Forecasting Russian options after Ukraine

The Russian perspective is a factor consistently either missing or under analysed in Western reporting on the war in Ukraine. Yet, it provides useful insight into why Russia has acted as it has and what it might do next. Modelling Russia’s next steps using scenario-based methods may seem like an obvious approach to forecasting the future trajectory of the conflict, but the outcomes might be surprising from a Western perspective. Adopting a Russian perspective doesn’t mean sympathising with Russia or supporting its aims. It means seeing things from the other side of the hill in order to find the best courses of action for oneself in the face of radical uncertainty. The same approach has proven very instructive in our work with clients, whether analysing Al Qaeda intent in Yemen, jihadist insurgency in Mozambique, or activist threats closer to home.

Over the weekend some interesting news reports suggested that Russia is moving to stabilize its control over occupied territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. British Defence Intelligence reported that the newly installed Russian administration in Kherson and other areas has begun the four-month currency transition scheme from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble. Other unsubstantiated reports suggest that Russia might announce a “general mobilization” of its military, and that it is seeking to procure dual-use inputs to its military-industrial complex, presumably to support rearmament.

Aside from well-evidenced reports of Russia consolidating its control over occupied Ukrainian territory, the reports are hard to substantiate. But taken together, they form the basis of an interesting set of scenarios that are worth thinking about seriously.

Forecasting versus prediction

In a previous article, I mentioned the difference between predictions and forecasts. I didn’t explain the difference in that article, but here it is:

  • A prediction is a firm statement about what will happen, and it doesn’t change irrespective of subsequent events.
  • A forecast is a probabilistic statement, that is supposed to be updated as new evidence emerges. A forecast can (and should) include more than one scenario. As time goes by, some scenarios will be deleted as the evidence contradicts them. 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. 

We normally use forecasting like this to explore alternative futures based on observed conditions. In other words, we take the available information and use it to model scenarios that are feasible. This is sometimes called a ‘net assessment’; it ‘nets’ together different types of analysis to summarise constraints and opportunities. Using an open-minded approach that admits the merit in an adversary’s position allows us to identify the key constraints that limit our, and indeed the adversaries’, available courses of action. It’s important to remember that preferences are optional, but constraints are obligatory. Biased thinking gets this back to front, often leading to very unfortunate outcomes.

Gaming Russia’s Options

I thought it would be interesting to use the news reports as the basis for a simple forecast. I’ve included a simplified decision to tree, which helps to visualize the ‘path of least resistance’, in this case from a Russian policymaker’s perspective. This allows us to ‘see’ the conditional probabilities more clearly, along with the policymakers’ constraints and opportunities. The outcomes might be surprising from a biased Western perspective.

On the subject of biases, the scenarios are based on assumptions that are themselves influenced by biases: in this type of modelling they are called ‘subjective probabilities’. My own biases are partly due to having studied Russian and Soviet Studies at university, and of having spent a fair amount of time travelling across Russia. So, for example, I think that Russians genuinely fear NATO expansion, rather than it being an excuse for an intrinsic Russian tendency towards aggression, or a fixation about the Ukrainians being degenerate Russians. In other words, Russian aggression primarily stems from a sense of vulnerability. I also think most Russians in Russia share Putin’s mindset, and that our views of Russia and Russians tend to be distorted by the preferences of Western reporters. And Russian history makes it clear that Russia learns from military mistakes and comes back stronger in round 2. And so on. In any case, the percentages on the left-hand side of the diagram represent my own starting biases.

There is a danger in simplifying such a complex set of circumstances, especially in a public forum, but the scenarios here are mainly intended to illustrate a concept. I expect and welcome disagreement with the scenarios: that’s actually the whole point, because they’re the starting point for the hard work of analysing difficult courses of action. In essence, all we’re doing is identifying a set of factors to monitor, that will confirm or disconfirm different hypotheses or scenarios. Having said all that, I prefer criticism from people who post their own forecasts, and there’s a challenge!

1 Conditional probability is dependent on other events happening first, while subjective probability is derived from the forecaster’s personal judgement. (Papic, 2021).

RUSSIA’S OPTIONS BEYOND UKRAINE

(May 2022)

THE CONCEPT

Contrary to the Western media’s focus on Russian setbacks in and around Kyiv, Russian ground forces have achieved their Main Effort in eastern and southern Ukraine. In particular, newly installed Russian administrations are starting to implement permanent control measures such as currency transition to the ruble. At the same time, Russian ground forces will start to transition to defensive operations, albeit with concurrent offensive operations to extend and consolidate control. This is entirely normal in the context of an army in defence. It is inconceivable that NATO would commit forces to dislodging Russian troops and it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Ukraine could achieve this alone. It is therefore likely that Russia has already started the process of annexation of Donbas, Luhansk and other occupied territory in Ukraine.

