Mark Galeotti of New York University -
Reports of an armoured Russian incursion surfaced over the weekend, but how close is Russia to invading Ukraine? It will take more than a few APCs to invade Ukraine.
Amidst the contradictory reports of an armored Russian incursion, met and repulsed by Ukrainian artillery, it is inevitable that the talk is of Moscow moving to a new level; of the inevitability of war—or that it has already started.
Ukrainian President Poroshenko has accused Moscow of planning a “direct invasion.” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen claimed a “high probability” of such an intervention. Military logic would suggest that Russia is neither invading nor wants to, though. The question becomes: how far is logic in the driving seat? And if this is no prelude for invasion, does it mean the conflict is nearing an end?
British journalists on the ground saw a force of 23 armored personnel carriers (APCs) and their logistical support vehicles cross the Ukrainian border near the M4 highway which leads to rebel-held Lugansk and Donetsk. This is not the stuff invasions are made of. Russian mechanized forces blend tanks, infantry in APCs, artillery and air-defense elements to combine offensive punch and defensive strength. On their own, APCs are vulnerable, little more than lightly-armored trucks.
If the Russians ever come genuinely to invade, then it will come as a thunderbolt, with massed airstrikes and artillery bombardments intended to shatter the command structures, supply lines, morale and cohesion of the Ukrainian forces. Moscow would use its overwhelming air superiority to strike deep into Ukraine, not least to prevent quick reinforcement of the frontline forces, cratering runways to prevent aircraft taking off and landing, blasting bridges and ripping railway lines. Meanwhile, its special forces, the infamous Spetsnaz, would spread chaos as they have been trained to do, with sabotage, assassination and misdirection, supported by a massive cyberattack intended to shut down Ukrainian communications.
The reason for this “shock and awe” approach is not only because it is envisaged by Russian doctrine, but also reflects the way that Russia’s tactical advantage has steadily been eroded over recent months. August is one of the ideal times for Russia to launch military adventures, because its spring cohort of conscripts are now fully trained, fit and deployed to their units, but not yet so close to demobilization that discipline and readiness have begun to suffer.
However, while Russia still has perhaps 40,000 troops on the border, Ukraine’s security forces have regained much of their operational capacity after the near-crippling collapse of the chain of command following the fall of Yanukovych. Three mobilizations have seen reservists called back into the ranks, and nationalists have been encouraged to volunteer for National Guard, a force which has born the brunt of much recent fighting.
While the National Guards — who range from convinced patriots through to avowed neo-Nazis — have in the main received only the most basic of training and in many cases suffer from problems with discipline and restraint, nonetheless they represent an extra force of some 35,000 fighters. Furthermore, the country has 77,000 regular troops and 35,000 Interior Ministry security troops.
In this context, should Moscow be contemplating direct military intervention, then unless it is willing to strip forces from its other commands and borders—something which would be expensive and impossible to conceal from spy satellites and social media photographers alike—it would have to rely on the ‘force multipliers’ of technological superiority, surprise and disruption to have any hope of victory.
Any hope is not the same as much hope, though. Such an invasion would not only galvanize Ukraine’s resistance (and there are still thousands more reservists to muster if need be), it would trigger an unprecedented Western reaction. While there is no real prospect of NATO personnel intervening, everything from direct transfers of hardware through to extensive intelligence and electronic support would be forthcoming, along with a sanctions regime designed to do everything possible to cripple the Russian economy.
Whatever the success of the initial onslaught, Russian advances would likely be met with resistance by the Ukrainian units on the ground. Even if fighting piecemeal, with no common strategy, they would likely inflict serious losses on the attackers.
Putin would thus be denied his preferred tactic, a rapid and unexpected revision of the truths on the ground, presenting the West with a fait accompli (think Crimea, think Georgia). He would also know that very soon Russians would start to notice the costs of this war, from a flow of ‘Cargo 200s’—the Russian designation for fatal casualties—to serious economic costs.
Of course, one could respond that this is a logic that might not resonate with the new-model Putin of his third presidential term, a man increasingly clearly driven by a sense of a nationalist mission. Or, indeed, that he may not even be aware of these stark realities. It is certainly clear that he now listens to a much smaller circle of allies and confidants, none of whom are in the military. One could look back to the fateful decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979, when the prescient and urgent concerns of the General Staff were never conveyed to the Soviet leadership by a defense minister who valued his relationship with General Secretary Brezhnev over his professional duties.
Nonetheless, despite German Chancellor Merkel’s claim that Putin is in “another world,” there is little reason to think that the Kremlin is at all eager for a military adventure that promises massive risks and minimal chances of a quick and easy victory.
Indeed, behind the rattling sabers, the Russians appear to have stepped up their efforts to reach some diplomatic resolution. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkin in Berlin on August 17, following a meeting between presidential chiefs of staff Sergei Ivanov and Borys Lozhkin. Ivanov is a close Putin ally and generally considered a hawk, so his participation was especially significant.
Rather than gearing up for an invasion, Moscow is hoping rather to be able to negotiate its way to some face-saving formula which would allow Putin to abandon the increasingly-expensive political liability that is Novorossiya while claiming it as a success.
And that Russian “invasion force”? That was probably just one more consignment of military materiel intended to help the rebels hold the line long enough for Putin to get his deal. After all, according to Aleksandr Zakharchenko, new head of the Donetsk People's Republic, they have already received at least 30 tanks and 120 APCs, and this is likely a distinct understatement.
But even if Russia does not plan or want an invasion, that hardly means it cannot continue to cause serious, even critical trouble for Ukraine. Indeed, even the falloff Lugansk and Donetsk, which would effectively end any coordinated insurrection, would not necessarily bring peace.
After all, the essence of Russia’s new doctrine of “non-linear war” means using everything from economic leverage to subversion and sabotage to pressurize countries to making the desired concessions. Take out the rebellion and still the Kremlin has a wealth of weapons in its arsenal, from gas shutoffs and intelligence operations, through economic penetration backing friendly politicians, to empowering criminals and strategic leaks and rumors.
So, the military aspect of Russia’s campaign looks unlikely to be about to escalate. But without some political settlement between Moscow and Kiev, it is likely simply to be succeeded by a more covert but equally destructive phase of underground subversion.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SCPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University, who writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/).
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