In the weeks prior to the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Marine Corps University hosted a four-day wargame to forecast the war’s course. That wargame proved remarkably prescient, accurately predicting almost all of Russia’s major combat movements in the first week of operations. As the war entered its second month, the Marine Corps War College and the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare reopened the wargame with the aim of exploring how the future fight might develop, with a particular emphasis on a national resistance scenario in a Russian-occupied Ukraine.
Our wargame’s advisors came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, including United States military officers, representatives from NATO countries, two experts on internal Russian decision-making, and a retired Ukrainian colonel with experience on the Ukrainian general staff. The second iteration’s most significant change to gameplay was a switch from each turn representing a single day to three-month turns. This was done to allow us to play out a full year of combat operations within the time allotted to complete the wargame. Lengthening the game turn duration required a higher degree of adjudication abstraction than our previous wargame, but it proved essential to enabling players to look at broader operational and strategic considerations over the duration of a protracted conflict.
After applying expected geostrategic and operational developments over the remainder of this year and into the start of 2023, we determined the Russians reached an operational culmination well-short of their maximal objectives. Given the combination of Ukraine’s proven will and its capabilities in a defensive fight, the prospects for Russian forces in heavy urban combat proved daunting. By the end of the summer, Russia no longer possessed the forces to pursue major simultaneous objectives nor the combat power to conquer a major city. All was not rosy for the Ukrainians, who lacked the combat power to go on the offensive and eject Russia from the occupied territories. With neither side able to achieve decisive military effects in the offense, without exception, the combined teams predicted that without a negotiated settlement the war is headed toward an indefinite stalemate.
The ramifications of such an outcome are immense. First, of course, is the toll in human suffering, as losses mount on both sides, and the refugee crisis remains unalleviated for a year or more. For the United States, a stalemate means that the ad-hoc defense-related resupply arrangements require systemization and the establishment of a quasi-permanent logistics infrastructure. Ukraine’s future success also requires the establishment of training centers that can regenerate Ukraine’s frontline combat power and allow these forces to reenter the fight.
As we conducted the wargame, the surprises came fast and furious. The first was we entered the wargame with a flawed assumption about Russia’s prospects. Initially, we assessed that over the next four months the weight of the Russian force would gradually wear down Ukraine’s military and allow for a complete occupation of the country. After conducting open-source analysis to develop a current operating picture and assessing losses since the start of the war, the team agreed to fast forward one month and assume the collapse of Mariupol, Sumy, and Konotop. The wargamers were then tasked to determine the major operational movements for the summer 2022 campaign, using as the key decision how Russia would employ the maneuver forces freed up by these successes and the option to employ forces held in reserve. In weighing and then employing the wargame to test courses of action, it rapidly became clear that Russia lacks the combat power to collapse the Ukrainian military this summer.
Another surprise for the wargame was the validation of how national leaders’ political objectives trounce the best military advice provided by generals. As the summer campaign played out, the “generals” (wargamers) were forced to decide how best to employ military forces, and shift combat resources, including strategic reserves, to accomplish objectives. Political requirements dominated military decision-making, as the expert military advice on future operations was overruled in favor of seizing objectives deemed more politically important. In this case, our Vladimir Putin ordered spectacular victories were necessary to sustain his own power, repeatedly saying that the postwar condition of the army was of small consequence.
Summer and Fall 2022
Russia’s summer 2022 move prioritized political objectives to achieve iconic successes over improvements of the overall military situation. Despite increasing Ukrainian partisan activity in occupied areas, Russia launched localized and limited offensives in pursuit of these objectives. However, apart from Mariupol, these objectives proved elusive, and most of the Russian-Ukrainian front lines barely budged. The only major exception was a local Ukrainian counterattack that retook a sizable amount of territory northwest of Kyiv.
