Any experienced military analyst could laugh if they were told in March 2022 that in eight months Ukraine would still be an independent state, and the AFU had inflicted huge losses on the Russian army.
That the Ukrainian army killed or wounded 80,000 Russians; that the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet will be at the bottom of the Black Sea; and that Ukrainian Air Force planes would still fly.
Ukraine did not live up to these pessimistic expectations. This is victory in the war. But with the onset of winter, Russia mobilizes.
Consider three scenarios for the coming year.
In the first scenario, Russia wrests victory from the jaws of defeat. The Russian army stabilizes the front lines during the winter months by raising new battalions from newly mobilized recruits.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the US are blocking new aid packages for Ukraine as supplies from Europe run out.
The Russian defense industry lacks semiconductors and specialized equipment, but produces enough basic armor and artillery to arm the new forces.
Russian drones continue to strike Ukraine’s energy and water infrastructure. With the onset of summer, Ukraine is weakening. Russia captures Kryvyi Rih, a key industrial city north of Kherson, as well as Slavyansk and Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region.
Western countries are urging Ukraine to accept the Russian proposal for a ceasefire. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has no choice but to agree.
In the following months, perhaps even years, Russia diligently re-arms itself for another attack on Kyiv.
Much more likely is the second scenario: a stalemate.
Russia mobilizes hundreds of thousands of young people, but fails to turn them into effective fighters. All the best instructors are at the forefront. Experienced officers are dead or already engaged.
Recruits are reduced to simple light infantry units, devoid of armor and unable to go on the offensive, but able to fill the trenches and hold the line.
Russia, after announcing its withdrawal from Kherson in November, is safely evacuating some 30,000 soldiers stationed on the western bank of the Dnieper. They retreat to the east, leaving a huge amount of weapons behind.
This is a triumph for Ukraine, but ultimately it makes Russia’s military position stronger as the Dnieper River protects its left flank.
The Ukrainian offensive is slowing down. Ukrainian troops suffer heavy losses for every kilometer of conquered territory.
After failing to win the war on the battlefield, Putin then tries to prolong it long enough to cripple Ukraine’s economy, undermine its morale with strikes against civilian infrastructure, and debilitate his opponents.
Europe is struggling to fill its gas storages in 2023, causing power outages as winter approaches.
Putin intends to hold out until the end of 2024, when he hopes that Donald Trump will regain the White House and stop supporting Ukraine.
But this is a high-stakes game: Russian public opinion is against the war, its economy is dwindling, and Putin looks even more vulnerable.
The third scenario is the most hopeful and perhaps the most dangerous. Ukraine maintains the initiative and momentum by inflicting heavy damage on Russian troops as they leave Kherson, and then directs its long-range HIMAR missiles into range of Crimea for the first time.
Russian positions in Luhansk are crumbling, Ukraine retakes Severodonetsk and then quickly moves further east.
As Russian casualties mount, the recruits refuse to fight. Western countries are rushing to deploy new air defense systems to Ukraine, blunting the impact of Russia’s terror tactics based on its rapidly dwindling arsenal of precision-guided missiles.
In the spring, Zelensky orders his army to open a new front in Zaporozhye. Five brigades wedged into Russian positions, cutting the land bridge to Crimea and encircling Mariupol by summer.
Ukraine is moving its HIMARS missile launchers south, threatening Russian military bases and warehouses in Russian-occupied Crimea. Ukraine threatens to enter the peninsula.
Putin issues an ultimatum: Ukraine stops troops or faces the use of nuclear weapons.
The victory of Ukraine is not far off.