Is large-scale war in Ukraine likely?

24 January 2022, 06:28 PM

A good number of political leaders and experts have suggested that there’s a high risk of a substantial Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This analysis by Center of Defense Strategies experts Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Alina Frolova, and Oleksiy Pavliuchyk was originally published in Ukrainian by the Ukrainska Pravda news website. The New Voice has translated it and is republishing it with permission.

Among various scenarios, the possibility of a complete or partial military occupation of Ukraine is a topic of vigorous debate.

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Such a turn of events is actively discussed by Western pundits and officials. Some say it’s a matter of weeks, or even days.

But how likely is it, and what is to be done about it? Well, in a nutshell:

·       A full-scale invasion of Ukraine, followed by an occupation of all or most of its territory, seems unlikely.

·       There are, however, a number of other ways Russian military action could play out.

·       Ukraine should avoid panicking and focus on preparing to repel any assault on itself.

As it stands, the situation around our borders is complex and highly dynamic, with fresh intelligence leading to daily forecast updates.

Let’s get into the detail.

How likely is a large-scale invasion of entirety or majority of Ukraine, in the short term?

The forces Moscow has amassed around Ukraine to date would not be sufficient to carry out a strategic offensive in Ukraine.

Based on the data provided below, we estimate that a large-scale combined arms Russian operation against Ukraine could not be conducted for at least the next two-three weeks.

As of Jan. 23, there is no indication that a several-hundred-thousand-strong Russian invasion force can be assembled, either on our border, or even deep in the Russian heartland.

Similarly, there is no evidence of Moscow creating strategic reserves that would be necessary for military action on this scale, or of Russians conducting essential mobilization deployment.

Russian artillery and rocket artillery is being moved around in tactical groups. Mechanized infantry, tanks and paratroopers are largely deployed in battalions and tactical groups, as well.

Along the likely invasion routes, Moscow is still not done with forming the requisite strike groups. The military command-and-control system is neither deployed nor tested yet.

Preparations for a large-scale operation would have been much more obvious.

It follows, then, that we should explore military threat posed by 127,000 Russian troops deployed around the Ukrainian border. This number has remained virtually constant since April, 2021. This number of troops would not be enough for a full-scale offensive.

There are, however, ways that this number of Russian troops could be increased:

·       Forming new divisions and brigades in Russia’s Southern and Western military districts.

·       Redeployment of additional Russian forced to Belarus, under the guise of military exercises.

·       Using military training areas near Ukraine and in the occupied Crimea to deploy Russian army and navy forces, as well as paratroopers.

·       Further deployment of Russian forces 150-300km away from the Ukrainian border

Additionally, Moscow could redeploy its high-alert, combat-ready regiments with combat experience closer to Ukraine, but this too would take some time.

According to some reports, Russia’s National Guard underwent a series of drills last year that tested their combat deployment in Crimea and Belarus.

This could indicate that the Kremlin is gearing for some kind of military action in the Ukrainian territories it controls, most notably – in eastern Ukraine. Russia is also actively building up its army food and fuel supply stockpiles.

The number of deployed field hospitals, as well as deployment of medical corps regiments are some of the key indicators of major invasion preparations. Currently there is no evidence for Russia’s army medical corps being ready to support a possible military operation.

In general, the experts seem to agree that key indicators and intelligence are not pointing towards the Russian military getting ready to conduct a strategic offensive, at least for now.

As it stands, deployed Russian forces in their current numbers and structure, are not sufficient for an all-out war with Ukraine, and would remain so without considerably more time and resources.

Is a major Russian offensive likely in 2022 then?

Even judging by military considerations alone, a large-scale Russian offensive in Ukraine this year seems unlikely.

First of all, such an undertaking calls for several hundred thousand professional – not conscripted – combat-ready troops, and for now Moscow falls short of that.

Second, recently formed Russian divisions and brigades would have to be properly drilled and integrated into a robust command and control system before they could carry out combat duties.

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Third, an effective and resilient supply chain would have to be established to provide logistical support for an invading force. That entails establishing strategic reserves and logistics centers, including on Ukrainian territory under Moscow’s control.

Fourth, the Kremlin could hardly expect to be able to effectively occupy and pacify captured Ukrainian territory in the face of national resistance, Russia’s experience in Syria or elsewhere notwithstanding.

In general, a major offensive, followed by efforts to occupy large swaths of captured territory, is a dubious endeavor which Russia has little chance of pulling off. It’s impossible to predict how an operation like that would develop, and the whole plan will quickly unravel and devolve into a chaotic mess.

Beyond military costs, international sanctions and isolation, that are sure to follow a gamble like that, will spell the end for Russian ruling elite. If we grant that Putin and his cronies are not yet bereft of rationality, we conclude that he would not dare to invade and occupy Ukraine or large parts of it.

What are some of the more probable scenarios?

Given the current situation and surrounding trends, we can foresee several scenarios that could develop individually or in some combination with each other:

•   Hybrid warfare – the default scenario that is currently underway and will serve as the basis for any other potential developments.

It is sure to include more cyber-attacks than we’ve already seen, and of greater severity. Psychological warfare, utilizing such common tactics as misinformation campaigns and fake bomb threats against public infrastructure, will certainly remain a constant presence, with a high probability of ramping up.

