armenian / Arzakh forces. According to latest news, the Arzakh government has capitulated on 2023.09.20. This will probably mean the final expulsion of Armenians from the region. It is a sign for all Muslim nations in the Caucasus region and in Central Asia that Russia is now too weak to dominate the region any more.
On the surface, the situation has not changed much from last month. Both near Bakhmut and on the southern frontline, Ukraine has made limited progress. Also, the attacks on Russian depots have intensified. The "grain deal" has ended, Russia is now trying to attack also the Danube ports to thwart Ukrainian exports.
Wagner forces have now created bases in Belarus and commenced training with Belarusian forces. Also, there was a minor incursion of two Belarusian helicopters into Polish air space. In itself, those activities seem to pose no danger to Ukraine or NATO territory. It is possible, though, that these activities were done to test Western reactions. A " Shirreff " scenario could be under preparation, where battle-hardened Wagner forces are airlifted to Poland and Lithuania with Belarusian helicopters, to attack supply points and block the Suwalki corridor. Belarus owns 40 large transport helicopters (Mi 8 / Mi 26) as well as 21 "Hind" (Mi 24) attack helicopters.
Russia might assume that such a scenario would not lead to Article 5, or at least shield Russia through double deniability. Of course, that is not the case, but Putin might think it is. Alternatively, it might be activated when an Ukrainian breakthrough on the southern front is stopped with a TNW strike, to distract NATO and / or to improve the Russian bargaining position. It cannot be excluded that the Prigoshin "march on Moscow" was an intricate ploy to cover the repositioning of the Wagner force into Belarus.
The Wagner rebellion has quickly dissolved into nothing, with no major changes in the Russian government. In contrast, the MTBF rebellion during Shoolscath led to a change in government while continuing the operation. Therefore it seems a direct comparison is not helpful.
Currently, Ukrainian forces are slowly pushing back Russian forces at some points on the frontline, without trying to break through with massive forces. They have learned at cost that such massive attacks are costly and will get stuck in minefields. This points more to a 1918 situation than anything else. It does not preclude a breakthrough attempt though if Ukrainians detect a weak point. One tactic the Ukrainian army might be following is to cut off Bakhmut to force Russian forces there to either withdraw or capitulate. The goal would be to create major political fallout, generating a mood in Russian nationalist circles that Prigoshin has won Bakhmut while Putin lost it.
At the same time, Ukraine is continuing with a two-pronged attack in the south. But here, progress is slow and tedious due to the open landscape and extended minefields and fortifications. In combination with the attacks on supply lines and depots, this may still lead to a surprising breakthrough at some point in the summer and autumn. Russian forces now appear largely immobilized, not able to execute surprise attacks, but still are pushing forward in some parts of the Donbas front.
Today, news arrived about Prigoshin and the Wagner group attempting an armed rebellion. They claim control of the Rostov military region. Fights between Wagner and Russian army are being reported, with the destruction of Russian helicopters and artillery attacks on Wagner forces. A Wagner convoi is said to be heading north, possibly targeting Moscow.
JCOT has expected an internal armed conflict in Russia for 2024/2025, but not yet for the current year. There are some analyists within the team, though, who claim the "Shoolscath" conflict 2020/21 is a kind of virtual pre-echo of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These analysts have been seeing parallels between Wagner and MTBF for quite some time, with the current situation compareable to the August 2020 events. At the time, MTBF forces, joined by rebelling Musogradian Army units, marched on the capital, triggering a change in government. In spite of this, the "Shoolscath" operation continued for further 10 months.
Events will show if this pre-echo theory has any analytic value. It is clear though that if Wagner really controls the Rostov region and possibly more, it would be costly to dislodge and it would distrupt the Russian supply lines. This will help Ukraine just at the moment when the real counterattack in the south is going to start. But at the same time, it makes a panic reaction by a Putin-led or even Prigoshin-led Russia more probable, which would lead to a nuclear attack.
Older entries can be found on the Ongoing Analysis Archive and Ongoing Analysis Archive II pages.