Analysis: How likely is Russia to invade Ukraine?

15 February, 09:11 AM
A Ukrainian soldier walks in a military trench in the war-torn Donbas (Photo:Ukrainian Ministry of Defense/ Facebook)

A Ukrainian soldier walks in a military trench in the war-torn Donbas (Photo:Ukrainian Ministry of Defense/ Facebook)

This analysis, by Andriy Zagorodniuk, Alina Frolova, Oleksiy Pavlyuchyk, and Viktor Kevliuk of the Center for Defense Strategies, was published by New Voice of Ukraine’s sister publication Ukrayinska Pravda on Feb. 12. English translation by New Voice of Ukraine.

U.S. officials made waves in Ukraine’s already tense media discourse on Feb. 11 by saying that Russia plans to launch an offensive in Ukraine in the coming days.

The Americans even provided a likely date for the invasion – Feb. 16. The United States and other countries are urging their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately.

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Does this mean that war is inevitable? What are the real risks? How are Ukrainians to interpret the media storm we find ourselves in the middle of?

Let’s analyze the available information and engage in some limited forecasting. We are going to tackle the following subjects:

· Ukraine’s military circumstances

· The most and least likely scenarios

· Naval developments in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov

· Defending Kyiv

· How combat-ready Ukraine is

· World leaders’ positions and rationales

· What’s our best course of action?

Ukraine’s military circumstances

As of Feb. 12, Russia had 87 battalion tactical groups (BTGs), or 147,800 troops, surrounding Ukraine, from occupied Crimea, through Moscow-controlled areas of Donbas, to Belarus, including air and naval components. [On Feb. 14, some experts estimated 100 BTGs were poised close to Ukraine’s borders.]

These forces are supported by military vehicles and equipment, including 1,700 tanks, 2,300 artillery units, 240 helicopters, 375 jets and 80 naval vessels. Supply line logistics, along with medical corps are also present, even if their numbers are not quite large enough for a full-scale offensive. Command and control systems in both Russia and Belarus are up and running, too.

Moscow and Minsk are drilling their troops in combat operations via the ongoing joint 

Union Resolve-2022 military exercises, scheduled to conclude on Feb. 20.

As many as 15 Russian BTGs are deployed in Belarus, along with some other regiments. Armed with Iskander missile systems, Russia’s 103rd Missile Brigade and other divisions of the Eastern Military District are in Belarus as well.

The combat readiness of Russian troops around Ukraine has significantly improved over the last several weeks. It was done by conducting military drills, psy-ops and generally preparing for a potential military operation.

The most and least likely scenarios

The total force Moscow has deployed around Ukraine, including its troops in Belarus, has not exceeded our expectations. We predicted that Russia might mass as many as 160,000 troops next to our borders, while currently the number remains below 150,000.

As it stands, Russian forces would not be sufficient for a large-scale invasion and occupation of all of Ukraine, or significant parts of it. Consequently, we do not foresee such scenarios unfolding in the near future.

Furthermore, in our opinion, these scenarios will remain less than probable in general, due to the reasoning outlined in our previous publication. In a nutshell, there is no indication that Russia is actively training and preparing the hundreds of thousands of troops it would take to launch an offensive as major as an invasion and occupation.

There are currently no efforts being made to deploy a proper mobilization infrastructure in Russia that could adequately supply its army with manpower.

Waging an all-out war against Ukraine would have profoundly negative consequences for Moscow. An invasion like that would ultimately fail, and if we include all other non-military costs associated with it, such an offensive would be catastrophic not just for the Kremlin, but for Russia as a whole.

Other scenarios involving the capture of major cities and individual regions are also unlikely, because they would give Russia no political gain. However, a multi-pronged attack could still be employed in an effort to stretch Ukrainian defenses thin.

