Forecasting Russian options after Ukraine (January ’24 update)

“Intelligence services of several European countries have started to [examine] a possibility of attack on their territory from Russia… Even those countries that were not in the USSR.”

President Volodymr Zelensky, 1 January 2024.

In this short article we summarise the scenarios that emerge from our net assessment of Russia’s military options after Ukraine. We think this forecasting exercise is useful in helping to identify Russia’s most likely courses of action in the longer-term. Ultimately though, the aim is to understand our (i.e., NATO’s) own vulnerabilities, in order to shape strategies to deter and, in the worse case scenario, to defeat Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. 

Our own objective is to raise the real and unsettling possibility of a Russian victory in Ukraine, and its longer-term implications for European security. We think that the narrative is already shifting in this direction, but the reality of future Russian aggression against our Eastern European friends outside Ukraine is still not manifest in public discourse. Only when this shift in thinking occurs will investment and force generation happen in time for NATO to build up its own capabilities before Russia achieves an early reconstitution of its armed forces.

The future is of course uncertain, radically uncertain, and the key variables that might allow accurate prediction are inherently unknowable. For this reason the scenarios that emerge from our net assessment are forecasts not predictions – we explain this important difference below the scenario itself.

The scenarios do not extend into wargaming the possible outcomes of any future war between Russia and NATO Allies.

The net assessment produces the highest conditional probability for a scenario that results in an armed attack by Russia against one or more of the Baltic States. We present the scenario first, and follow with some notes on our analytical approach.

Russia’s Options Beyond Ukraine

(January 2024)

THE CONCEPT

The scenario assumes that two critical conditions have been reached in the Russia-Ukraine war:

Firstly: The war has reached a stalemate and intensive fighting has ended in Ukraine. Material support from Ukraine’s Western allies and partners has reduced to the extent that Ukraine can no longer conduct decisive attacks against Russia’s defensive lines in Eastern Ukraine. Russia assesses that its defensive positions and supply lines are secure against a Ukrainian breakthrough for the reasonably foreseeable future. The material balance of power has shifted in Russia’s favour. However, Ukraine retains enough of a defensive capability to deter large-scale Russian offensive action much beyond the current front lines. 

Secondly: The Russian political and economic system is stable and has adapted to the war. Russia uses revenues from its hydrocarbon exports to boost its war economy. Western sanctions have had some impact, but Russia has restructured its access to components crucial to expanding the production of military hardware. The regime continues to successfully repress the emergence of civil society and any form of organized political opposition.

The end of intense fighting in Ukraine allows Russia to divert its resources to regenerating its armed forces for offensive action outside Ukraine. Russia’s primary geopolitical objective is to stop or indeed reverse NATO encroachment. The stalemate in Ukraine is a fulcrum constraint against Russia achieving any further progress towards this objective there. Russia therefore settles for ceasefire conditions that allow it de facto to hold the territories it occupies in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. This falls short of Russia’s original war aims, but is Russia’s only realistic option in Ukraine.

It is of course possible that Russia will act illogically despite the fulcrum constraint, and will seek to exert its preference of achieving a decisive victory in Ukraine. We do not discard this as a possibility, but it would be surprising if Russia saw this as an attractive option – Russia did not expect a war of attrition when it invaded Ukraine, and the logical choice is to exit the war on the most favourable possible terms.

THE SCENARIO

Act One: Russia’s control over territory in eastern and southern Ukraine allows its ground forces there to transition to a long-term defensive posture. Russia has learnt valuable lessons from its war in Ukraine and now starts to the apply them to the longer-term goal of regenerating its armed forces. Russia’s land forces suffered the worst degradation in Ukraine and are the main reconstitution effort. Russia seeks to gain an advantage by starting this process immediately and focusing production efforts on quickly producing large quantities of military equipment that is sufficient to perform adequately against NATO equipment. Conversely, longer NATO procurement times introduce a real risk of NATO failing to match Russia’s reconstitution efforts.

