Ukraine war forecast 'to become drawn out but less intense' as it enters third year

Analysts say Russia's greater manpower won't bring major gains unless Donald Trump blocks military aid for Ukraine

Fighting in Ukraine is about to enter its third year after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. Getty Images
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The fighting in Ukraine is most likely to develop into a “protracted but less intense war” in its third year, barring a Donald Trump-fuelled collapse in western aid, according to forecasters.

A year of “ongoing losses by both sides” but “no significant changes to the front lines” is the most likely of four scenarios for analysts at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Such a scenario – assigned a 60 per cent probability – could involve weapons stocks on both sides running low but assumes western aid will not “collapse to a point that would tip the war” in favour of Russia.

A year of few breakthroughs would follow the pattern of recent months, in which a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive was stalled by Russian fortifications and minefields.

Kyiv is lobbying for more aid to counter an increasingly assertive Russia, which threatened to shoot down Nato patrols over the Black Sea last month, French defence officials alleged on Thursday. Moscow's forces seized the Avdiivka chemical plant last week and claimed control of a bridgehead on the Dnipro river.

Analysts say prolonged fighting this year would put Ukraine's reconstruction on the back burner and make it harder to raise the money needed, estimated at close to $1 trillion.

“The best that can be hoped for is that the war becomes a lower-intensity and more localised conflict, preventing further damage in areas that to date have not been affected by the war,” the report says.

Trump effect

While Russia is seen as having “an advantage in arms and manpower”, boosted by supplies from Iran and North Korea, Nato powers have promised to assist Ukraine for “as long as it takes”.

However, analysts see a 30 per cent chance that a Trump return to the White House would prompt a sharp fall in US funding that culminates in Ukraine being forced into a truce.

Four scenarios for Ukraine war

1. Protracted but less intense war (60% likelihood)

2. Negotiated end to the conflict (30%)

3. Russia seizes more territory (20%)

4. Ukraine pushes Russia back (10%)

Forecast by Economist Intelligence Unit

In this scenario, Kyiv is negotiating “from a position of weakness” and a peace deal “formalises Russian control over some parts of Ukraine”, says the 10-page report marking two years since the invasion.

The predicted effect of this is that “geopolitical risk rises sharply” because Russian gains “send a powerful message to other governments with expansionist intentions”.

Russia has had to swallow losses to its Black Sea naval fleet and been hit by explosions deep beyond the front line but retains control of large swathes of territory seized after its invasion in February 2022.

Mr Trump's gravitational pull on US politics has already stalled military support for Ukraine in Congress before the November election has even taken place, with the former president opposing new aid.

However, analysts believe any Russian military gains, for instance in eastern Ukraine, would prompt a reaction from the US and Europe, making a total collapse of western support less likely.

“We believe that both the US and EU will find a way to keep aid flowing, because what happens in Ukraine has major geopolitical implications,” they wrote.

Major gains unlikely

A third scenario, in which Russia seizes land in southern and eastern Ukraine in a summer offensive, is assigned a 20 per cent likelihood.

This could either galvanise the US and its allies to rush through extra aid packages, or “sow divisions about the logic of sustaining a long-term war that Ukraine is unlikely to win”.

Forecasters see only a 10 per cent chance of significant Ukrainian gains, fuelled by economic problems and domestic dissent hampering Russia's war effort.

In this scenario “Ukraine spies an opportunity and pushes Russia back, retaking significant swathes of territory”.

This could also mean “the perception that Ukraine now has the upper hand mends divisions in the West and results in a drive towards extra aid, in a bid to push Russia out of Ukraine”.

Although analysts are pessimistic about Ukraine's chances of a breakthrough, a prolonged stalemate is “not without risks for Russia”, they said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is all but certain to win a March election, though the death of jailed dissident Alexei Navalny has reignited anger over domestic repression in Russia.

“As the war drags on, domestic political constraints and rising inflation will increasingly spark social discontent,” the forecasters wrote.

“The Kremlin is willing to sacrifice as many men as needed in the conflict but there are already signs of unrest related to mobilisation efforts and the higher the losses, the greater the risk of pushback.”

UK leaders reiterate support for Ukraine

UK political leaders have marked the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine by vowing to stand with Kyiv “until they prevail”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said “tyranny will never triumph” as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s troops defend the country against an emboldened Russia.

Mr Sunak said the UK is “going further in our support”, and Britain is prepared to do “whatever it takes, for as long as it takes”.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 10:53 PM
Four scenarios for Ukraine war

1. Protracted but less intense war (60% likelihood)

2. Negotiated end to the conflict (30%)

3. Russia seizes more territory (20%)

4. Ukraine pushes Russia back (10%)

Forecast by Economist Intelligence Unit