LONG READ: Russia looks poised to invade Ukraine, but what would an invasion actually look like?

LONG READ: Russia looks poised to invade Ukraine, but what would an invasion actually look like?
There is a lot of talk of Russia's imminent invasion of Ukraine. But what would a war actually look like? How much destruction would it cause and how many would die? / Reuters
By Gav Don in Edinburgh November 24, 2021

President Zelenskiy of Ukraine has been sending up distress flares for the past fortnight, ever since Russian forces participating in the quadrennial Zapad 21 (West 21) military exercises did not return to their normal bases across Russia, but instead remained parked close to Ukraine’s border.  

The US intelligence services raised the alarm at the end of October by sharing intelligence reports with the press and have since claimed this is the most “dangerous time since 2014,” when Russian annexed the Crimea, setting off a storm of speculation as to if Russia was intending to invade Ukraine. Needless to say, the Kremlin has denied it, accusing the West of whipping up “hysteria” and claiming its own troop movements inside Russia are its own business, but in any case it is not intending to attack anyone. 

Political and diplomatic analysis is widespread (and we add some at the end of this article), but the media narrative as yet contains no open-source analysis of how an invasion of Ukraine would work. Where would Russia go? How many troops on both sides would die, or receive life-changing injuries? How long would an invasion take, and what would be its end-point? All geopolitical disputes ultimately take place within the context of what is possible at the military level. Below we present our analysis of that military sphere.

Close, but not very much

Accurate and detailed information on military deployments on both sides is naturally thin on the ground, but it appears that units of the 1st Combined Arms Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army totalling some 92,000 men are disposed at Yelnya, 250 km north of Ukraine’s northern border.  

The latter arrived there from the west, from Zapad 21, but the former have been brought from the east. Yelnya is not, in reality, “close” to Ukraine’s border – it faces the middle of Russia’s border with Belarus and points on to the Baltic states and Poland – but it is on a railway line which heads east to Bryansk, which is on the Ukrainian border, where it joins the Moscow-Kyiv line, a total rail distance of around 400 km.  

We don’t have detailed information on how fast Russian forces are able to entrain and detrain heavy equipment, but even a well-practised force takes time to move by rail. At a rate of two brigades per day it might take this force ten days to deploy in full to the northern leg of the Ukraine/Russia frontier, which brings into focus that word “close”.

Step one – take control of the air

If it decided to invade, Russia’s first task would be to destroy Ukraine’s small air force (a few dozen Soviet-era air superiority and ground attack aircraft) and its even smaller attack and logistics helicopter forces, either on the ground or in the air. That job would take little time at small cost. Ukrainian air bases are well known and can be attacked from two directions – from the north by Russian strike aircraft and by medium-range conventional rocket forces, and from the south by cruise missiles launched by the Russian Navy and from Crimea.

Russian aircraft are one or two generations ahead of the post-Soviet leftovers operated by Ukraine, more numerous by a factor of ten to one, and have pilots with double or treble the operational flying time in their logbooks. Russia would obtain control of the air battlespace within two days of the start of a conflict. This phase might begin while Russian forces were still deploying from Yelnya.

Crossing the border, but where?

With complete air control in hand the ground manoeuvre war could begin. This would see Russian forces fighting with the benefit of a recent substantial re-equipment programme, full logistic support and on-call air-ground strike facilities. In contrast, Ukrainian forces would be fighting largely blind (having no airborne reconnaissance assets other than small drones), with older and poorer equipment, and with a logistic tail under constant violent attack by Russian ground attack aircraft, medium-range rockets and cruise missiles.

There is a good reason for delaying deployment until the last minute: Ukraine’s reconnaissance assets may be minimal but those of the US are not, and Washington will be supplying Kyiv with a constant flow of intelligence on Russian troop movements and dispositions. Russia will be unable to obtain complete surprise, but making dispositions quickly and at the last minute will give a small element of tactical surprise, which will reduce Russian battle casualties by a useful number. It must be borne in mind that Moscow has 500 km of Ukrainian border to choose from for an assault, which would be on an army front of rather less than 150 km. The line of approach is not obvious.

To cross or not to cross?

Russia’s big choice will be whether to cross the Dnieper river early or late. This river, never less than 500m wide and for the most part dammed into lakes, divides Ukraine in two.  

