Possible Assumptions Useful for Gaming the First Year of the Ukrainian Conflict
By Jim Rohrer
Predictions and expectations about the outcome of the war in the Ukraine have been fraught with peril. The initial invasion triggered fears of a rapid Russian victory. Plucky and effective defense by Ukrainian forces generated euphoria and heady hopes of pushing the Russian bear all the way out of Ukraine; nothing less than complete victory would be acceptable. When the war shifted toward the east and south, experts began expecting a prolonged conflict. After four months of war, we now have more information that could help develop assumptions about how the conflict will unfold by the end of its first year. Developing such assumptions is a necessary step for wargaming in real-time.
After warnings from the intelligence community, Russian forces launched their attack on February 24, 2022, driving toward Kyiv and a quick victory. After one month, the drive stalled and the Russian focus shifted toward the Donbas region. By April 1, Russia had withdrawn from the Kyiv region. A new commander was appointed over the Russian forces. By mid-April, NATO countries were increasing their contributions to the Ukrainian war effort, including field artillery. A counter-offensive toward Kharkiv was launched by Russia in May and in the south Mariupol fell to the Russians May 16. A clear and stable front line formed in eastern Ukraine, with Russian attempts to break through being stymied. The United States supplied an artillery system to Ukraine with a range of 70 km. Russian forces began making gains in the east, pushing the line westward and taking control over one town after another. Reports about dissatisfaction among Ukrainian soldiers began to filter out of the area despite a highly-professional information management by the Ukrainian government.
The first assumption made here is that NATO will not enter the war. If they did, the entire modeling exercise would change dramatically.
A second important assumption is that Ukraine will not achieve dramatic major successes on the battlefield similar to those NAZI Germany accomplished in their drive eastward into Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were encircled and captured. Victories such as this are unlikely.
The third assumption relates to order of battle. We should acknowledge that Russia has the edge in firepower. The world saw early in this conflict that tanks have a long logistical tail and are vulnerable to man-carried weapons. Even so, a large advantage in tanks and artillery clearly gives Russia the edge, even when those weapons are used in a disorganized and uncoordinated fashion. Ukraine has a more decentralized mech-infantry force that has been effective in the field. However, the Russian bench is deeper. Both sides are supplemented by irregular forces. Neither side has control over the air. Ukrainian medevac helicopters have taken a lot of losses and Russian air assets also have been shot down. Some Russian cyber-attacks have been effective, but perhaps not as much as we might have expected. Space war assets have not been involved. NATO technology has supplemented Ukrainian resources. However, a training delay is unavoidable. Regarding replacements, Russia can withdraw and merge depleted units, refit, resupply and restaff, and send them back to the front fully-equipped. All this takes some time, but Russia has a large population of trained manpower from which it can draw. Ukraine began the war with a highly motivated force, making it possible to replace casualties. As the months drag on, finding new recruits might become more difficult. The Ukrainian population is much smaller than Russia’s; the disparity in the denominators is important when forecasting the number of soldiers in uniform.
Finally, we should consider the issue of war-weariness or war exhaustion. At the beginning of the conflict, Ukraine had the advantage in enthusiasm and patriotic support. Effective information management also generated widespread support from the European Union and the United States. In contrast, reports from inside Russia indicated substantial public disapproval of the war.
Over time, we might expect that war fatigue could become an issue. However, totalitarian countries are less vulnerable to loss of public support than are democratic nations. Ukraine has suffered perhaps $600 billion in economic damage thus far, according to the Kyiv School of Economics. Economic sanctions have hurt the Russian economy, but the ruble has risen to high levels. Europe is suffering from loss of access to Russian oil and gas supplies. In the USA, the President has blamed high inflation on the war in the Ukraine. Developing nations face famine if Ukrainian grain shipments remain blocked.
Which side is likely to suffer most from war exhaustion? Little information is available from inside Ukraine about pro-Russian sentiment or a peace movement. We know that a substantial minority of Ukrainians speak Russian and many are of Russian origin, especially in the east. In balance, wargaming aimed at the end of this calendar year might assume neither side will experience loss of will. However, if the conflict moves into a second year, the advantage might go to Russia.
Russia has a staggering capacity to absorb punishment. For example, the second battle of Kharkiv in May 1942 resulted in 270,000 soviet casualties. Germany had the advantage over the Soviet Union in technology, training, military leadership, early victories and momentum. Nevertheless, they eventually suffered serious losses on their eastern front and were driven out.
In the current conflict, Russia has not experienced losses of such magnitude and they have a long way to go before they are in danger of losing. Ukraine, on the other hand, based on the assumptions described above, might expect to wear down somewhat by the end of the year even with the delivery of new weapons systems. War is filled with random events and outcomes are never certain, but gamers might reasonably give the advantage to Russia at this juncture.
Readers may wonder why the USA and NATO have encouraged Ukraine to demand complete victory, ceding no territory in exchange for a peace agreement. We do not know if Russia would accept such a proposal either. However, if a Russian victory is probable, or even if the outcome is a toss-up, the human and economic costs to Ukraine appear to exceed the costs to Russia, considering the relative difference in the sizes of the two nations; denominators matter. At this point, we might view this conflict as a proxy war between NATO and Russia. In proxy wars, the human costs are paid by the proxy. However, NATO is better off if Russian expansion is halted in the Ukraine.