Seal off the Donbass, advance further, negotiate and thus secure what has been won or split the West? Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has many options, his goals remain obscure. Five scenarios for Moscow’s actions.
The fall of the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk raises the question of the next steps for Russian troops in Ukraine. Seal off the Donbass, advance further, negotiate and thus secure what has been won or split the West? Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has many options, his goals remain obscure.
Scenario 1: The Russian troops continue to advance
Nobody seems to be able to stop the Russian troops from taking complete control of the Donbass. Pierre Grasser from the International Relations Department at the Sorbonne University thinks Russia could next try to take the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
However, Russian troops have shown their inability to advance too far against the enemy. The Russian “steam roller works well near its borders, its logistics centers and its air bases,” says Pierre Razoux of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies. “The further they get away from them, the more complicated it gets.”
Scenario 2: Russia blocks access to the Black Sea
The Russian army quickly captured the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson at the beginning of the war. But the situation on the shores of the Black Sea is not stable. Australian military expert Mick Ryan believes that the war in the south and the “freeing of Ukrainian ports from Russian influence” are of “great strategic importance”.
Controlling the coast would give Moscow contiguous territory with Crimea, annexed in 2014, as well as access to Ukrainian Black Sea ports. But “Ukraine’s counterattacks in the south pose a dilemma for the Russians. Do they maintain the offensive in the east or strengthen the south?” Ryan points out.
Scenario 3: Kharkiv becomes the next siege target
Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine is the country’s second largest city. A stone’s throw from the border with Russia, Kharkiv is still under Ukrainian control and could be Putin’s next target, according to academic Razoux.
In the event of a “Ukrainian incursion,” Moscow could force the Ukrainian troops to decide whether to defend Kharkiv or retreat south toward Kherson. A battle for the city of Kharkiv, which has a population of around 1.4 million, would undoubtedly be devastating, and according to Razoux, a siege could last a year.
Scenario 4: Putin focuses on dividing the West
With every further military success, Putin drives the wedge deeper into western solidarity. Colin Clarke of New York’s Soufan Center said Russia’s aim is to “continue to crush Ukrainian troops” and wait for “political support for Ukraine in the West to wane”.
Kyiv depends on Western military aid. But according to Alexander Grinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy, Ukrainians are aware “that the West cannot provide all the heavy weapons they need.” Each additional week of war increases the pressure on Western public opinion regarding inflation and the energy crisis. According to Grinberg, one day the US could just tell Ukrainians, “You can’t go on.”
Scenario 5: Moscow signals readiness to negotiate
Russian advances should not make us forget the costs: sanctions, lives and the destruction of material. According to analysts, Putin has many reasons for wanting to end the war. At the end of June, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that the Ukrainian soldiers only had to lay down their arms and fulfill the demands made by Russia. “Then it will all be over in one day.”
But even if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were tempted to trade the Donbass for peace, according to Razoux, his right-wing party and generals reject “any compromise with Russia”. “You can tolerate a frozen conflict, but not defeat.”