What Would A Russian Invasion Of Ukraine Look Like?

Will the Russians stop?

Will the Russians stop?

I’ve been asked this question a lot, and had the chance to expound on it at a recent event in Parliament sponsored by the Henry Jackson Society, so thought I’d briefly outline my thoughts here. That said, though, I should stress that the more time passes, the less likely I think such an attack becomes, because of the shifting political situation and also–as Kyiv moves forces east and mobilises reserves and volunteers–the military calculus. However, it cannot be excluded, so it is worth still considering, not least as the preparatory phases I outline below have all been carried out; the Russian General Staff may well not yet know if it is going to be invading, but it has made sure that if the word does come down from the Kremlin, it will be ready.

In brief, the aim would be a blitzkrieg that, before Ukraine has the chance properly to muster its forces and, perhaps more to the point, the West can meaningfully react, allows the Russians to draw a new front line and assert their own ground truth, much as happened in Crimea (though this would be much more bloody and contested). This would not be a bid to conquer the whole country (the real question is whether they’d seek to push as far as Odessa, taking more risks and extending their supply lines, but also essentially depriving Ukraine of a coastline) but instead quickly to take those areas where there are potentially supportive local political elites and Russophone populations, and consequently pretexts (however flimsy) to portray invasion as ‘liberation.’

The first stage would be to infiltrate special forces and agents into both east and western Ukraine, as well as build up networks of allies and agents locally, including elements of the Ukrainian SBU (Security Service) whose real links are to Moscow. Meanwhile, they will develop their abilities to monitor and, in due course, jam Ukrainian communications. I note than a Beriev A-50 ‘Mainstay’ airborne early-warning and eavesdropping aircraft has been deployed to neighbouring Belarus, from whose airspace it can monitor Ukraine from safe, friendly skies.

Vremya Cha, ‘Zero Hour,’ would be marked with a massive attempt to shatter Ukraine’s command, control and communications infrastructure through everything from jamming and cyberattack to physical sabotage. Meanwhile, missile, bomber and artillery attacks would not only target concentrations of forces but also crater runways, smash bridges, rip train tracks and chew through roads in the hopes of delaying Ukrainian attempts to muster their forces in the critical first days and hours. The idea would be to spread chaos, so there might even be some feints, or the appearance of feints, from Belarus or Russian forces in Transnistria: the Russians do understand maskirovka, strategic deception, very well, and will do whatever they can to keep Kyiv uncertain and off-balance.

Meanwhile, the airports in eastern cities such as Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk will be being seized, whether by Russian GRU Spetsnaz commandoes or local allies, such as Berkut special police under the command of friendly local administrations. That will allow the rapid insertion of the paratroop forces the Russians have already assembled close by, who can be flown in under heavy fighter and EW cover (that Russia will essentially dominate Ukraine’s skies is scarcely in doubt). They will then seize the main cities.

Paratroopers are tough and move fast, but they can be brittle in stand-up conflict with mechanised forces, so regular Russian ground forces will spill across the border to support them. Not only have armoured and mechanised forces been mustered along the border, with full artillery support, but perhaps more telling has been the assembly of the logistical necessities–fuel, ammunition, medical supplies, etc–for high-tempo operations.

The aim, as mentioned, will be to move fast to seize and define a new front line wherever Moscow wants it. They may well simply bypass Ukrainian troop concentrations when they can, leaving them to be mopped up later. The greatest risk, after all, is that they get bogged down long enough for Kyiv to concentrate its forces or, potentially, the West to act. There would also be deployments of Interior Troops for rear-area security given that even in the east while the cities may be predominantly Russophone, the countryside is heavily Ukrainian.

article-2579168-1C3E1F8F00000578-310_634x414The preparations are in place, it would be easy for Moscow to manufacture a pretext for action, and presenting the outside world with a fait accompli and essentially trying to call its bluff is classic Putin. However, the time for such an operation was probably a week ago rather than now, while the risks in such an adventure would be considerable. Russia has perhaps twice as many forces in theatre and a clear superiority in airpower, but not such a great advantage that it can be assured a quick and easy victory. It would also face the risk of guerrilla actions and public resistance behind its lines, as well as economic sanctions at the very least, but the possibility also of more direct action by the West. In this context, a further Russian move makes little real sense. But then again, nor did the annexation of Crimea, so we have to accept that Putin now is working on a very different set of assumptions than the rest of us.