At its northern end Kyiv lies largely on its west bank, close to the Russian border. An early forcing of the river at or near Kyiv looks neat, but would result in an urban war in and around Kyiv. Here Russia’s advantages (armour, air strike, artillery, manoeuvre power) would be unusable, while its disadvantages (troop numbers, a wish to avoid civilian casualties, relative motivational mentality) would help Ukraine. An attack on Kyiv might well begin to feel like a re-run of the battle of Stalingrad. Rather, what Moscow would need from an invasion of Ukraine would be a swift unequivocal victory.

That makes the more likely plan a sweep south-east, anchoring the right wing of the Russian assault on the river and the left wing on Russian territory. Air superiority would ensure that Ukrainian forces were unable to cross the Dnieper to threaten Russia’s right flank. The advance south-east would have a battlefront of some 250 km for its whole extent from Russia to Crimea.  

Half-way the attacking force would have to wing to the right, hinging on Zaporozhye. Russian military doctrine allocates 8 km of front to a brigade (of about 5,000 men). A 250-km front would therefore need 30 brigades – 10 more than are poised at Yelnya. The assault would therefore either need reinforcement before it starts, or have to accept a thinner-than-usual deployment.  

That means the 92,000 men currently deployed are only about a third of the number actually needed to invade Ukraine. A lot more soldiers need to be brought to vicinity of the border or in places where they can be rapidly moved into position.  

Turn right at Zaporozhye

At about halfway to Crimea the Russian left flank would reach the Luhansk and Donetsk republics. After the swing right (south-west) towards Crimea and the Black Sea the Russian left flank would rest on the northern shore of the Sea of Azov, completely controlled by the Russian Navy.  

At each point in the advance the strike forces would be only a few hundred kilometres from Russian air bases, from which they can be easily supplied. Logistics flows would track the front from Russian territory with supply lines of only 250 km at their longest.  

After the turn south-west halfway supplies would be supplemented by a flow across the Sea of Azov delivered by Russia’s small Black Sea amphibious forces, until the advance joined up with Russian forces in Crimea.  

A bonus attaching to this route would be the early capture of Ukraine’s two largest oil refineries at Kremenchuk (on the Dnieper) and at Lisichansk (in the Donbas).

In total, an advance along this axis would cover approximately 1,000 km in total, and take in approximately 250,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory.

The ground battle phase would resemble, and likely repeat, the experience of Iraqi forces in 2003. Here 170,000 first-rank Coalition ground troops faced three times that number of Iraqi forces. The latter had no air support, no logistics support and no tactical intelligence beyond what they could see from their own lines. Iraqi forces were comprehensively defeated within a month.

Ukraine’s logistics problems would include a Russian naval blockade of supplies of oil in the Black Sea (national consumption is normally 230,000 barrels per day), and suspension of coal and gas supplies from Russian fields. So while Ukrainian forces were being punished at the battlefront, the economy, civilian life and the logistics tail would be collapsing behind them and across the Dnieper.

Ukrainian resistance collapsing about halfway

Russian forces would certainly face organised and armed Ukrainian units at first, and take casualties in that fight. Working from prepared positions and from cover, defenders would be able to inflict considerable damage on Russian forces moving in the open.  

Russian losses would be larger because of the relatively low ratio of men to space on a wide front, compared to the more numerous but less well-equipped defence.

Damage would include Russian losses to the small number of US Javelin anti-tank guided missiles so far supplied to Ukraine (about 300 missiles in total, minus the one fired in the Donbas yesterday for the first time). Over a short space of time resistance east of the Dnieper would fade through human attrition, through lack of fuel and ammunition supplies to Ukrainian units, and due to intense air attack on defensive forces whenever they tried to move (both in daylight and darkness). With morale and supplies both running out Ukrainian resistance would collapse east of the Dnieper after about a month.

60 days to Crimea

At this point the main obstacle facing the Russian advance would be the friction inherent in moving masses of men and material across a landscape in which transportation infrastructure has been damaged or degraded.  

We have an excellent case study in strategic friction in Iraq-2003, where resistance collapsed in a similar way for similar reasons. In spite of that collapse, Coalition forces still took thirty days to complete a strategic advance of some 500 km across flat open country. We should expect Russian forces to move at a similar rate in the flat, open territory of eastern Ukraine. If that is a correct analysis then Russian forces would expect to reach Crimea after two months, in which the first month sees intense conflict and the second less intense.

