Where Does the Ukraine War Go From Here?

Six months into Russia’s war, Ukraine is still standing. FP talked with experts about what comes next.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Tsentr 2019 military exercise.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Tsentr 2019 military exercise.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches with binoculars the Tsentr 2019 military exercise at the Donguz range near Orenburg, Russia, on Sept. 20, 2019. Alexey Nikolsy/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government was not expected to last a week against Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country, U.S. and Western intelligence analysts believed in the hours before the Kremlin started sending waves of troops over the border in late February. Inside the Biden administration, officials were already hotly debating how (or whether) they could legally support a Ukrainian resistance led out of the west of the country if Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, fell.

As it turns out, a lot can change in six months. 

With Russia’s military campaign running on fumes but still dangerous, and with battle lines in Ukraine moving little in the past two months, both sides are facing significant attrition. And the outcome of the war, once thought to be a decisive Russian rout in a matter of hours, is far from clear. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government was not expected to last a week against Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country, U.S. and Western intelligence analysts believed in the hours before the Kremlin started sending waves of troops over the border in late February. Inside the Biden administration, officials were already hotly debating how (or whether) they could legally support a Ukrainian resistance led out of the west of the country if Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, fell.

As it turns out, a lot can change in six months. 

With Russia’s military campaign running on fumes but still dangerous, and with battle lines in Ukraine moving little in the past two months, both sides are facing significant attrition. And the outcome of the war, once thought to be a decisive Russian rout in a matter of hours, is far from clear. 

Foreign Policy spoke with a half-dozen experts in the United States and Europe to ask where the war in Ukraine, which has captured the world’s attention for most of 2022, is headed. They described scenarios that varied from a complete Russian military collapse to a nuclear strike to a frozen conflict along the lines of nearby Georgia. 

“One [course] is a linear extrapolation where they gradually wear each other down and they both get exhausted and come to some agreement. I don’t think that’s likely,” said Michael Ryan, a former U.S. Defense Department official. “I think what’s more likely is the second option—that the Russian position collapses.”

Back-and-Forth Offensives

Although experts almost universally agree that the Russian military is at a unique point of vulnerability—lacking enough troops to conquer new ground and facing Ukrainian assaults bolstered by advanced U.S. and Western-provided multiple rocket launch systems, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System—a protracted conflict remains the most likely outcome. 

“We’re likely going to see an inflection point in this war, and there’s likely to be a Ukrainian counteroffensive. It’s just unclear what its chances of success are,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with CNA, a think tank. “Either way, it increasingly appears that this is going to be a protracted conflict.” 

For weeks, Ukrainian officials have promised to storm through Kherson, the southern Ukrainian province known for its watermelons that was occupied by Russia in the first days of the war, launching wide-ranging preparatory strikes to hit Russian military bases and supply points on the Crimean Peninsula. But the bottom isn’t falling out of the Russian military just yet. 

“A counteroffensive that the Ukrainians might do is not going to look like something out of Hollywood,” said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration. “It’s not going to be a massive El Alamein push against [German Field Marshal Erwin] Rommel,” he added, referring to the decisive World War II battle in North Africa. “It’s going to be a bit slower and a bit more structured and selective. We’re in this for a long time.”

Unless one side can mount a major numbers advantage, the status quo could hold for some time, experts said. “I think the jury’s still out,” said Oscar Jonsson, a researcher at the Swedish Defence University. “I have yet to see anyone be able to mass a decisive number of troops.” Russia, experts said, will need to bide its time for another push, avoiding the potential of a personnel collapse within the ranks of its troops, who have been plagued by faltering morale

Frozen Conflict 

But even as Ukraine grows more confident about a possible counteroffensive—or sees it as a political necessity to keep the West engaged in the conflict—the Kremlin is trying to drag the war in the opposite direction. A protracted, frozen conflict could fatally try the patience of the West; the Biden administration now has to go back to Congress for more arms funding for Ukraine after this week’s historic injection. 

As Russia has faced growing challenges recruiting more troops to join the fight in Ukraine, experts increasingly see Kyiv gaining a manpower advantage—if not necessarily enough to wage a successful counteroffensive to take back large swaths of Kremlin-occupied territory. 

“Where Russia’s driving this is to be a frozen conflict for a while until they have a chance to regenerate,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation who studies Russia’s military. “That can allow them to sit there and hope that the world moves on … and sit there for a year or two until they start to see the results of some type of procurement or repair.”

That could be akin to Russia’s military strategy in Georgia, where it cleaved away two separatist enclaves—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—after its war in 2008, or in Ukraine after the 2014 seizure of Crimea, where the Kremlin solidified its gains in the Donbas and continued to intermittently shell Ukrainian positions but made few gains. 