Russia sees strategic opportunity in the fragmentation of Western support for Ukraine. Russia’s wider interpretation is that NATO is not fully committed to a collective armed response to an attack on a NATO member. Russia is fully aware of the ‘in principle’ ambiguity in Article 5. 

Act Two: Further development of the scenario depends on NATO’s commitment to investment and generation. The problem is that NATO’s strategy paths are undefined and are likely to remain that way until there is a fundamental shift in thinking. The outcome of the United States presidential election on November 5, 2024, and the next president’s policy on NATO will be pivotal in determining if, when, and to what extent, NATO will commit to a strategy of building a war capability that deters the threat from Russia. America’s continuing and unwavering support for its European allies is critical, but not guaranteed.

One other factor that is likely to become critical is the potential threat from China and Iran, and how this affects America’s own foreign policy priorities. The next American president might well conclude that Russian threats to smaller Eastern European member states is a problem for Europe.

At present, it seems more likely than not that investment in NATO capabilities will be delayed until the Russian threat is manifest in public discourse. It therefore seems likely that Russia will not consider Article 5 to be a fulcrum constraint – in other words, an armed attack against a NATO member state becomes a realistic possibility for Russia.

Act Three: Russia requires a minimum of 6 years from starting the clock, until its Western Military District achieves an operational-level advantage over NATO in the adjacent member states. During this period, Russia will rotate officers and NCOs through its combat units in Ukraine, to embed the lessons learnt during the war. Qualitatively, the Russian army that emerges from this process will be very different, and much better than, the one that failed in February 2022. 

If NATO investment and force generation start too late, Russia could achieve an advantage as early as 2030, assuming a ceasefire in Ukraine in 2024. If Russia sense that it has achieved a decisive advantage, the risk of war between Russia and NATO dramatically increases. Russia will deploy refitted combat units for offensive operations along its border with a NATO member. The Baltic States offer Russia the easiest options in terms of NATO force dispositions and distance. Russia has a choice between attacking from Belarus, along the Lithuanian border towards Kaliningrad, thus encircling the Baltic States from the south; this has the disadvantage though of exposing Russia’s left flank to the Polish border. Or, attacking along the axis from Pskov towards Riga, with a secondary axis towards Tallin; as an aside, this was the Red Army’s main axis in September – November 1944. Or, again as in 1944, a direct advance from Belarus, bypassing Vilnius, towards Klaipeda. Russia’s choices will be determined by its own assessment of its advantage over NATO at that point in time.

EVALUATION

The conditional probability that Russia will threaten or attack a NATO member from 2030 is 55%. This is a danger that requires serious consideration.

If it is accepted that Russia’s primary geopolitical objective is to stop or reverse NATO encroachment, it seems unlikely that Russia will settle for a defensive posture – doing so is logical from a Western perspective that sees NATO as a defensive alliance, but this is not Russia’s view. If Russia’s underlying motivation does not change, which it probably won’t, then it seems more likely than not that Russia will shape its military power towards offensive aims. 

The real danger at present is that NATO does not invest early in military capability that deters and, if necessary, can defeat a Russian attack in Eastern Europe. If NATO does this, it will constrain Russia and should nullify this scenario. It is unlikely that the United States will withdraw from NATO; but, there is a real possibility that the next American president will pursue a foreign policy that critically reduces the deterrent effect of Article 5, even if the United States does not withdraw from NATO. The task of defending smaller NATO member states in Eastern Europe would then fall entirely on Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom and other NATO allies willing to commit to war. If this happens, and if Russia starts military regeneration early, a window of opportunity will open for Russia in as little as 6 years from the end of intense fighting in Ukraine.

A scenario in which Russia does nothing (Scenario 1) seems infeasible as it does not resolve Russia’s fear of encroachment by NATO. Likewise, a scenario in which NATO invests early in decisive force generation (Scenario 2) is unlikely, given the West’s wavering support for Ukraine, its internal divisions, and uncertainties about American foreign policy. Scenario 2 is the swing factor, and its conditional probability is subject to large changes – the problem is that these factors are impossible to quantify with any confidence.The bottom line is that NATO should terminate the risk by accepting the need for early and massive force generation.  At the very least, NATO will need to start force generation at the same time as Russia, but this risks a miscalculation of Russian reconstitution, leaving less time to react.

