My recent post analyzing what might happen if Putin invades eastern Ukraine has generated much discussion and some excellent comments. I’m posting a recent one by Jim A. (who, full disclosure, I know “in real life” and served in the Navy with; he possesses vast expertise in matters Russian and military), which offers a different perspective that merits your pondering:
Well, it’s probably cold comfort, particularly to those facing them, but I don’t think all those Russian troops massed along the Ukrainian border are as battle-ready as their chain of command would like us to think. The overwhelming majority are 12-month conscripts, and so probably of less utility than one might think. Russian law requires that Russian conscripts may not be sent to a combat zone until they have had at least six months of training, but six months’ training produces a very basic soldier, not one capable of a whole lot more. The draft cycles run in fall and spring which probably leaves Russia with pretty narrow windows for launching a military campaign: the spring 2014 class isn’t fully trained up yet, while the Fall 2013 class is already antsy short-timers. In terms of trained soldier availability though, I might invade in late August to early September to best take advantage of Russia’s available conscript manpower. That also just happens to be the same time of year when Russian runs its annual set-piece military exercises. Thanks to Russia’s archaic military manpower system, the upcoming six weeks are the most potentially dangerous for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Numbers weren’t a problem for the Russian military of the past, but they are now. The mass mobilization force of the Cold War is long gone, and there is little in the way of a reserve force. I don’t mean to suggest the Russian buildup should not be taken seriously, it should, but rather the Russian Ground Troops and VDV have some real personnel impediments to their effective employment. This was supposed to have been fixed with the introduction of a professional enlisted force and NCO corps, which was one of the original planks of the Noviy Oblik (New Look) reforms of 2008-2009, but this has been walked back several times now due to the failure of sufficient qualified recruits. Both the VDV and Ground Troops have attempted to deal with this through implementation of Permanently Ready battalions (battalions, not brigades here, e.g, always fully manned. mostly with professionals), but even this will may be hard for them to sustain.
Even though the most opportune time for the Russians in terms of manpower is just now opening up, they’re probably lost strategic momentum. The “surprise the enemy” train has long since left the station, Russia has lost whatever international goodwill it formerly had. Should they choose to invade, they’ll be choosing an enemy who’s alert, already mobilized (such as they are) and who has history of fighting a multiyear insurgency. If Putin invades, he’d need to win quickly in order to retain much support, but the odds of military success are against him there. Backing down isn’t likely part of his calculus, since there’s no saving grace there. The best I think he can hope for is another frozen conflict.
I think Jim’s hit the nail on the head there: a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine probably is the best outcome now for the Kremlin, with a lot of dead people to get there. Think Nagorno-Karabakh, a not-all-that-frozen frozen conflict (just yesterday Azerbaijan’s president had an epic Twitter rant that all but declared war on Armenia over that one, after twenty years of sorta-peace), but on a far grander scale, in a place much more vital to European security.
I also concur that, if he wanted war, Putin should have struck months ago, when Ukraine was even less ready militarily and psychologically to resist, with Kyiv till reeling from the shock of Crimea’s near-bloodless loss. Now, Russia will have a real war on its hands if it crosses the Ukrainian frontier in strength. Let’s hope the Kremlin reconsiders. I think we’ll know what’s going to happen rather soon.