We maintain that mass bombing and missile strikes that would lead to civilian deaths are also unrealistic, as they would disrupt the Kremlin’s aspirations to win over “the hearts and minds” of Ukrainian citizens. Even Putin’s most ardent Ukrainian supporters would reconsider their allegiance in this case.

Surgical missile and air strikes against military targets or critical infrastructure would either be used to accompany a ground operation, or for psychological pressure.

Moscow is likely to try and manufacture a pretext for some kind of action against Ukraine, for example, somewhere around Donbas. This would legitimize using Russian troops on Ukrainian soil. In general, an escalation in eastern Ukraine remains highly likely.

Various forms of hybrid warfare remain highly likely as well: misinformation campaigns, political destabilization, and eroding institutional trust. This could include physical attacks, too: acts of terror, sabotage, and cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure elements.

In general, our prediction about how the conflict will unfold has not changed much compared to the assessment we made some weeks ago.

We will cover the possibility of a direct attack on Kyiv after examining the risk of attack from the sea.

The Black Sea and Sea of Azov 

Maritime risks for Ukraine are changing still, due to Moscow sending additional ships to the Black Sea from its Pacific and Northern fleets. For instance, twelve large Russian amphibious assault ships have been deployed to the Black Sea.

These ships are estimated to carry around two full marine brigades – roughly 4,000 troops and 250 military vehicles. This force could be aimed to land somewhere on Ukraine’s coast, in particular – in the Kherson region.

Combined with Russian paratroopers in Crimea, this creates the risk of a military operation in southern Ukraine.

Under the pretext of a military exercise, leveraging their naval supremacy, Moscow has effectively blockaded the Black Sea and Sea of Azov until Feb. 19.

Russia is testing its capabilities and gauging a potential response by engaging in this provocation. Together with assembling landing parties, this could serve as a distraction for Ukraine’s military command and the international community.

Our naval forecast remains negative for now, but it is highly dependent on how Ukraine and the rest of the world will react to this blockade. Only a strong collective response could prevent this provocation from reoccurring.

Defending Kyiv

Most of everyone’s attention seems to be devoted to the question of Kyiv’s defense.

Given Moscow’s strategic goal of restoring control over Ukraine, the capture of its capital will make that much easier to achieve.

Russian troops in Belarus and Russia itself do indeed pose a threat to northern Ukraine and Kyiv. Troop numbers are theoretically sufficient for a dash for the capital. But only theoretically.

If they go for a breakthrough push in Chernihiv, Zhytomyr, or Kyiv regions, Moscow’s forces will incur unacceptably devastating losses. This scenario seems too risky for Russia, currently.

Given the forces and resources devoted to Kyiv’s defense, seizing the capital will hardly be a “cheaper” version of a large-scale invasion.

Ukrainian armed forces would be capable of defending against Russian airborne divisions sent to seize airports, railway stations and bridges. Even still, the Russian National Guard and infantry would have to be deployed to hold captured territory.

A ground advance to Kyiv would be very slow against the resistance of the many-layered defense of the Northern Army Command, bolstered with the Joint Forces Operation. All these Ukrainian regiments are quite ready.

Not to mention, maintaining a hold on a major city with more than 3 million residents – many of whom are prepared to resist an occupation attempt – is a difficult task that seems unrealistic, given how many troops it would take, versus what Moscow actually has at its disposal today.

Kyiv is a challenging city to cordon off, due to its complex topography, and so resistance forces will be pouring in from all over Ukraine. This makes a prolonged occupation of the capital by the enemy impossible, and their attempt to do so – unlikely.

Russia would also be wrong to expect any meaningful swaths of local population to support their occupation. We’re a long way off 2014: Ukraine is very well-versed in dealing with the Kremlin’s “fellow travelers” swiftly, harshly and professionally. And since Crimea and areas of Donbas remain under Russian occupation, they cannot provide manpower to stir up unrest ahead of an invasion. Moscow’s voice does not hold the same sway over Ukraine it did eight years ago.