Analytical Approach

What is a net-assessment?

Our short description of the net assessment here is borrowed from Marko Papic’s excellent book Geopolitical Alpha, which we recommend highly to anyone with a deeper interest in the subject.

The term comes from the U.S. Defense Department’s work on long-term strategic analysis, produced by the Office of Net Assessment (ONA). As its name suggests, a net assessment nets out the conclusions of competing analytical approaches. Military forecasters normally apply net assessments to adversaries or critical risks over a long-term period – the approach is also used successfully by some geopolitical forecasters in investment research.

The Net Assessment is a constraints-based framework for forecasting (not predicting) scenarios and assigning conditional probabilities to them. It identifies the factors that constrain decision-makers’ options – their constraints – and therefore their freedom of action, and it prioritises them over their preferences. Constraints are also observable and therefore, to a greater extent than preferences, empirical.

‘Preferences are optional and subject to constraints, whereas constraints are neither optional nor subject to preferences.’

Forecasting versus prediction

We draw the following distinction between forecasting and prediction:

  • A prediction is a firm statement about what will happen, expressed with full confidence certainty. 
  • A forecast is a probabilistic statement, that is supposed to be updated as new evidence emerges. In our analysis, the probabilities are subjective – albeit they are based on quantifiable evidence as far as possible.  We call these ‘conditional probabilities’ because they depend on the preceding conditions happening first. A forecast can (and should) include more than one scenario. As time goes by, some scenarios will be deleted as contradictory evidence emerges. Also, the probabilities attached to each scenario will change as the evolving situation provides more concrete evidence of what is likely to happen. A forecast is meant to be updated.

So, prediction and forecasting are quite different. 

Purpose of the net assessment

The purpose of a net assessment is to identify one of several fulcrum constraints that define one’s forecast. 

  • When a constraint is so powerful that it bends all other preferences and factors to it, we refer to it as a “fulcrum”. It is the one constraint that forecasters should keep an eye on because if it changes at all, the entire analysis might have to pivot. In other words, it is the key variable. We typically consider five material constraints as being crucial in forecasting: political, economic, financial, military, geopolitical and constitutional / legal. I have arranged them in order from the most salient to the least.
  • In this hierarchy of constraints, constitutional and legal issues are the bottom rung. This is a crucial point in a non-rules-based order – a net assessment should never begin with a legal analysis. It begins with an understanding of the first-string constraints: political, economic, financial, military, geopolitical.

In the case of Russia’s future courses of action, we propose that there are two fulcrum constraints – Ukrainian combat power and NATO’s actual potential for collective armed response:

  1. If Ukraine retains sufficient combat power to lock Russia into intense fighting in Ukraine, Russia will be forced to maintain the Main Effort of fighting Ukraine. So, in this scenario, high Ukrainian combat power acts as a fulcrum constraint against Russia. This seems to be self-evident. But, if Ukraine ceases to have the necessary combat power, this presents Russia with a choice of fighting for more territory in Ukraine, or of exploiting the end of intensive fighting in Ukraine to reconstitute its armed forces for offensive action elsewhere. 
  2. The potential for NATO to respond with armed force against Russia, if Russia attacks a NATO Ally. Whilst the principle of collective defence is enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, it does not automatically trigger a collective armed response by NATO Allies. In the event of an attack against a NATO member country, other member countries are responsible for determining what it deems necessary in the particular circumstances – and it is not necessarily military. It is instructive to note here that at the drafting of Article 5 in the late 1940s, there was consensus on the principle of mutual assistance, but fundamental disagreement on the modalities of implementing this commitment. The European participants wanted to ensure that the United States would automatically come to their assistance should one of the signatories come under attack; the United States did not want to make such a pledge and obtained that this be reflected in the wording of Article 5. We therefore think it is critical to understand NATO’s actual commitment to armed response, and Russia’s own assessment of this, in deciding the probability of Russia’s future actions.