With eastern Ukraine under its control Moscow would require a pause to plan the second phase of the invasion (if there is one; Moscow might be satisfied with the east bank and stop there). During this pause Ukraine would be assembling and equipping reserve formations and those parts of its front-line formations which managed to escape across the Dnieper. Ukrainian attempts to conduct a defensive artillery battle over the Dnieper would be interdicted by sustained attacks from the Russian Air Force, which would continually harass and obstruct movement in Ukraine’s rear areas. It is likely that in the course of its defence Ukrainian forces would destroy most or all of the bridges across the Dnieper.

Crossing the Dnieper

Russian forces are equipped and well practised at river crossings without bridges. The Dnieper is mostly wider than 500 metres, and much of it has been dammed into lakes. There are four zones where its width falls to 500 metres, making a crossing by pontoon bridges possible, if tricky (the standard length of a large Russian pontoon bridge is 268m, but they can probably be joined together, and the army has numerous pontoon ferry units for where a bridge is impractical). These are near Kherson (in the south where the river splits into a number of narrow estuarial channels); the 50-km stretch between Dnipro and Zaporozhye; the 40-km stretch between Cherkassy and Kaniv, and the short stretch of undammed river that runs through Kyiv. Moscow is likely to prefer to capture a Dnieper bridge.

The most likely candidate is the Antonovsky Bridge at Kherson, 90 km north-west of the border with Crimea. Therefore while the main invasion force was working its way south a smaller force might enter Ukraine from Crimea, supported by a brigade-sized amphibious landing west of Kherson and a division-sized airborne assault to capture and hold the Antonovsky Bridge.

In war, time is mortality

Normally time is money. In warfare time is mortality. A Russian invasion of Ukraine would kill three categories of people: Ukrainian civilians, Ukrainian troops and Russian troops.  

But in what numbers? Again, experience in the Middle East is probably the best reference point. In Iraq-2003 the Coalition’s 30-day land campaign incurred a Coalition mortality rate of 0.1%, but against a highly demoralised and completely outmatched opponent.  

A more evenly matched conflict is the war in Donetsk and Luhansk. Here mortality has reached about 10% of engaged forces on each side spread over about 100 months – again 0.1% of engaged forces per combat month, but this time in a low-intensity conflict across static and well-entrenched lines.  

The average is also misleading, because the time period contains long periods of relative inaction and ceasefires interspersed with more intense violence.  

A useful estimate is that Russian forces would incur mortality at a rate of 0.5% of engaged forces per month of active fighting east of the Dnieper, and 1% per month west of the Dnieper.

If we factor together the time line and the size of Russia’s engaged forces what emerges is an estimate that the Russian body count to reach Crimea would be something around 1,000 dead.

In modern ground warfare the ratio of injured to dead is high – around 10:1. This is not a reflection on weapons and tactics but the result of body armour, greatly improved front-line medical techniques and resources and rapid casualty evacuation during the “golden hour” which combine to save the lives of seriously injured men who would have died of their wounds in earlier wars. The ratio implies, however, that the Russian invasion force would see 10% of its force receiving wounds east of the Dnieper.

Losers lose more

Recent conflicts invariably show that the losing side experiences higher mortality and casualty rates than the winning side (that is one reason the losers lose).  

For a visceral example of this it is instructive to look at the fate of a single battalion (~400 men) of the 79th Airmobile Brigade of the Ukrainian army in the early hours of 11 July, 2014. Spotted by Russian drones near Zelenopillya, the battalion was then struck by a salvo of forty 122mm Grad rockets. The battalion was disintegrated in the space of a single minute. Neither side has revealed the number of men killed, but an eyewitness from the battalion reported mortality of around 10% and serious injuries at around 25% from that one barrage.

In this invasion the defenders would initially benefit from being dug-in at protective positions, but would suffer from high-intensity air, rocket and artillery attack as the war developed into a fast and chaotic manoeuvre battle.

When defensive lines break defending formations are forced into the open, always unbalanced and unco-ordinated, and travelling on exposed roads, as they try to withdraw in good order under fire to the next defensive location, which has probably been badly prepared in a hurry.

In this exposed state Ukrainian forces would suffer mortality and injury rates five to ten times higher than their attackers. Mortality would be increased by Russian use of intense heavy artillery as part of its military doctrine, and by the presence of large numbers of Russian main battle tanks and complete air superiority.  

The Ukrainian ratio of death to injury would also rise – it’s hard to organise casevac and rapid medical aid when a formation is retreating in disarray under intense fire. Ukrainian death rates would finally suffer from Ukraine’s dire shortage of transport helicopters.  

Ukrainian mortality in the eastern phase is therefore likely to run at 7% of engaged forces per month (say 10,000 dead per month), with injury rates of 40,000 per month. After two months Ukrainian forces east of the Dnieper are likely to have almost ceased to exist as organised units.

