What does Putin want? Has he achieved his goal now that he has upended the West and brought back the Cold War climate? Or is the stationing of 100,000 Russian troops along the Ukrainian border a prelude to war?
After a week of fruitless talks between Russia, the United States and NATO, the risk of a military confrontation has increased rather than diminished. The United States and NATO find Russian demands on NATO’s role in Eastern Europe unmentionable. For this reason, Russia considers it unnecessary to continue the discussion and requires a written response. “Our patience has run out,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday.
In the Kremlin’s rhetoric, NATO is the aggressor. Intervention is therefore justified, argues Putin. In a meeting at the Russian Defense Ministry on December 21, he put it this way: “If our Western colleagues continue their obviously aggressive policy, we will take appropriate military-technical measures and react harshly to hostile measures. As with unworkable Russian demands – a ban on NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, no NATO activity in Eastern European member states – such a statement seems like an excuse. wanted for military intervention.
There is a broad consensus among experts on what such an intervention might look like.
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A complete occupation of Ukraine – over 600,000 square kilometres, 43 million inhabitants – is unlikely. It makes no sense and the costs are too high. It will take too many soldiers, the resistance of the mostly hostile population will be fierce. In the face of Russian numerical superiority, there are motivated and trained volunteers who can cause a lot of “damage” with guerrilla warfare. The image of coffins with fallen soldiers hurts public opinion.
The alternative to full occupation is swift action to annex parts of the country, as Russia had already done with two regions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. From a Russian perspective, both operations were successful. An added benefit is that limited action reduces the risk of far-reaching Western sanctions.
Analysts see a number of limited invasion scenarios. Dick Zandee, senior researcher at the Clingendael Institute, sees an expansion of the current conflict zone in eastern Ukraine as very likely. In the Donbass, the Ukrainian army has been fighting separatists supported by the Russian army since 2014. Zandee: “From this area, Russian ground troops might be able to capture the entire districts of Donetsk and Lugansk. This encompasses a large area, where mainly Russian speakers live.
The conquest of the eastern part of the south coast does not see Zandee happening. “From the port city of Mariupol to Crimea there are three hundred kilometers, which is a lot. And then you also have to conquer the region further inland. Henry Boyd, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, sees a “land bridge” between occupied Donbass territory and Crimea as a plausible Russian ambition. This would connect the two predominantly pro-Russian regions of Ukraine. The water supply of the Crimea, today problematic, can then be ensured.
A third option for a limited invasion is an attack from the Black Sea on the western part of the southern coast, including Odessa. The proximity to the pro-Russian region of Transnistria in Moldova is very convenient here. It is certain that the southern coast of Ukraine is very vulnerable, due to Russian domination in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. A blockade of southern ports would shut down the Ukrainian economy.
In the much less likely event that the Russians want to seize the capital Kiev, the attack will likely come from the north, with or without the help of the friendly Belarus regime. Along the northern and eastern borders is the main force of the Russian Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), flexible units of around eight hundred soldiers and associated equipment. Thanks to satellite photos and US and UK electronic surveillance flights along the Russian border, we get a pretty good picture of the Russian armed forces there.
Replace Soviet Equipment
In 2014, after decades of neglect and corruption, the Ukrainian military was no match for Russia. A lot has changed since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. The defense budget exploded, as did the number of soldiers. With US support of $2.5 billion, Soviet equipment was partly replaced. The United States provided surveillance and communications equipment, among other things. The centerpieces are now the American Javelin anti-tank missiles and the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones. In October, such a drone for the first time destroyed a Russian howitzer in the Donbass.
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This does not change the fact that the Russian force majeure is still huge. The Ukrainian catch-up applies mainly to the ground forces, much less to the air force and the navy. Turkish drones won’t make a difference either, says researcher Boyd. “If it succeeds in eliminating Russian targets, it is more effective as propaganda than in strategic terms.”
According to Boyd, Russia won a quick victory thanks to three areas where the Russian military excelled: the air force, artillery and technology to block communications. Rob Lee, researcher at King’s College London and the expert on Twitter on the Russian armed forces, was clearly in The New York Times“If Russia really takes advantage of all conventional possibilities, it can do enormous damage in a very short time. They can destroy the Ukrainian armed forces in the east in thirty to forty minutes.
Analysts predict short and fierce airstrikes, starting with Ukrainian air defenses, not to be underestimated, as well as electronic and cyber attacks to disable communications or spread disinformation. The fact that Ukrainian government websites were hacked by unknown persons this week fits this picture. In the first phase, there is probably also a role for the famous “green men” without uniform, the Special forces. This preparatory work would then be followed by a ground attack, including tanks and armored vehicles.
The Americans not only closely monitor military movements from the Baltic region and the Russian Far East to Ukraine, but also the weather forecast. Temperature, and therefore soil conditions, can determine the Russian calendar. It is better to operate heavy equipment on frozen ground than on swampy ground.
Regardless of how a possible invasion will take place, neither Ukraine nor Western partners will have an appropriate military response. The already fragile Ukrainian government will be weakened, the contradiction between pro- and anti-Russian residents will be reinforced. Membership in NATO and the EU is further removed from the picture. Which probably achieved Putin’s goal.
With the collaboration of Hans Steketee
Also listen this podcast on the crisis around Ukraine
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on January 15, 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 15, 2022