Sabotage against elements of critical infrastructure: power plants, cell towers, IT infrastructure, government communications and transportation. Destabilizing the country and demoralizing its population are the main objectives of this approach.

A secondary objective would be to strain the psychological endurance of law enforcement, the armed forces, and activists by maintaining a constant threat level, punctuated by moments of crisis and escalation. These efforts could remain an element of hybrid warfare, or serve as preparations for a more substantial military offensive.

•   A major military operation in eastern Ukraine remains a very credible threat, which could be accompanied with Russian troops crossing the border and entering areas that are under control of Russian proxy forces. A heating up of combat operations along the frontline could follow.

Some kind of provocation could give Moscow a pretext to engage in this sort of escalation. Likely, a false-flag operation that would see Russian citizens killed by “Ukrainian forces” in Russia-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine.

Despite Kyiv having no plans to conduct any offensives, our allies and partners have warned of this exact kind of provocation that would grant Moscow an excuse to act.

•   Another possible development to be on the lookout for would be a significant security crisis in the Black Sea/Sea of Azov region. It would entail closing the Kerch straits for Ukrainian ships, crippling the regional economy.

The possibility of such a maritime crisis was a topic of discussion for the past couple years, and could include Russia seizing the island of Zmiinyi, and landing troops (or posturing as being poised to land troops) on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. Such actions could serve a feint or be a part of a wider escalation campaign.

•            Belarus being used to deploy and station Russian troops.

Given the current Russian troop movement into Belarus under the guise of military exercises, this scenario is very likely. Once deployed there, Russian military would be enabled to conduct any number of activities and provocations aimed at Ukraine. Increased activity among Russian troops stationed in Moldova’s Transnistria could also be a part of this approach.

•            Missile- or air strikes on elements of military or critical infrastructure. These could be the first salvos in a limited Russian land incursion, seeking to provoke a retaliation from Ukraine’s Armed Forces, or a standalone campaign of sowing panic and disorder among the population.

Could some cities be captured by the Russians?

Moscow has enough troops amassed to capture individual Ukrainian cities. But we still consider this to be unlikely, given how difficult it is to occupy, hold and supply urban centers, while surrounded by Ukrainian forces and faced with active insurgency.

In practical sense, holding scattered Ukrainian cities provides the Kremlin with no political benefits. At the same time, Putin would have to bear a plethora of negative consequences: popular resistance, international sanctions, broader support of Ukraine by its allies. On balance, we think Putin’s calculus would dissuade him from this course of action.

Kyiv, however, is an entirely different matter.

The capital is a crucial strategic focal point of governance and critical infrastructure, and remains the financial, economic and political heart of Ukraine.

In Putin’s eyes, the benefit from blockading Kyiv could easily outweigh the costs of doing so.

This means that defending our capital is of utmost importance and calls for mobilizing all available tools for this effort: the armed forces, military reserves, the National Guard, law enforcement, security services and population as a whole.

Diplomatic efforts

The diplomatic struggle around Ukraine remains rather intense.

Our envoys are lobbying relentlessly for urgent increases in international military aid that would bolster our defensive capabilities. They are joined by retired allied commanders and diplomats, various think tanks, all laboring to rally everyone they can to Ukraine’s cause.

Our natural strategic partner – the United States – provided us with military aid worth record $650 million, and there are plans to expand it this year.

The UK is helping Ukraine shore up its navy, and has recently sent us anti-tank weaponry.

Other allies, such as Canada, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Turkey, are also indispensable in their contributions to our ability to defend ourselves.

What should Ukraine do to defend and protect itself?

Once we examine the more realistic scenarios of Russian attack, Ukraine possesses considerable capacity to defend against them.

First of all, there are our armed forces, bolstered by the reservists of the Territorial Defense Force and other such elements. Given sound leadership and competent execution, Ukraine’s military is capable of halting the enemy’s advance and inflicting devastating, if not fatal, losses on them.

Second, the secret ingredient that differentiates Ukraine from Russia is our civil society and its tremendous capacity for consolidation and mobilization. Ukrainians are more than able to resist invaders via a variety of asymmetric means of guerrilla warfare, including in the realm of cyber-security.

It is vital that we keep our citizens appraised of the risks faced by the country, so that panic can be avoided, and the social energy and efforts are directed into concrete resistance, self-defense and insurgency activities.

Remaining calm, focused and determined is absolutely paramount. Our foes count on us losing our cool, panicking and getting demoralized. After all, this remains the main objective of their hybrid warfare operations.

A large-scale military offensive becomes much more likely if we allow the enemy to gain psychological upper hand.

Remaining sane and rational despite misinformation campaigns and disruptions of our daily lives due to sabotage – Ukraine should be able to accomplish, given that we’ve spent the last eight years at war.

We are faced with a persistent, systemic threat, and therefore have to learn to live with it, without losing our minds and allowing our emotions to run rampant.

Self-confidence provides a massive boost to one’s resolve and level-headedness. To that effect, we ought to clearly understand that our armed forces, in concord with the efforts of our allies and popular resistance, can prevent the capture of most of Ukraine and its individual regions.

We should also realize that the country is serious about this threat, and is seriously preparing to face it, come what may.

Getting ready for war is our main task. Making sure that we are ready for an attack when it comes is absolutely critical.

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