Scenario analysis

A scenario-driven approach provides you with a set of factors to monitor. These are variables that will either confirm or disconfirm the different hypotheses or scenarios.

We have found that the most useful net assessments conclude in a set of scenarios that analysts can apply conditional probabilities to. A decision tree becomes a useful tool for visualizing scenarios and their conditional (i.e. subjective) probabilities. It illustrates the concept that constraints lead stakeholders down a path of least resistance. In our experience, the combination of conditional probabilities and decision trees can sometimes have interesting and unintended outcomes, and tends to produce a broader range of plausible scenarios than might otherwise be the case.

The Prior

A net assessment sets ‘priors’ ahead of any forecasting exercise. Normally, the prior creates the initial probabilities of an event or chain of events occurring. In this net assessment we have taken a different approach though – rather than setting a probabilistic prior, the net assessment sets our prior bias:

Russia’s primary strategic objective is to stop, or roll-back, NATO encroachment.

Russia will seek to do this by imposing its dominance, through armed force if necessary, over former Soviet Union states.

How long?

The constraint framework has a blind spot: the predictability of any scenario weakens when participants act irrationally. 

Defining a time horizon for the scenarios that emerge from the net assessment is particularly difficult in this case. There are two variables that are unknowable at the present time:

  1. It is impossible to predict at what point in time the military situation in Ukraine might permit Russia to start the process of military regeneration. The clock will start ticking as soon as intense fighting in Ukraine ends. This does not necessarily mean that either side has ‘won’.
  2. The amount of time required for Russia to regenerate combat power is also impossible to define precisely. To an extent, the answer depends on what Russia’s military aims are, and what forces NATO can (and is willing to) put in its way. Neither of these variables are known and are not calculable with any certainty. However, we agree with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) that Russia’s window of opportunity is likely to open sometime in the next 6 to 10 years. A shorter timeframe has been mooted by Poland (as little as 3 years) and a longer timeframe has been offered in a recent declassified U.S. intelligence report (18 years).

Defining ‘victory’ in Ukraine

In terms of this net assessment, we think that asking what victory for Russia in Ukraine looks like might be the wrong question. Why?

We say this because we believe that Russia does actually fear NATO encroachment – in other words, Russia sees NATO as aggressively hostile to Russia in principle. By this rationale, Russia’s primary strategic objective is to halt, or indeed reverse, NATO encroachment. Accepting this point of view sets our own bias, but we believe it is justified for reasons that are consistent with a long-term view of Russian history and culture. We agree with Germany’s DGAP, that “the historical categories in which they [i.e. the Russian leadership] think are based on analogies with the Tsarist empire and the ­Soviet Union. In their thinking, Russia exists well beyond its current borders (a concept called Rusky Mir) – it extends to any place where Russians have ever lived or where the Russian empire or the Soviet Union have ever ruled. Putin does not consider the borders established after the break-up of the Soviet Union to be binding. Countries belonging to NATO today include the Baltic States, which used to be part of Russia and the Soviet Union.” Adopting this viewpoint doesn’t mean that we ‘agree’ with Russia (we don’t), but it has explanatory power in understanding why Russia acts the way it does, and what it might do in the future.

Following from this, from a Russian perspective at this point in time, it could make more sense to pursue courses of action that roll-back or encircle NATO ‘encroachment’ in Eastern Europe outside Ukraine, rather than continuing a war of attrition with no certain end in sight. In effect, this means that Russia doesn’t necessarily need ‘victory’ in Ukraine, but two other conditions that are more realistically achievable:

  • Firstly, that the Russian political and economic system is stable and has adapted to the war, and;
  • The end of intensive fighting in Ukraine.

It is true that neither of these conditions pertain right now, but we believe that they are sufficiently possible to be taken seriously. We have therefore assumed that both of these conditions have been achieved, for the purposes of this net assessment. 

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