Today NATO stated that Russia has amassed about 20,000 battle-ready troops near the border of eastern Ukraine and stands ready to intervene in the war raging around Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian-backed paramilitaries are losing ground to Kyiv’s forces. Ukraine has been making slow yet steady progress in its “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) against Moscow’s proxies in eastern Ukraine and it’s now clear that, if the Kremlin does not directly intervene in the conflict — beyond the artillery support from across the border that the Russian military has been providing its paramilitaries for weeks — it’s likely that the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) will soon unravel altogether. NATO has warned that Moscow may send troops across the border under the guise of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission (observers have spotted Russian military vehicles near the border pre-painted with “peacekeeping” insignia), in a Putinesque version of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine that the Obama administration cited in its 2011 Libya intervention.
While the Ukrainian military has made considerable progress against DNR and LNR forces, it must be kept in mind that Moscow’s proxies represent a third-rate force of mercenaries and volunteers, mostly with antiquated weaponry, some dating to the 1940s, under the guidance of Russian military intelligence (GRU). Fighting against Russian regular forces would present Kyiv with a far greater challenge. Not least because the Ukrainian media is replete with tales of woe from the forces waging the ATO around Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine is now paying the price for more than twenty years of neglect of its armed forces after independence in 1991. Logistics are a mess, supplies of even ammunition are haphazard, while Ukrainian forces are rife with Russian spies; officers as senior as a major general have been arrested for passing classified information about troop deployments to Moscow. Worse, the standards of training are inadequate, with many volunteers being dispatched to the front with minimal refresher time (most Ukrainian troops previously served, usually as conscripts, in the military, but frequently many years ago). It’s no exaggeration to state that most Ukrainian army units are learning to fight by fighting. Against DNR and LNR militias, such on-the-job improvisation has worked more often than not, but against elite Russian forces it will invite disaster.
From the outset in any clash, Moscow’s forces will enjoy considerable fire superiority in artillery — long a Russian forte — and airpower; high losses to date among Ukrainian air force units in close air support missions indicate inexperience and it is to be expected that the Russian air force will sweep Ukrainian opponents from the skies, at least around Donetsk and Luhansk, with relative ease. One wonders how well mostly green Ukrainian ground units will withstand hard pummeling by artillery and air strikes.
While NATO says there are fifteen or more battalion battle-groups of Russian ground forces, 20,000 or so men in all, poised to invade, the true number may well be higher, given longstanding Kremlin acumen in denial and deception, what the Russians call maskirovka. The actual figure may be closer to 40,000 troops within a short distance of the Ukrainian frontier. Latest information indicates that these battle-groups are drawn from Russia’s best ground forces: the 4th Tank and 2nd Motorized Rifle Divisions, the 76th and 106th Airborne (VDV) Divisions and the 31st VDV Brigade, the 23rd Motor Rifle Brigade, plus unidentified units of Naval Infantry (i.e. Marines), and experienced GRU special forces (SPETSNAZ). Many of these units contributed to the Kremlin’s near-bloodless seizure of the Crimea in the spring and should be considered the best that Russia has. Most of these combat units are composed of professionals, not conscripts, and Ukraine’s improvised forces are by and large no match for them.
Russian readiness is the outcome of serious, long-overdue defense reforms commenced in 2008 under then-Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, that aimed to produce a smaller, more professional and combat-ready army. Missteps in the brief 2008 Georgia war demonstrated continuing problems with the Russian military that needed fundamental repair. No longer would Russia base its ground forces on a mass-mobilization model, opting instead for higher-readiness units better able to respond to regional crises. Given the vast sums Moscow has spent on its military in recent years, it would be unwise to underestimate its combat prowess when fighting close to home, as in Ukraine, with the support of a Russian public that is supercharged with nationalism and eager to settle scores with the “Nazis” ruling in Kyiv.
That said, conquering Southeastern Ukraine — to say nothing of creating “Novorossiya” by driving along the Black Sea coast to establish a bridgehead to Transdnistria, as Russian nationalists advocate openly — is a very different proposition than taking Crimea. Not only would this operation be vastly greater in size and scope, but Ukrainian forces can be expected to resist mightily. The capability, not will, of Kyiv’s forces in defense of their country is the question, following months of Moscow’s depredations and dirty dealing. While Ukrainian forces will lose the fight for Donetsk and Luhansk if the Russians invade, this will be no cakewalk, and Moscow would be very unwise to think different. Having lost Crimea, the Ukrainian public is in no mood to give in to the Kremlin without stiff resistance.
If Moscow intervenes openly in Southeastern Ukraine, it will start a war it cannot win. Conquering territory is one thing; pacifying it, in the face of serious resistance, is quite another, as the U.S. military discovered in Iraq a decade ago. Russia’s new model army lacks the manpower it once possessed, and by creating a smaller, more professional force, Moscow has made the occupation of Ukraine impossible without a large-scale mobilization that may not be popular with the Russian public, particularly as casualty rolls expand rapidly. Big battalions of the sort Napoleon recommended Moscow no longer has in abundance. As the Russian defense analyst Aleksandr Golts recently explained, “Even if the Kremlin has managed to mass approximately 40,000 servicemen on Ukraine’s borders, this is absolutely insufficient for occupation. Absolutely no fewer than 100,000 men and officers would be required for this. But we simply don’t have them.” Unless Vladimir Putin wants to embroil Russia in a protracted war for Ukraine that will bear no resemblance to the walkover Anschluss with Crimea, he would be well advised to reconsider invasion. This will no longer be Special War, but a real war — one which may not be possible to limit to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, Russia has a long habit of invading places in August — East Prussia and Galicia (1914), Poland (1920), Manchuria (1945), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Georgia (2008) — so all bets may be off. It’s clear that Putin is reluctant to back down in the face of Western economic pressure, scoldings, and admonitions, not least because consistently doubling-down has worked well for him many times in the past. I have no crystal ball, but if we learn in a few days, perhaps this weekend, that Russian “peacekeepers” are moving by the battalion into Southeastern Ukraine, you won’t count me among the surprised.