INFER forecasters weigh the prospects of Ukraine’s counteroffensive

Walter Frick
Jun 27, 2023 04:31PM UTC
All spring, the world waited for Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia to begin. Now that it is under way, policymakers around the world are closely monitoring its prospects. Forecasters at INFER are tracking the conflict, too, and predicting the amount of territory each side will hold by the end of the year. 

Before the invasion, Russia held 7% of Ukraine’s territory, according to Brookings—gains that began in 2014. By March of 2022, it held 22%. Since then, Ukraine has regained territory and in April of 2023 Russia held 17%, primarily in Ukraine’s southeast. How much of that territory will Ukraine be able to reclaim this year? 

The most probable outcome, according to INFER forecasters, is that Russia holds 12-17% of Ukraine by year’s end (65% chance). They predict an 18% chance that Russia holds just 7-12%, approaching the level it held prior to the 2022 invasion. However, there is a 14% chance (highly improbable) that Russia ends the year with more territory than it held in April.

Matthew Sussex, a senior fellow at the Australian Defence College’s Centre for Defence Research, told INFER that his prediction is similar to the INFER forecasters’. “I expect Ukraine's counteroffensive to be more successful than Russian efforts in 2022, but only modestly so,” he told INFER by email in mid-June. “Around 12% would be my prediction.”

However, Sussex cautioned that the counteroffensive will take time—a point echoed by INFER’s forecasters. “In the West we typically want instant success,” he said. “Counteroffensives of this kind don't work like that.”

“The counter-offensive has started slowly and Russia has strong fortifications, so I would be surprised if Ukraine made a lot of progress, but likely they will make some advancements,” said INFER forecaster Sonodo in mid-June. “However, I do not think Russia in the near future has resources or even the will to attempt capturing more land than they currently occupy.”

To what extent is Ukraine trying to gain territory, rather than aiming for other strategic goals? “The official line is that Kyiv wants to reclaim large amounts of territory,” Sussex said. “And while potentially achievable, it's a scenario towards the 'ideal' end of the spectrum of outcomes. What would be most effective would be if Ukrainian forces managed to drive a wedge in the middle of Russian-held territory (usually around Tokmak). That would split Russia's forces in two, and make them difficult to reinforce - hence putting pressure on the Kremlin to cut its losses.”

Forecasters on INFER highlighted several dynamics to watch as the counteroffensive unfolds. INFER Pro Caroline Meinel highlighted internal discord in Russia as one factor to watch, and as a potential driver of better outcomes for Ukraine. Sussex made a similar point, noting that “we should be paying more attention to Russian domestic politics given its modest but increasing signs of fragility.” 

The Wagner group’s reported uprising last weekend underscored that fragility. Several INFER forecasters adjusted their forecasts in real-time in response to the Wagner news, raising their estimation of Ukraine’s chances of recapturing territory. Meanwhile, others cautioned against overweighting breaking news.

INFER Pro “Perspectus” argued that it’s unlikely Ukraine will regain all of its territory because if the counteroffensive is going well, a ceasefire will become more likely.

Sussex highlighted a host of other factors for analysts to bear in mind when tracking the conflict:

“Quality of training and equipment on both sides; terrain; seasonal factors (weather); access to hardware/ammunition; morale of troops and government; economic capacity to sustain combat operations; level of international support (mainly for Ukraine); quality of tactics/doctrine; logistics and resupply capabilities.”

The myriad of factors at play underscore the complexity of a conflict like this. The most likely outcome, though, according to INFER, is modest territorial gains this summer and fall by Ukraine. As one INFER forecaster put it, “the next six-odd months will be attritional.”

This article is part of a new blog series called INFER Insights. Each post will explore a question (or group of questions) we're monitoring on INFER and compare the crowd consensus with expert perspectives surrounding the possible outcome.

Walter Frick

By: Walter Frick

Walter Frick is the founder of Nonrival, a newsletter that lets readers make predictions about tech, business, and the economy. He is a contributing editor (former senior editor) at Harvard Business Review, former executive editor at Quartz and has written for publications including The Atlantic, the BBC, and MIT Technology Review.

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