Introduction

  1. As the current conflict in Ukraine stretches into its third year, the analytical team have looked at emerging trends and assessed some probable activity for 2024. After the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ failed offensive in Summer/Autumn 2023, the defensive lines have been drawn and both sides of the conflict are attempting to recuperate whilst maintaining pressure as they vie to gain the initiative at a tactical level. Operationally and strategically, Russia is likely to gain the upper hand as the conflict endures, with a war-time economy and significant rearming and recruiting efforts competing against inconsistent and politically stymied western support to Ukraine. Throughout the year there are a number of major elections in Europe (and the US) which are likely to be targeted by Russian information operations in the hope of dividing members of the pro-Ukraine alliance. Election-meddling to create civil disorder and disunity is a proven and time-tested facet of Russian hybrid warfare.

Political

  1. 2024 has been branded by elements of the media as a ‘super election year’, with many significant elections being held across Europe and the rest of the world. Portugal, Finland, Belgium, Iceland, and the European Union (EU) all have major elections in early 2024, which are poised to attract the attention of Russian information operations, strategically aimed at disrupting support for Ukraine. In the run up to these elections, Russian Federation security services will likely covertly support/enable opposition parties and disseminate false information to stir up conflict and discontent. For the EU elections on 9 June 2024, Russian bot farms and other actors in the information space will likely support and amplify isolationist or nationalist representatives from European nations in order to fragment the European alliance.
  2. In the second half of 2024, Romania, Austria, Croatia, Moldova, Slovakia, and (possibly) the UK, have major elections, as well as the US presidential election on 5 November. These elections will likely be subject to the same Russian interference. Russia will highly likely conduct information operations and cyber-attacks (including ‘hack and leak’ attacks), with a particular focus on the US internal American political machinations that are already disrupting the flow of funding and military aid to Ukraine (as of Jan 24).
  3. Russia also has a Presidential election this year, and Putin is almost certain to be re-elected in March. It is highly likely that following his re-election he will be less susceptible to domestic influences – which may lead to another round of covert or targeted mobilisation in order to support the war effort. It is a realistic possibility that this will also include coercion or incentivisation for workers within the defence and technology sectors – essential to sustain and enable operations in Ukraine.

Figure 1. Map showing 2024 Election dates. Text size is indicative of relative significance
  1. Abroad, Russia is likely to seek to renegotiate arms deals with Iran. It is a realistic possibility that Iranian ballistic missiles will begin to appear on the battlefield – likely as a counter to Ukrainian air defence learning and adapting to Russian long-range strike tactics using one-way attack uncrewed aerial vehicles and cruise missiles. The supply of Iranian weapons (both loitering munitions and ballistic missiles) may well be restricted due to additional demands on Iranian munitions by the Houthis operating in Yemen – which is likely to be a higher priority for the Iranian regime than further assisting Russia.
  2. Russia is almost certain to continue to purchase ammunition (and possibly artillery barrels) from North Korea in order to keep up with consumption. In exchange, reduced rate hydrocarbon sales as well as technology transfer are likely to be maintained – to the benefit of both regimes. North Korea is already viewed in the west as a ‘pariah state’ and therefore is unlikely to be deterred from military sales to Russia through political pressure nor sanctions. This is similar to Iran’s trade relationship with Russia.
  3. European and US elections may impact the delivery timelines of modern western airpower such as the promised F-16s, with domestic security and funding pressure likely to inhibit the provision of costly and complex airframes, as well as the timelines required for training pilots to effectively use these systems. It is therefore incumbent on Ukraine to prevent significant Russian advances for long enough to see these new systems be integrated and used effectively.

