As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches the one-year mark, European publics and politicians alike are asking how long the war will last and what scenarios could play out throughout the rest of 2023. Naturally, making such predictions is always more of an art than a science. But, as things stands, here is how things look for the course of the conflict.
Since April 2022, Russia has waged a war of attrition. Instead of quickly conquering Ukraine from multiple directions as it had intended, Moscow is banking on a slow, grinding war in the country’s east to erode Kyiv’s resources at a rate greater than its own. It hopes that Ukraine will eventually give up voluntarily, or that its organised military resistance will collapse.
Russian decision-makers are relying on their information warfare and the throttling back of energy deliveries to Europe to chip away at international assistance to Ukraine. From the Kremlin’s point of view, this strategy could prove successful; the Russians are likely to continue with it.
In order to sustain this war of attrition and regain the initiative, Russia introduced a partial mobilisation in September 2022. The influx of additional soldiers, as poorly trained and equipped as they are, has helped the Russian military better defend its lines and resume offensive operations. Additional forces totalling around 150,000-200,000 mobilised men in newly formed divisions and corps are still receiving training and will join the fight in Ukraine in the near future.
Despite intense speculation about a renewed attack from Belarusian territory, such an undertaking is improbable, at least for the remaining winter and spring this year. Were Russia planning this, it would already be deploying more military units to Belarus. Instead, for the first quarter of the year, Belarus will serve as a large manoeuvre- and training-ground for Russian forces. This should not be underestimated, as forming new combat-ready formations from mobilised soldiers takes much longer than the Russian Ministry of Defence initially proclaimed. And, as Vladimir Putin is in the war for the long haul, this is unlikely to worry him unduly.
An operation from Belarus may still be feasible at a later point, especially if Moscow conducts another mobilisation. However, further mobilisations will come with their own difficulties: the share of men with any military experience will decrease with each wave, and the pool of officers and specialists to train, and later command, these troops will shrink quicker than it can be replenished. Therefore, although further mobilisation is possible, it will likely bring only diminishing returns in terms of effectiveness on the battlefield.
While Russia’s armed forces continue to struggle with numerous problems, its defence industry has proved remarkably resilient. Russian cruise missile production capacity has increased during the war despite sanctions. While Russia is unable to backfill its expensive high-grade weapons systems with new production, it continues to produce low-end conventional systems at pace. Despite predictions of ammunition shortages, Russian shelling of Ukrainian positions continues at levels relatively constant since October. It is possible that North Korean support (or North Korea passing on ammunition purchased from other countries) is part of this resilience, but no reliable information is available about such shipments. And, having switched to war-economy mode, the Russian tank industry is now turning out 200-250 new T-72B3 and T-90M tanks a year. The latter tank has lately appeared on the battlefield in increasing numbers.
Russia will therefore likely remain on the offensive until the early summer, at which point its fighting power is likely to decline again. Moscow would have to call another wave of mobilisation by the end of this winter to be able to hold expanded frontlines. At that point, the overstretched Russian posture will be vulnerable to Ukrainian counter-offensives.
Ukraine will be hard pressed to defend against new Russian attacks in the first half of 2023. It is unlikely to be able to mount a large-scale counter-offensive, as its armed forces lack the means to undertake head-on assaults against Russian forces (particularly armoured personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, and tanks).
They are instead making do with indirect fire, such as artillery and rockets, to weaken the Russian lines and then attack them with light forces. But if supplies of heavy ground combat vehicles (tanks and infantry fighting vehicles) from the West pick up steam, a Ukrainian counter-offensive may well be on the cards for the second half of the year.
The biggest constraint on the Ukrainian side is the availability, as losses increase, of materiel, such as of combat vehicles. Spare parts and ammunition for many Soviet-era systems are becoming scarce and their availability rests on the willingness of non-Western countries to sell what stocks they have. As the war drags on, these sources will dry up and it is particularly hard to predict their availability.
The Ramstein meeting on 20 January broke allies’ taboo of delivering heavy ground combat capabilities. But the numbers of Western-made systems that Ukraine’s supporters have promised to send are still low. They will only have an impact on the war if deliveries increase and accumulate over the rest of the year. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers are also subject to a higher rate of attrition compared to artillery and air-defence systems.
Indeed, in theory, Western states could out-build and out-supply Russia in a war of attrition if they ramped up their production of defence goods and synchronised their supplies to Ukraine. Individual donations from existing reserve stocks will not supply the quantity of vehicles required. Only a common effort to procure new systems in numbers to replace vehicles donated to Ukraine will allow Europe to scramble the necessary equipment. But no such decision has been made yet, and the clock is ticking.
The United States and eastern and northern European states have pledged to increase production of ammunition, which they did as long ago as last summer, with the impacts of those decisions set to be felt this year. Other promises to do the same have remained merely expressions of intent. Ultimately, if the West intends to sustain Ukraine during a long war, it also needs to produce a whole range of systems and vehicles at a faster pace to replace the donations to Kyiv. For instance, Leopard 2 tanks are built at a pace of two tanks a month, with a total delivery time of up to three years. This is around an eighth of the rate of Russia’s tank production.
For 2023, Ukraine will come under increasing pressure from Russian offensives in the winter and spring. Opportunities to counter-attack and push back against Russian territorial gains will open up in the latter half of the year.
No end, no stalemate
The war will not end in 2023. As General Mark Milley, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, has suggested, it is highly unlikely Ukraine will be able to remove the occupying forces this year. A positive scenario would see Ukraine inflict such severe losses on Russia that Moscow’s military machine becomes so degraded even further mobilisations will be insufficient to regain the initiative. The Russian military presence on the Ukrainian mainland would find itself in real peril.
A negative scenario would see Russia push Ukraine back in Donbas, thereby reducing Ukraine’s military potential and depressing morale. With slow and largely symbolic weapons deliveries from the West, the Ukrainians’ chances of deoccupying their country would dwindle. While Russian losses would still be staggering, Putin would have a bloody and expensive – but feasible – path to victory.
In any case, there is one scenario to rule out: a stalemate in the conflict. Putin is only interested in full victory as he defines it, and, having invested so much in the war, he will not concede to any agreement short of this. Operative pauses, in which both parties regroup and resupply, may occur. But they will remain pauses, not end states. Putin’s stubbornness is evident in the way he has effectively prevented any serious negotiations by putting forward preconditions that are starkly unacceptable for Kyiv. This has convinced Washington and other allies that Ukraine must not lose – and that they therefore must help it win. However, this view is not uniform in the Western alliance yet, and differences of opinion are likely to persist about the war’s denouement, what strategy to pursue and which assistance priorities to select.
Gustav Gressel is a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Berlin office. His topics of focus include Russia, Eastern Europe, and defense policy. Gressel holds a PhD in Strategic Studies at the Faculty of Military Sciences at the National University of Public Service, Budapest and a Masters Degree in political science from Salzburg University.