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  1. Reblogged this on Raishimi33.

  2. Taking Ukraine is one thing. Holding it is another. Integrating a bankrupt economy into the Russian economy is yet another thing.

  3. Reblogged this on rovitothis201 and commented:
    “In brief, the aim would be a blitzkrieg that, before Ukraine has the chance properly to muster its forces and, perhaps more to the point, the West can meaningfully react, allows the Russians to draw a new front line and assert their own ground truth, much as happened in Crimea (though this would be much more bloody and contested).”

  4. Thanks for these thoughts, Mark, especially your military/strategic insights, some of which are new to me. On the policy side, you may be underestimating the domestic political factor in Putin’s thinking. That is what explains his move in Crimea, for instance, which in many other respects looked unlikely. I’m frankly not sure how the balance of domestic calculations will play out with regard to the broader invasion, but let me offer some food for thought. (1) The Russian economy has slowed dramatically and its outlook is grim. Russia has exhausted the long free ride of its trade-factor benefits resulting from devaluation followed by secular commodities price growth. They have managed this very well, sterilizing vast amounts of inflationary trade surplus, but the process could not continue forever unless commodity prices kept growing. (2) Putin’s success in holding power for 14 years is largely the product of an implicit bargain with the public, that they will close an eye to government misdeeds in exchange for dizzying growth in real personal incomes (especially as measured in import spending power). (3) A wave of disaffection has begun spreading since about 2010, especially among the tech-savvy youth and urban middle-class. For instance, Alexei Navalny got 27% of the vote in recent Moscow mayoral elections on a platform of nothing but anti-corruption and opposition to Putin. And this despite a total media embargo, an ongoing criminal case during the election, and daily administrative/police obstacles to his grass-roots campaign. (4) In the face of these negative trends, Putin has been casting about for a solution. Part of it has been to tighten the screws on opposition, including for the first time police measures against the internet. (5) The Maidan revolution represented everything Putin fears. (6) There is nothing new about authoritarian leaders’ getting a popularity boost from military adventures — Putin himself knows this from experience thanks to his Chechen and Georgian incursions, both of which resulted in huge gains for him in the polls. Navalny and others began predicting perhaps a year ago that “Putin needs a small war.” In Crimea he found one. (7) The question going forward is, does he want a larger one? A more serious confrontation with the West would give Putin the context for an intensified crackdown on domestic opposition. It would intimidate and drown out those leaders who might otherwise gain heart from the success of Maidan. The confrontation would also allow him to blame economic recession on the anti-Russian forces of Western aggression, instead of accepting that Russian resource-led growth has run into the limitations of the country’s own legal system and business climate. It would allow Putin to take off the gloves domestically, supported by war hysteria in the media, and perhaps build a secure base for himself and his allies well into the future. On the other hand, such a policy raises the stakes. He might like his chances, but he must realize that he would come out of such a multi-year struggle either as victor or as victim. A “moderate” outcome would be less likely. He must be balancing these concerns, while asking himself what the West might be prepared to offer him in exchange for peace.

  5. I keep remembering two things. Putin saying that he will never have an EU country next to Russia which I thought was rubbish until the Crimea Invasion and the efforts to stop EU expansion and the second was back from my time in the 60s when I was not allowed to travel to a country that was next to a Russian Occupied Country. Putin I think was in East Berlin at the time in the KGB and I keep thinking that he is reverting to type and believes those times will come again. There was also a comment from the German Chancellor who speaks fluent Russian that she was worried about his thinking processes.
    I wonder whether we have a Putin who is being Governed by his past and not a future.

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