And finally, only authoritarians would think that capturing the capital would be beneficial. Democratic Ukraine won’t fall even if Kyiv is lost. Any puppet government Putin installs will not be recognized by neither Ukraine itself, nor the world at large. It’s folly to expect Ukraine fall into one’s lap once its capital is seized.

At any rate, anything Moscow might try and pull of in Kyiv won’t take the city by surprise.

Ukraine’s combat readiness

Ukraine is ready to defend itself, including the capital city of Kyiv. We spoke with numerous officials while writing this article, and can confirm that no one is oblivious to the threat the country faces. Any attempt to push deep into Ukrainian territory will be met with very substantial resistance by our armed forces.

We have concluded that Ukraine’s defensive capabilities have substantially increased in the recent weeks.

Firstly, our arsenal has expanded dramatically, including thanks to the shipments from our international partners.

Secondly, some of our troops have been redeployed close to the border with Belarus before commencing military exercises of their own.

Thirdly, Ukraine is drilling its military on how to properly coordinate in response to corresponding events. That is to say, Ukraine’s armed forces are currently on the highest alert.

These developments clearly indicate that our military and political leadership is keenly aware of the threats the country is facing and is responding to them accordingly. Additionally, there has been a recent surge in expanding and training Territorial Defense Forces.

While it hardly means that these volunteer brigades are 100% ready for action, tens of thousands of Ukrainians are morally and physically ready for an attack, and will act accordingly, in a coordinated manner.

A level of readiness this high means that any of the scenarios of a Russian attack we’ve discussed – let alone the mad dash for Kyiv – are made much more challenging to try and pull off.

Thanks to unseasonably warm weather, Moscow’s armor will move slowly, getting stuck in the mud and suffering highly-publicized heavy casualties, of which Russian citizens will be well-aware thanks to social media. 

Are ordinary Russians prepared for images of their tanks – ablaze and for hundreds and thousands of their countrymen – killed in action? A rhetorical question, of course.

The Kremlin’s approval slides down, while a war with Ukraine remains unpopular, due to the “fear of a real war.” Not to mention, the war would trigger the “sanctions from hell” against Russia and multiply support for Ukraine. The sanctions, meanwhile, could lead to tensions and discontent among Russian elites.

Considering all of the above, we conclude that Russia rushing to seize Kyiv offensive remains unlikely.

World leaders’ rationale

So why then U.S. officials are sounding alarm about the direst of these scenarios?

Well, among the many options Russia has considered, there may very well be plans for any number of large-scale offensives, including those aiming at our capital. If we were isolated internationally, apathetic and disunited internally – Putin may have decided to go through with it.

Moscow constantly updates and adapts its plans based on recent developments, Ukrainian, and global response.

Since we remain locked in a hybrid war with the Kremlin, there is value in using intelligence in both offense and defense. Our Western partners are clearly of the opinion that publicly talking about Russian internal planning is a deterrent – “we know what you’re up to, and are ready for it.”

Seizing the initiative from Moscow, rejecting the very notion of starting a major war, the readiness to instantly respond – it all serves to restrain Putin.

What should the civilians do?

We ought to remain ready to repel, resist and retaliate, should the enemy strike. Cool heads and the steady hands of local populations often decide the course of history.

For now, we see our citizenry reacting correctly. There is no panic, and frequently updated opinion polls clearly show that Ukrainians would not accept Russian occupation and are ready for active resistance, despite concerted propaganda efforts by the Kremlin’s spin doctors.

Private citizens and local businesses can always help our Territorial Defense forces – they would welcome anyone’s support.

It’s crucial we remain calm and collected. It’s also crucial that we engage with civil defense and volunteer brigades, prepare for the necessity to defend our homes block-by-block, street-by-street, and let our security service know of potential agent provocateurs we might spot in our midst.

Ukrainians are proving to the entire world and themselves that they have resolved to defend themselves and their way of life. This is the very essence of a successful defense.

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