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What Would a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Look Like?

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 Odesa, 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 that 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.

The 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.

This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.