Economic

  1. The Russian economy is almost certain to continue to be directed to support the war in Ukraine. Putin is unlikely to adjust policy for long term economic stability and will instead continue to subsidise the conversion of civilian industry to a war-footing in order to produce the vast number of consumables required for his activity in Ukraine. From the conversion of bakeries into independent first-person view (FPV) drone factories, to the tripling of shifts at munition and equipment manufacturing/modernisation facilities – Russia is almost certain to re-tool towards war-time production levels in a similar vein to the second world war (albeit on a lesser scale).
  2. In purchasing munitions and weapon systems from North Korea and Iran, it is likely that Russia has conducted both technology transfer as well as favourable trade deals. North Korea, as well as having a massive number of artillery systems and ammunition also has significant experience in circumventing western sanctions – the knowledge of which will almost certainly be transferred to Russia to assist with the current weapons production requirements which involve a lot of dual-use parts.
  3. It has recently been shown that ammunition delivered from North Korea is of low quality, with incidents of partial detonation of explosive filler in artillery rounds – however Russia follows the view that ‘quantity has a quality all of its own’ and is willing to risk reduced effectiveness in exchange for a large supply. It is a realistic possibility that any artillery barrels procured from North Korea will also have quality-control issues – though this is unlikely to deter the Russian Ministry of Defence who likely has a critical shortage of replacements (as demonstrated by the cannibalisation of old towed artillery guns in storage to re-equip more modern self-propelled guns). The willingness of the Russian military to expend the lives of troops due to catastrophic malfunctions associated with low-quality barrels or using them beyond their recommended lifespan is well known and is highly likely to be greater than the Ukrainian appetite to absorb losses for the same reasons. The tight tolerances and high-quality steel required to manufacture artillery barrels is restrictive and requires a well-trained workforce. The re-tooling of civilian factories to produce these items is likely to continue apace, with an increase subsequent to Putin’s almost certain re-election in March.
  4. It is unlikely that the west has the authority, will or allocated funding to reinvigorate ammunition manufacture in Ukraine or western Europe. Munitions factories setting up in Ukraine are likely to be expensive and require significant investment by the US and European military industrial complex – and are highly likely to be priority targets for Russian long-range strikes using drones and missiles. Therefore, air defence equipment manufacturing and provision needs to be enacted prior to this significant investment in order to defend against the inevitable attacks. Factories which could be established in western Europe are likely safe from physical attacks (but may be vulnerable to cyber-attacks and espionage/sabotage), however recruiting a workforce is likely to prove politically and economically challenging for host nations. They also require time and investment to set up – and in the interim Russian production is almost certain to outpace western attempts to catch up, further maintaining the disparity in ammunition and barrel availability and increasing the likelihood of Russian battlefield success.

Military

  1. There is unlikely to be any significant territorial shift during the Winter, nor at the beginning of the spring thaw. The Russian army is likely to attempt to maintain pressure along a large portion of the ‘zero line’ in order to prevent Ukrainian forces from regaining the initiative, but both sides have effectively entrenched themselves and without a major concentration of troops and equipment, neither side is likely to be able to penetrate the defensive lines and subsequently exploit the break-out. The militarisation of the Russian economy is likely to increase the availability of artillery barrels and ammunition as time progresses, increasing their overmatch and providing opportunity to exploit the advantage by shaping the battlefield for offensive action towards the end of 2024. However, whilst the Russian Army is a champion of Stalin’s view that “artillery is the God of war”, it cannot win battles on its own – and must be used in conjunction with well trained infantry and manoeuvre forces in order to seize and hold territory. This advantage in indirect fires may however embolden the Russians and lead to concentrated offensives towards the end of the year and into 2025. Artillery overmatch also forces the UAF to maintain a defensive footing and can be used to disrupt any attempts to mass forces for their own offensive actions.