The major takeaway from this first move is that, despite the lack of movement, frontline attrition remained frightful. Although Russia continues suffering higher attrition rates than its opponent, Ukrainian forces are far from unscathed. The most damaging losses for the Russians are in experienced officers, troops, and armored vehicles, which are the primary targets of local counter-attacks given increasing numbers of portable antitank weapons. The wargame highlighted Ukrainian capabilities to employ killer-drones to knock out Russian vehicles, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and self-propelled artillery. Open sources claim that Ukraine has over fifty such weapons on near-constant patrols and this number is growing. If only one drone in ten kills a vehicle each day, that equates to 150 vehicles a month and 1,350 Russian vehicles losses between now and Christmas. Moreover, the wargame-imposed daily success rate of a mere ten percent is likely a gross underestimate. Add to this the losses inflicted from thousands of anti-tank weapons and the Russians soon ran short on modern armor to support combat operations. Over the wargame’s year-long course, Russian losses in troops and vehicles approached the entire amount it had built up around the perimeter of Ukraine at the conflict’s start.
Despite our intention to devote the rest of the wargame to a possible insurgency or national resistance campaign, the fact that, even if Ukraine was not winning the war, it was certainly not losing it, caused a re-evaluation. As Ukraine still had an intact, discernible, and well-manned front line, it was decided to let the wargame continue on its natural course. What was apparent to all was that the wargame was starting to parallel the situation the warring parties found themselves in 1915, with both sides unable to launch major offensives as manpower and munitions stocks were nearly exhausted.
As the war progressed, attrition challenged both armies’ ability to create operational reserves, as all available forces were required to sustain the line. Thus, by mid-summer, Russia lacked the capacity to conduct more than one operational offensive at a time, and its force would rapidly culminate in front of fierce Ukrainian resistance. For the Ukrainians, they were still holding a long defensive line with an ever-shrinking force, opening the possibility of multiple Russian breakthroughs.
Similarly, both sides in our wargame were limited by a lack of munitions. Current reporting appears to give the Ukrainians an edge, as they are apparently attacking throughout the theater, employing thousands of Javelins and other antitank systems. While important, a superiority in munitions does not equate to a capability to conduct a large-scale offensive to retake lost ground. The initiative remains with the Russians, but grievous and continuing losses limited Russian striking power. Furthermore, with the Russian economy under sustained international assault, it may not be able to resupply munitions, particularly precision-guided missiles and bombs, which already appear to be in critically limited supply. As a result, we reduced the striking capacity of formations as the lack of resupply took its toll.
In game terms, during the summer and fall campaigns, the Russians remained capable of applying pressure at many points along the front but could no longer sustain the four major offensives they initiated the war with. Just sustaining their isolation attempts on Kyiv and Kharkiv consumed and fixed the majority of Russia’s available combat power. As the second turn concluded, taking the conflict into December, the Russians, with severely depleted forces, were forced to make hard choices. Our Russian generals advised shifting to an eastern strategy similar to what Russia announced late last week. But they were overruled by Putin, who insisted on capturing Odessa, despite a lack of progress against Kyiv and Kharkiv.
Thus, Russia employed its strategic reserves for an offensive in the south that culminated short of capturing Odessa. The impact was to extend the front without achieving anything of military or political significance, while also eliminating any further reserve formations in theater. The wargamers did take some time to explore the eastern strategy, and although it likely would have initially caused significant Ukrainian military losses, the Russian offensive culminated before Dnipro and the Dnieper crossings, and with Kharkiv still controlled by Ukraine.
As its losses mounted and Russian forces prepared to conduct a winter offensive, Ukraine, in the winter turn, faced the decision to either defend in place and continue to contest the Donbas and Kharkiv or withdraw most of its forces back to cover the city of Dnipro and the Dnieper River crossings. A withdrawal, by reducing the front by several hundred miles, freed up substantial forces for reemployment around Kyiv or in the south. It also ceded key terrain in the Donbas and Kharkiv regions. Defending forward would have increased Ukrainian leverage in strategic negotiations but risked a Russian envelopment of the center of Ukrainian defenses. The wargamers opted for a withdrawal of much of the combat power back toward the west, while still holding Kharkiv as an eastern bastion.
During the wargame, adjudicators allowed both sides to sustain the personnel strength of many units through various means—volunteers and reserve manpower for Ukraine, and drafts of new conscripts and foreign mercenaries for the Russians. What could not be replaced in any great numbers, by either side, were vehicle losses. These losses impacted the Russians far more than the Ukrainians on the defense. By the end of a year, vehicle losses brought offensive operations to a near standstill—a natural culminating point.