Civilians lose too

Alongside the many thousands of dead Ukrainian soldiers, an invasion would kill many more thousands of civilians in the form of collateral damage, since there would be little time for Ukraine to move its civilian populations wholesale to the rear. Russia would thus be seen not only to be conducting a highly illegal invasion of a sovereign state but also carrying out a near genocide. Ironically, east of the Dnieper most of the civilian dead would be ethnic Russians.

Half, or all?

At the end of this first phase of the invasion, with Eastern Ukraine in its hands and the more capable parts of Ukraine’s army rendered ineffective, Russia would need to pause for rest, re-equipment, reinforcement, reconnaissance, re-supply and re-planning. If the Antonovsky bridge is in Russian hands Moscow would have a choice. Stop there, catalysing an effective division of Ukraine along the Dnieper, or cross the river and advance.

A possible next objective would be take control of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, partly to secure use of a black sea port as a logistic base west of the Dnieper, partly to increase Russia’s control of the Black Sea against Nato, and partly to reduce Ukraine’s ability to recover economically after the war. Another possible objective would be to continue the invasion until Russian troops face Nato across Ukraine’s western border.

What does Victory look like in Moscow?

We should expect Moscow to have a clear internal view of what victory looks like. Is victory the fall of Kyiv and the departure of senior Ukrainian Ministers on their private jets to Switzerland? Probably not. Kyiv is by no means the centre of gravity of Ukrainian nationalism, because Ukraine is not an ethnically uniform nation.

Eastern Ukraine is predominantly ethnically Russian, as is Kyiv, though even a large percentage of Ukrainians of Russian ethnicity would choose independence over membership of greater Russia. Central Ukraine is a mix of Russian and Ukrainian ethnicity. Only in western Ukraine does the ethnic mix become strongly “Ukrainian”. This region’s history contains multiple attempts to carve out an independent ethnically uniform polity. Whether the occupiers were Polish, Austro-Hungarian, German (1919 and again in 1941) or Russian, Ukrainian nationalists have been willing to fight hard and die young in pursuit of political autonomy.

Western Ukraine is a bitter fruit

That fight is not a matter of ancient history. The most recent “war” for autonomy only ended in 1950, up until which the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) fought a ten-year vicious guerrilla war first against the occupying Poles, then, after 1941, against Soviet Russians, before attacking in turn the retreating Germans from 1943, murdering 100,000 Polish people in 1943, and finally re-attacking Soviet “occupiers” after they pushed German troops out of western Ukraine.

The OUN kept fighting long after the war ended, only giving up at the end of 1949. This was no minor insurrection. Russian estimates suggest that 35,000 Soviet secret police and 14,000 soldiers were killed by the OUN after 1944. The OUN in turn lost 110,000 people, and between 1944 and 1949 Russia deported over a million Ukrainians to prison camps. Today’s Ukrainian nationalists are the grandchildren of those OUN fighters and supporters.

The OUN’s descendants and inheritors are active and armed today, spearheaded by a formal military formation called the Azov Battalion. Born, or re-born, as a volunteer force in response to the events of 2014, the Azov Battalion is now formally a part of Ukraine’s National Guard. The Battalion has for nearly ten years run dozens of summer training camps for Ukrainian teens, whose purpose is to combine nationalist indoctrination with militarism, and it is the products of these camps who now man the Battalion and other formations.

The Azov Battalion

Battalion is a misnomer – in 2016 the Azov Battalion marched through Kyiv numbering over 3,000 (not all fully in uniform). While there are no reliable reports of its current makeup it probably now comprises a brigade of highly committed and motivated Ukrainian Nationalists. Azov’s culture and attitudes are strongly reminiscent of those shown by SS formations of the German Reich in the 1940s. A member of the Hitler Youth would find its summer camps comfortably familiar, while Azov members enjoy torchlight marches, have a special Azov salute, and have adopted the Wolfsangel as their unit symbol. The Wolfsangel is fundamentally a half-swastika, and was originally the Divisional symbol of Germany’s 2nd Panzer (SS-Das Reich) Division.

If Moscow decides to complete its invasion by heading for the EU border it must accept that its forces would find organised and highly motivated opponents melting into the wide expanses of western Ukraine from which they would conduct a sustained, violent and bloody guerrilla resistance. An invasion of the west would be no quick win. The borders of the EU lie 800 km north-west of Kherson, and a westwards advance would have a 300-km-wide front.

