A full invasion of Ukraine, in a bid to pacify the capital, Kiev, would lead Vladimir Putin to start a war on a scale never seen from Iraq in 2003, prompting Western experts to question whether a lasting Russian victory could be obtained.
Estimates suggest that around 100,000 Russian troops are massing near Ukraine’s borders. Still, experts following the crisis closely say that for a nationwide invasion that number would almost double again and would almost certainly involve forces passing through Belarus.
Dr Fred Kagan, senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, said: “This will likely require an invasion on a scale similar to 2003, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 troops.”
He predicted that a force of this size could be in place by the end of January. Approximately 175,000 American and Allied troops participated in the invasion of Iraq.
Is occupation possible?
Kagan, who co-authored a series of reports that led to the increase in US troops in Iraq in 2007, said the real challenge for Putin was how an almost certainly hostile Ukraine could be held by the Russians s ‘there was an insurgency after the capture of Kiev. .
A specific operation would require one counterinsurgent for every 20 residents, Kagan said in an article he co-wrote with other experts from the Institute for the Study of War. This “would suggest a counterinsurgency force requirement in the order of 325,000 people” would be needed to hold Kiev and Ukraine’s main cities in the south and east, they added.
Ukraine has an army of 145,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), but there are also around 300,000 veterans of the low-intensity conflict in the Donbass region of the country that began in 2014. According to a survey, a A third of Ukrainian citizens would be ready to engage in “armed resistance”.
Burned by the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, Russia generally viewed America’s attempts to hold countries against insurgents as a mistake. “Putin will have studied what happened to the United States in Iraq after 2003. The difficulties of managing partisan activities open my mind to the possibility that the Russian president does not intend to invade and conquer Ukraine, ”Kagan told The Guardian.
Nonetheless, Moscow has overwhelming advantages in terms of the initial invasion, especially in terms of rockets and air power. Ukraine faces potentially terrifying consequences, in a general assault that could shatter a country’s morale and cause millions to flee west, rather than fight.
Rob Lee, former US Navy and member of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said: “Russia has the capacity to devastate Ukrainian military units from a distance with weapons such as the Iskander ballistic missiles. We hardly ever see modern weapons like this unleashed; it gives Russia the capacity to inflict thousands of casualties per day.
A military assault will also have a transformative effect on international opinion. Massive civilian casualties are almost certain, amounting to an operation unlike almost any Putin has carried out before, including the war with Ukraine in 2014, where responsibility for military action has been denied.
Dr Samir Puri, senior researcher at IISS, who has already spent a year as a conflict observer in Ukraine, said: “It is difficult to imagine a complete invasion without the use of air power, but it is such a huge threshold for Russia. to cross.”
Much has been said about Ukraine’s recent arms purchase in the west, but Javelin anti-tank missiles have a range of around 2.5 km and can only delay a mechanized advance.
The country currently has a relatively small number of Turkish TB2 drones, half a dozen or a dozen, tiny compared to the thousands of Russian tanks, the core of any land force.
Russia must also decide how to deal with Ukrainian cities, mainly Kiev, with a population of 3 million, but also Kharkiv in the northeast, with a population of almost 1.5 million. “Urban warfare is difficult, it causes appalling damage and Russia fought with it in Aleppo,” Kagan said, citing Putin’s intervention in the civil war in Syria.
Speculation about Russia’s plans – based in part on apparent leaks published in the German newspaper Bild – suggests that the Kremlin would surround Kharkiv and ultimately Kiev, cutting off supplies, hoping in medieval fashion that they will surrender. It may be less violent, but it would still undermine the idea of Russia acting as a unifying force.
Surrounding Kiev is not easy either, according to Western analysts. Key points of the city, including the Presidential Palace, lie to the west of the easily defensible Dnieper River. The first bridges south of the city are 100 km away; a dam four miles to the north has turned the stretch of the river that runs to the border with Belarus into a lake.
The easiest way to cross the river is through safe territory – Belarus in the north. This would require Minsk’s support, which would be highly likely given its recent rapprochement with Moscow. In a speech to mark Orthodox Christmas on January 7, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said his country “do everything” to take back Ukraine.
Russian mechanized forces would aim to surround Kiev from the west. One route is to cross the Pripet Marshes, which freeze in winter, and the Chernobyl region (which is not considered a great complication for a modern army capable of operating in an area of radiation).
An alternative would be to strike further west in Belarus, such as the Baranovich training area. A key sign that Russia is ready to act, Kagan said, will be if “Russian mechanized forces are deployed in Belarus”.
Even if Putin does not invade, a permanent Russian military garrison in Belarus would have advantages for the Kremlin, as a potential threat not only to Ukraine but to the Baltic states to the north. This would “create a large military base which would give Russia air dominance over NATO’s eastern flank,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a researcher at the Chatham House foreign policy think tank.
Putin’s military alternatives
The risks inherent in the invasion and occupation leave experts such as Dr. Taras Kuzio, associate member of the Henry Jackson Society, to argue in a recently published article that an all-out attack is “the least likely” of military scenarios available to Putin. Instead, the Ukrainian expert sees three other options.
In the first, Russia simply occupies and annexes the separatist-controlled part of Donbass, a partial invasion mirroring the Georgian crisis of 2008. It began, Kuzio wrote, after “repeated military provocations” by proxies “leading the way. intervention by Georgian troops ”, giving Putin a pretext to respond.
A second consists of expanding the occupied territory with a land corridor to the previously annexed Crimea, by capturing the coastal town of Mariupol. Russia could also take over other key industrial sites and try to degrade the neighboring Ukrainian army. “They could eliminate Turkish TB2 drones and artillery in Donbass” in an open and limited campaign designed to weaken Ukraine, Lee said.
A final option, said Kuzio, is the “relaunch of the ‘New Russia’ project of 2014” which would attempt to “cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea”. It would be like seizing the south, seizing the port of Odessa and possibly the industrial city of Dnipro.
Taking Odessa, 1 million people, would likely require dramatic air and naval operation, using Crimean paratroopers followed by Marines landing on nearby beaches.
Of these options, annexation of the occupied Donbass would almost certainly be popular in Russia. However, that would be an extremely limited response given the Kremlin’s insistence that its primary focus, as Sergey Ryabkov recently repeated, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister is “NATO’s non-expansion, Ukraine, Georgia and other countries not joining the alliance” – raising concerns about the likelihood of a military campaign.
“You have to take a step back and ask what Russia’s political goals are,” Lee said. “If Russia wants to force a change in Ukraine’s political focus, you can see why the Kremlin might consider military options.”