The consensus forecast on the Ukraine war seems be for grinding, low-level conflict. That seems unlikely. It is probably mostly or totally over by Winter. That is a better outlook than forecasters have assumed. It might be the outlook markets are pricing in via, for example, plunging commodity prices.
Putin has already lost the Ukraine war Ukraine, by continuing to exist, has won a minimum victory by simply not losing. By keeping the war hot enough for 6-7 months, they can likely win – either big or small.
Ukraine doesn’t want a grinding war. So they will use the next 6-7 months to break the Russian military machine. Ukraine wins either by sparking a Russian rout or by grinding the Russian war machine down to a dull nub. Either way, the “hot” war is probably over when winter takes hold and/or before mud season.
Every month of fighting increases the probability the Russian line collapses in some neglected sector. The Russians will be that much more stretched, tired, and bogged down in static positions the Ukrainians can hit with precision artillery/missiles. Ukraine will keep forcing Russia to play whack-a-mole – hoping they miss a whack.
Over time, high-quality troops become low-quality troops. Russia today has a mix of low-quality troops holding most of the line backed by reserves of high-quality troops. The high-quality troops press attacks and act as a sort of “fire brigade” to handle local emergencies. Ukraine is pressing local attacks to exhaust those fire brigades.
Eventually, a mole doesn’t get whacked. The fire brigade fails to arrive in time or sufficient force. The Russian lines break. If a local breakthrough gets traction, it will spark a rout – another Kyiv-style panicked retreat or a mass surrender. A second Russian collapse re-captures big chunks of Ukraine’s lost territory and likely brings Russia to the negotiating table. That would be an unequivocal win for Ukraine.
What if Ukraine doesn’t rout the Russians? Every month of combat now pushes out the date that Russia can resume the war. If Ukraine (and the US) grind the Russian war machine down far enough, that date slips past the sell-by date for Putin’s regime (and/or lifespan).
Even if Putin hangs on, Ukraine buys years to rebuild its military/economy and integrate with Europe. By the time Putin is ready to invade again, he’s likely confronting a very different Ukraine and a much lower chance of success.
In the calculus above, we need to be watching Kherson and Melitipol. The Donbas battles get all the press coverage, but the war won’t be won or lost there.
I wrote up some more detailed commentary on these two scenarios, but the above gets the point across. So including it as a sort of appendix.
Hobble the Russian War Machine Until After Putin’s Sell-By Date:
If Ukraine just keeps fighting the Russian military to a (relative) standstill, they buy themselves 5-10 years. That is enough time to re-arm with NATO gear, rebuild and integrate with Europe, and potentially even join the EU (which has a mutual defense pact). If there ever is a next round, Ukraine will be in a much better position to defend itself. Especially in contrast to a Russia stagnating under the weight of sanctions.
I ran across a convincing article arguing that, after another 6-7 months of war, Russia would need 7-10 years to replace their Tank/APC losses and re-build precision missile stocks. I’m in no position to judge how “right” that 7-10 year production estimate is, but the war has shown that Russia’s entire military needs a total structural and personnel overhaul – different organization, tactics, and skills. That structural rebuild alone probably needs 10 years even if the equipment stocks are there.
Putin may not have even 5 years. Especially if he loses badly enough in this ill-considered war. He probably doesn’t have much more than 10 years given his age and the likely trajectory of post-war Russia. Leaving aside the rumors Putin is seriously ill.
So prolonging the war now postpones any possible resumption of hostilities in the future. Potentially past Putin’s time in power or on this earth.
Another Kyiv – Rout The Russians
How does Ukraine precipitate a rout? Doing what they are doing right now. Probing and poking for weak spots. Blowing up supply dumps with the HIMARS rockets (as they are doing right now). Blasting individual positions with accurate artillery fire (the NATO 155mm guns are MUCH more accurate than the Soviet-era stuff). In this regard, the recent arms shipments may have legitimately tipped the balance.
The front line Russian troops are left to sit and wait – feeling cut off, under-supplied, and dreading a sudden, deadly 155mm knock on the door. If they don’t sit still, they must move and move and move again. Mobility is also exhausting and leaves you vulnerable to ground attack and (again) artillery. If Ukraine punches through a weak spot and threatens to cut them off, those front-line Russians will break and run. That is how Ukraine sparked the rout around Kyiv. They will try to do it again around Kerson, Melitipol, and/or Izyum.
Putin can’t afford another headlong flight like we saw around Kyiv Much less a mass surrender. The large loss of equipment would set them back further (per the above). The loss of face/morale would be devastating. Politically, another rout leaves Putin a dead man walking. It would likely leave the Russian military a shattered force like the Soviet Army after Afghanistan or the US Army after Vietnam.