Massicot said Russia’s losses, which U.S. officials estimate to be over 20,000 battlefield deaths (Ukraine believes more than twice as many Russian troops have been killed), has left Russia groggy. The Kremlin announced on Thursday that it would mobilize 137,000 more troops for the Russian Armed Forces by the beginning of the year, and the Russian military has ordered more deliveries of Soviet-era hardware, such as the BMP-2 amphibious vehicle from the 1980s, a sign that Western sanctions and export controls are starting to bite. Pentagon officials estimate that Russia has lost up to 4,000 armored vehicles in Ukraine since February. There are also reports of workers taking triple shifts at missile factories to reconstitute Russia’s dwindling supplies of precision weapons. 

Others see the potential for a more low-intensity border war if the fighting quiets down, with both sides taking potshots to try and conquer, or recover, more territory. “I don’t see a frozen conflict,” Townsend said. “I don’t see both sides settling down to something like in Georgia, where they are sitting there and every now and then making a foray.” 

Economic Swoon

The United States and Great Britain used Ukraine’s Independence Day on Wednesday—the six-month mark of the conflict—to insist that they were in the war for the long haul. The Biden administration pledged $3 billion more in military aid, most of which won’t be delivered for months and will require intensive training and military cooperation with Ukraine, and outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made yet another trip to Kyiv to show solidarity with Zelensky. But Russia, experts said, is betting that the economic headwinds from the war and the West’s bankrolling of Ukraine will become too severe in the coming months. Europe is being crushed by record-high prices for natural gas and electricity—in no small part a byproduct of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.

“Russia is banking on, most of all, Western economic trouble and lack of determination,” Jonsson said.

Russia’s vast natural gas reserves and the potential for causing economic damage against European countries reliant on Russian hydrocarbons could give the Kremlin leverage over countries like Germany in the winter, choking off heavy industries reliant on those fuels. “I think that Putin is realizing that he’s got the economic advantage,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, executive chairperson at Silverado Policy Accelerator. “The gas game he’s playing with Europe is by slowly cutting off gas supplies. … You may have a deep, deep recession in Germany and other parts of Europe.”

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not only been fought and repelled with bombs, rockets, and bullets. It has also been a testing ground for a uniquely 21st-century brand of economic warfare waged with harsh sanctions and export controls against the Kremlin from the West and the countervailing pressure of Russian attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure. The economic pressure has hurt Moscow, but Russian blast waves have had a withering effect on Ukraine’s defense industrial base, one of the most robust in the former Soviet Union.

“Ukraine’s defense industrial base has been subject to missile attacks and artillery barrages for the past six months,” said Massicot, the Rand Corporation expert. “It’s not in a healthy place, and they’re being supported from the outside.” The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Ukraine was even struggling to pay its troops.

Ukraine also needs economic aid to make a go of it. The World Bank has estimated that 55 percent of Ukrainians will be living in poverty by the end of next year as a result of the impact of the war and displacement. “The Russian side still believes that they’re winning,” Jonsson said. “They successfully destroyed Ukraine’s economy.”

On the flip side, Jonsson said, Russia’s economic troubles from the war, including declining foreign investment and a lack of access to advanced technology, may force the Kremlin or the wider public to reevaluate the cost of the war. “What kind of economy will they have?” he asked. 

Black Swan

Although Russia has yet to escalate the conflict in Ukraine with a nuclear attack or a widespread use of chemical weapons, the Kremlin’s refusal to let United Nations inspectors into the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest such facility, has raised the specter of a nuclear meltdown or another unlikely event, swinging the battlefield advantage toward the Russian side. On Thursday, Russia reportedly disconnected the power plant from the power grid, which not only could deprive parts of Ukraine of electricity but could also imperil the plant’s cooling systems, risking a meltdown.

“I think they’re using the threat of nuclear catastrophe to create a reason to shut down the plant and claim that it’s for safety reasons,” Alperovitch said. “If that happens going into the winter, that will be just devastating to the Ukrainians and their ability to produce enough electricity, even to heat their homes.”

There are some black swans Russia might not want to see up close. An effort to deal a knockout blow to Ukrainian resolve that sends a Russian missile into NATO territory, for instance, would likely trigger a vigorous Western response.

According to Ukrainian officials, Zelensky survived multiple attempts on his life by Russian agents in the early days of the conflict, and some experts are worried that a successful Kremlin attempt to capture or kill the wartime leader could diminish ascendant Ukrainian morale.

“If they do capture Zelensky, I just can’t imagine what that would trigger in the West,” said Townsend, the former Pentagon official. “[If] they put him in a cage or put him on trial or something, I mean, golly. There are some things that could give a really bad bounce to what’s happening.” 

Not all experts buy the idea that the Russian military is on the brink of collapse despite ongoing troubles in Ukraine. Yet a cornered, nuclear-armed Russia with an ill-trained, ill-equipped, and struggling army could still cause a whole world of hurt—let alone with a possible nuclear or chemical attack.

“What does the collapse of the Russian army look like, and if it does start to collapse, what happens to the so-called governments in Luhansk and Donetsk?” said Ryan, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. “Then we have to ask ourselves: Would Putin escalate if he felt his army on the ground was in an untenable position? It seems like he’s gone pretty much all in already. That’s when it starts to get dangerous.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.