Viewed from a Russian perspective, its war in Ukraine has been successful. It has secured key terrain and has stopped any chance of Ukraine joining NATO, at least in the foreseeable future. 

However, in a wider sense, invading Ukraine has actually accelerated NATO expansion. It is hard to see how Russia will be able to tolerate this, given that NATO expansion was Russia’s stated casus belli: Putin’s appeals to Russian historical claims over Ukraine et al. are an attempt at justifying Russia’s aggression, not the root cause of it.

It is therefore likely that Russia will switch its attention back to the wider problem of stopping NATO expansion. As reports emerge of Finland’s intent to apply to join NATO this month, from a Russian perspective, the clock is ticking.

THE SCENARIO

Act One: Russia’s control over territory in eastern and southern Ukraine allows its ground forces to transition to a defensive posture. In the absence of NATO combat power, Ukraine will find the transition to large scale offensive operations hard and will not be able to reverse Russian gains. The military situation within Ukraine will become more static. 

Russia will use this opportunity to begin a general mobilisation of its military reserves. This might be used to reinforce its subordinate efforts in Ukraine, including an expansion of its tentative probing attacks towards Transnistria and, possibly, beyond into Moldova. However, it is hard to see how this supports Russia’s geopolitical objective of stopping NATO expansion. It would make more sense for Russia to backfill combat units in eastern Ukraine with draftees, whilst rotating out experienced troops for resting and refit in preparation for follow-on operations.

At the same time, Russia pursues options for procuring material for its military-industrial complex, through third-party countries such as Kazakhstan. This will pose a problem for the West, as Western sanctions may need to target Russia’s partners in the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) customs union to prevent Russian sanctions evasion.

Act Two: Russia’s deep-seated fear of NATO expansion is unresolved and Russia feels driven to reassert itself against what it sees as the most proximate threat. Russia does not want to run the risk of forcing NATO into war, and therefore stops short of directly threatening a NATO member country. Russia calculates that it has certain advantages: it safeguarded its air force, which it did not over-commit during the war in Ukraine and retains it as a strategic defensive asset. It regards NATO as divided over the issue of energy security, particularly regarding German dependence on Russian gas. It might therefore be sensible for Russia to conclude that NATO would not respond coherently to Russian threats against a non-NATO country in Eurasia.

Russian decision making is constrained by the clock. Firstly, it feels compelled to act before Finland and Sweden join NATO and before Germany ceases to be reliant on Russian gas. The Russian army also needs some time to apply and embed the key lessons it learned in Ukraine. This implies that Russia needs to act decisively before the end of 2022.

Act Three: Towards Q4 2022, Russia will deploy refitted combat units for offensive operations along its border with a non-NATO member. Russia’s subsequent decision to invade, or not, will depend on NATO’s response. Russia will continue to back its offensive posture with threats to use tactical nuclear weapons if NATO deploys into combat positions. Russia will also use these threats if it invades and suffers serious setbacks. Russia’s deep-seated fear of NATO ‘aggression’ means it would use battlefield nuclear weapons in certain circumstances.

EVALUATION

The conditional probability that Russia will threaten or attack a non-NATO member before the end of 2022 is 48%. This is a danger that requires serious consideration.

A scenario in which Russia does nothing (Scenario 1) is infeasible as it does not resolve Russia’s fear of encroachment by NATO. Likewise, a scenario in which Russia attacks a NATO member country (Scenario 2) is unlikely, because it guarantees a military response by NATO. Despite Western narratives, Russia does not seek war with NATO. Forcing NATO into a war with Russia is not a rational course of action for Russia.

On the other hand, viewed from a Russian perspective it is rational for Russia to threaten, or indeed attack, a non-NATO member. The most obvious choices appear to be Finland, Georgia and Moldova. The worst-case scenario from a Western perspective is probably Finland. Russian assessment of NATO’s constraints may indeed influence its own courses of action and increase Finland’s attractiveness as a target. Remember, the pre-emptive invasion of a country to prevent it from joining NATO has worked once already.

This all doesn’t mean we think Russia will invade Finland. But it does mean we think Russian policymakers might conclude it is a ‘good’ option.

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