Punching smoke

As Russian troops headed west supply lines would lengthen, slowing the advance, while troops would be soaked away from the front line to guard those long logistics lines against OUN-style attacks. With accurate real-time satellite and other intelligence on Russian movements provided by the US and other Nato states we might expect these attacks to be successful and bloody. Each successive kilometre of Ukrainian ground would cost Russia more lives than its predecessor.

And there is a lot of ground to cover. A completed invasion of western Ukraine would see around 100,000 Russian troops (the original force, less casualties, plus reinforcements) trying to occupy and dominate 250,000 square kilometres, alongside a dozen major towns, plus the 200,000 square kilometres of Ukraine east of the Dnieper captured during the first phase of the invasion. Russia would encounter the same problem that German forces met in 1941 – partisans and informal formations can hide in the wide-open spaces, strike at short notice and then melt away again into the terrain.

That terrain would be no friend to Moscow. Ukraine’s western border rises from an open plain to the Carpathian mountains, aiding guerrilla warfare and hindering the movement of formal formations. As weeks drew out into months the Western powers would provide a generous supply of powerful infantry weapons (especially Javelin missiles), and might go so far as to include direct air support over western areas.

War by invitation

Such support would be entirely legal under international law, even without a UN Security Council Resolution. Ukraine, as a sovereign state, has both the right to use armed force in self-defence, and also has the right to request aid from other states in support of that defence. So while a Russian invasion of Ukraine would unequivocally break international law, the use of force by Nato or the US would be in full compliance with it, if invited by Ukraine. Russia’s presence in Syria rests on exactly the same right – an invitation from Damascus to come to its aid.

Extension of an invasion from the Dnieper to the border of the EU would demand that Russia reinforce its forces. Reinforcement units certainly exist (Russia has some 300,000 regular troops in its Order of Battle), but would have to be withdrawn from their positions scattered around Russia’s extensive land borders where they stand as deterrent forces against intervention from Scandinavia, Poland, the Baltics, in Crimea, and even potentially from China, which recently re-stated a claim to territories lost to Russia a hundred years ago. That 300,000 is therefore far from fully available. It also contains every man and woman in training units, in the logistics tail, in staffs and commands, and stationed overseas (Syria again). Moscow is unlikely to denude its frontier garrisons to support an invasion of Ukraine. With this in mind an initial invasion force would not expect reinforcement much above another 50,000, less men killed and the much larger number of men seriously injured. The invasion force would struggle to raise its fighting strength above 100,000 in spite of reinforcement.

With the challenges of land area, terrain, guerrilla resistance, distance, Western allied support, attrition due to casualties and lengthening (vulnerable) supply lines it would probably take Russia 150 days to reach Ukraine’s western border, after which it would find itself in an extended guerrilla war against a determined, motivated and well-supplied insurgent enemy across an area the size of the United Kingdom. Remembering that in war, time is mortality, Moscow would have to budget for a new, and much larger, flow of dead and injured Russian soldiers in western Ukraine. At a rate of 0.5% per month the roll of the dead would grow at 500 men per month, and the injured at 5,000. Unlike the campaign east of the Dnieper, this flow of misery would be unlikely to stop.

Start with WHY

Which begs the question of “why?” Why would Moscow volunteer for this expensive, painful and embarrassing course of action? It is hard to see how Russia would benefit from an invasion, whether it stopped at the Dnieper, or pressed on to the EU border.

Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine would be widely accepted as completely illegal under international law, with no hope of redemption on the grounds of “historical ethnicity” or “self-determination” (both of which are theoretically available for the occupation of Crimea). The nationalist government of Ukraine would remain in authority over western Ukraine, and would be able to indulge its latent desires for a “pure” Ukrainian ethnic state by ethnically cleansing “Russian Ukrainians” across the Dnieper eastwards.

Unintended but obvious consequences

Peoples of the western powers would be forced to abandon the belief that the Russian “threat” to Europe is a figment of the fevered imagination of the paranoid or of the military industrial complex, and accept that Russia has returned to its old habits of being a violent and expansionist polity with a wish to move its borders westwards. The result of that may well be that Nato’s council finally suppresses its gag reflex and swallows the idea of underwriting Ukrainian statehood, either by a one-off treaty of support or (with a deep shudder) by accepting Ukraine as a full Nato member. Either result would bring European forces to the Dnieper for the first time since 1941. Nato would certainly reinforce its forward-based forces in Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Baltics, and would probably increase its GDP allocations to defence. Europe’s reaction might even go so far as to accept Ukraine as an accession state to the European Union. Moscow’s chances of persuading a majority of Ukrainians to vote, at some future point, for federation with Russia would vanish.