Figure 2. Territorial control changes from 31 Mar 22 to 29 Jan 2024
  1. Ukraine is likely to focus on building defensive lines and attempting to shore up their defence industrial base (DIB) in order to mitigate Russian manufacturing superiority, whilst continuing to campaign in the West for additional equipment and funding to maintain the defence. Lessons will be identified from the failed 2023 summer offensive and training and tactics adapted, whilst they seek to limit Russian advances and where possible rotate exhausted units away from the front for recouperation.
  2. It is highly unlikely that the UAF will be able to sufficiently mass troops and combat power for another major offensive in 2024 and will remain focussed on retaining territory they currently hold and setting conditions for offensive activity in 2025. Ukraine is likely to focus on maintaining international support, building capability, and training mobilised personnel in order to prepare for future offensive activity. Concurrently, they will be looking to improve their air defence network and encourage international investment – likely initially focussing on military materiel in order to equip their forces and build ammunition stocks to support future offensives.
  3. Depending on the success of the preceding six months’ worth of build-up, there are several options for the Russian army leading into next winter. If the Russian army can build up troop and equipment levels then the most likely course of action will see major offensive actions focussed on pushing through the centre of the current ‘zero line’ near Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Marinka, and in the north towards Kupiansk in order to reach the Oblast borders of Donetsk and Luhansk. This would achieve the ‘liberation’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in their entirety, likely intended to provide a tangible ‘victory’ for the domestic audience in the RF and to set information conditions for a prolonged conflict.
  4. It is highly unlikely that additional Russian army axes of advance will be opened in Chernihiv, Sumy, or northern Kharkiv Oblasts, nor will another thrust from Belarus emerge. Limitations in personnel and equipment, as well as the necessary diversification of logistics resupply are likely to be insurmountable in the short term – particularly due to the increase in defensive obstacle belts and improved observation enacted by Ukrainian forces since Feb 22. Some cross-border raids and indirect fires are however likely to continue.
  5. In the medium term the tactical situation remains unlikely to change, although the Russian army may make small advances due to numerical superiority and an ability to take significant losses in personnel. “Meat assaults” can seize ground, and this is likely to occur in heavily contested areas such as Bakhmut and Avdiivka. Areas with natural obstacles (particularly wide wet gaps) are more easily defensible and are difficult to assault without specialist equipment. The high density of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets across the battlespace, alongside the western provision of intelligence, will make it difficult for troops and specialist bridging/engineering equipment to mass without being observed and disrupted by Ukrainian indirect fires and precision strike. The spring thaw is likely to make manoeuvre difficult due to the sucking mud of the ‘Rasputitsa’, and generally occurs for four to six weeks in the second half of March and into April. During this period, it is unlikely that either side will gain momentum with advances and the war will remain predominantly static with significant artillery duels and shaping operations ahead of the summer.
  6. It is highly likely that both sides will continue to adapt and field small, improvised FPV strike drones in ever greater quantities. It is highly likely that Russia and Ukraine will both continue to develop and produce electronic warfare assets in order to counter the proliferation of FPV drones. Ukraine is highly likely to focus naval development on uncrewed systems, both surface and subsurface in order to mitigate Russian naval supremacy in the Black Sea. Small and (relatively) low-cost uncrewed submersibles and surface weapons are likely to be used in increasingly large numbers in order to have a disproportionate effect against Russian surface combatants – restricting their ability to threaten the ‘grain corridor’ and enforce a naval blockade, as well as reduce the effectiveness of naval land-attack missiles. International investment in uncrewed vessels which can subsequently be operationally tested in Ukraine are likely to shape the future of naval combat in the littoral space as well as further develop asymmetric threats to blue-water navies the world over, and will likely be of great interest to China, India, the US and other major naval powers.
  7. Russian long-range strikes are almost certain to continue and will evolve in line with Ukrainian defensive efforts. Targeting focus by the Russian army is likely to emphasise the Ukrainian DIB (where identified) as well as Ukrainian army training and logistics nodes in an attempt to prevent the build-up of combat power and trained units, forcing the incumbent front-line units to endure without respite whilst Russia builds fresh forces from their wider recruiting efforts. It is a realistic possibility that Ukrainian long-range strike efforts will focus on the deep rear in Russia itself (targeting the DIB, fuel and ammunition plants, and government organisations) in an attempt to force the Russian army to further distribute their air defence assets and reduce coverage of the front lines. Additionally, Ukrainian forces are likely to continue strikes into Crimea and around the Black Sea with the intent of creating an anti-access/area-denial for Russian maritime forces in the Black Sea. This is likely in support of increased targeting and raids against the Crimean Peninsula to set conditions for future operations to isolate the peninsula and trap Russian combat power (air, naval and ground forces).
  8. The second half of 2024 is a possible timeframe for the introduction of western aircraft (particularly the F-16 Fighting Falcons donated by Denmark and the Netherlands) – and whilst this is likely to create opportunities for local and time-bound air supremacy over sections of the front, it is not the panacea it is often portrayed to be in Western media. The presence of modern fighters in the Ukrainian arsenal may force Russian aircraft to operate further behind their own lines and within their air defence bubble, subsequently reducing the effectiveness of their close air support for ground operations, and reducing the effectiveness of FAB and KAB bombs – however the overmatch in artillery systems is likely to remain the primary method of fires supporting ground manoeuvre. The presence of Western fighters over Ukraine may also force greater involvement of the latest Russian 5th Generation aircraft, the Su-57 Felon, to conduct combat air patrols to destroy the expensive and low-volume F-16s.