The game ended with Ukraine growing stronger, but still incapable of retaking lost territory. Russia, on the other hand, needed a prolonged operational and strategic reset, no longer having the combat power to sustain a major advance and with little hope of reviving such power in the near term.
Ultimately, both sides lack the forces to achieve their ideal outcomes. Without a political compromise, we predicted the military aspects of this conflict will be characterized by stalemate, limited advances, high casualties, and massive equipment attrition on both sides over the next twelve months. Given Putin’s political position, the Russian army will be under heavy pressure to achieve success, which may lead to desperate employment of chemical weapons and/or tactical nuclear weapons to end the battlefield stalemate. However, players assessed that resorting to such tactics invites a United States and NATO response that would be cataclysmic for Russian hopes of ultimate success.
Reluctance on behalf of the United States and NATO to intervene hampers the development of logistics infrastructure needed to provide humanitarian assistance. The wargame indicated a growing demand for some international intervention to address the humanitarian crisis. The wargame also indicated that there are opportunities to conduct limited interventions to preserve and protect humanitarian concerns without presenting a direct challenge to Putin’s political and military operations. A bias toward avoiding the risk of escalation should not prevent consideration of intervention scenarios, such as humanitarian corridors or the establishment of safe havens within Ukraine.
The wargame allowed for differing levels of force generation under several scenarios. The establishment of a force generation capacity to train and equip shattered or new Ukrainian formations, outside of Ukrainian territory, had a marked positive impact in Ukraine’s ability to sustain its defensive positions. Similarly, anything that can be done to interfere with Russian force regeneration further limited its capacity to conduct further assaults. Still, without a sustained flow of munitions and equipment, Ukraine will be challenged to maintain its defensive positions. As for Russia, the game indicated that it will soon lack sufficient trained infantry to capture any major Ukrainian city after Mariupol falls, and will be unable to capture, nor even threaten the defensive viability of, Kyiv or Odesa. Kharkiv remained at risk of becoming isolated. But the wargamers assessed Russia lacks the combat power to quickly seize the city. Kharkiv may be able to hold out until year’s end and beyond unless the Russians halt all other operations to mass combat power around the city. Even then, such an assault will be an extremely costly operation, leaving Russia scant resources to do much else, while opening other areas to Ukrainian counterattack.
The wargame assumed Putin will remain unfazed by economic sanctions until their impact makes it impossible to rebuild his devastated ground forces without a national mobilization, which our experts believe presents a real risk to his regime’s survival. However, throughout the wargame, the economic sanctions imposed upon Russia were a constant backdrop to all else going on. If Russia remains cut off from capital markets, its energy industry sanctioned, and the country’s institutions removed from SWIFT, rapid economic collapse is likely. In that case, Russia will be unable to sustain the likely year-long conflict simulated in the wargame.
Finally, the possibility of a rapid Ukrainian collapse cannot be ruled out. But the wargame did not show any path where such an outcome is likely, as long as the West continues to sustain Ukraine’s resistance. In fact, this wargame indicates it may be time to start talking about the implications of an unambiguous Ukrainian battlefield victory.
After our first wargame, we had the luxury of looking backward to determine the accuracy of the game’s predictions. The results were good enough to give us the confidence to employ the game to look into a more distant future. Still, this is a wargame, and real-life human interactions in the bloody cauldron of war can easily confound our team’s predictions. Still, the game presents a set of interesting possibilities, all of which require more through examination by policy experts, tasked to prepare answers to a problem that seemed absurd in late February 2022–that Ukraine would still be holding its own against the Russian colossus a year hence.
James Lacey, PhD, is the Horner Chair of War Studies at Marine Corps University. He is the author of The Washington War, Gods of War, and the forthcoming Rome: A Strategy for Empire.
Tim Barrick is a retired Marine Corps colonel and the director of wargaming at Marine Corps University.
Nathan Barrick, PhD, a strategist at United States Special Operations Command, is currently a student at the Marine Corps War College and a former US Army Russian foreign area officer.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Marine Corps University, the US Marine Corps, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: James Lacey, Tim Barrick, and Nathan Barrick