In sum, a partial invasion is most likely to drive Ukraine and Europe closer than further apart.

A full invasion to the EU border makes the picture even worse. Western governments and peoples would have no choice but to acknowledge Russia as an immediate threat, and one that demanded large increases in defence budgets (funded by additional taxation and squeezed social programmes). Nato would be forced to return to the forward deployed stance it adopted for 40 years during the Cold War, bringing substantial land and air forces to Russia’s western border for the first time, again, since 1941. Occupied Ukraine would be always and for ever Russia’s prisoner. No vote to federate with Russia would carry any credibility outside Russia. The West would fund and equip a permanent violent guerrilla insurrection, which would kill half a thousand Russian soldiers every month for no gain.

Painful, and expensive

Moscow would find itself picking up the running costs of the weak and corrupt Ukrainian economy, supplying cheap gas and oil which it would rather have sold expensively to China or Europe, taking on the cost of Ukrainian pensions, social programmes and budget deficits, along with its government debt to boot. There would be almost no resource bonus to cover these large bills – Ukraine is in part poor because it lacks natural resources.  

The big picture is that Ukraine would feel like a re-run of Afghanistan or Chechnya but with higher financial costs and no exit plan. If the Soviet Afghan adventure was in part responsible for the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union, would a disastrous Ukrainian adventure bring down the Putin regime? Quite possibly.

President Putin, now a 20-year veteran of Russian geopolitics, is the antithesis of a gambler. Each step that he takes has clearly been thought through at great length and tested for its anticipated and unanticipated effects by the veteran Foreign Minister Lavrov. An invasion of Ukraine contains almost too many unpredictable effects to count, much less to quantify. Apart from the uncertainties of actual land warfare (no plan long survives contact with the enemy), there are the even less quantifiable range of reactions from Nato, the US acting unilaterally, the UK (enthusiastically and unwisely throwing its lot in with Washington), the European Commission (with ambitions to become a unified strategic polity on the world stage), and individual neighbours of Ukraine acting unilaterally. That last category contains, of course, Turkey.

An unpredictable Turkey shoot

Turkey’s possible actions and needs are inscrutable almost beyond calculus: Ankara has a powerful navy with free access to the Black Sea that is capable of upsetting Russian plans for Ukraine’s south coast.

Turkey has of course interests in its own Black Sea security; it harbours hopes of securing permanent control of (if not annexing) a slice of northern Syria against Russian opposition; it is already supplying Ukraine with weapons; it might wish to see Ukraine stay independent as a balance against Russian power in the Black Sea; but might also be willing to trade that independence for its own ambitions in Syria; it has an interest in supporting extremist Sunni opposition to President Assad; it’s keen to keep Kurdish activities and strength firmly down, if not out; it’s currently building two new Russian-supplied nuclear reactors; it has recently bought a key Russian-built missile defence system; it is a large-scale net importer of oil; it has hopes of becoming a major gas transit country to the EU; it’s a member of Nato, but increasingly semi-detached; it’s a friend of Qatar and by implication of Iran; and finally it’s trying to establish a bizarre set of EEZ claims in the Mediterranean for which third-party support from Russia would be welcome.  

How Ankara, much less anyone else, manages to balance and plot a course through that melange of interests, capabilities, fears and desires is hard enough to understand. How Ankara might react to a Russian occupation of Ukraine is an even larger unknown.

If you can’t calculate the odds, don’t bet

At root, an invasion of Ukraine would constitute a giant gamble by Moscow of an unknown stake for an unknown prize subject to unknown risks. Since President Putin does not gamble it seems highly likely to us that an invasion is in fact not the Russian plan, and never has been.

Other factors lead to the same conclusion. Setting Crimea to one side (as a case with special historic and present factors) President Putin has repeatedly demonstrated considerably more respect for and compliance with international law and for Russia’s treaty obligations than has the USA or the UK. Among the legal facts that Putin has accepted is unequivocal recognition of Ukraine as a sovereign state by Russia. From that stance it would be bizarre if Moscow were to act in flagrant breach of international law and invade a sovereign state without authorisation from the United Nations.

If Putin never intended to invade then what is Moscow doing assembling what looks very much like an invasion force in full view of US intelligence satellites? There is no unequivocal answer to that question in the public domain, but we can make a few (likely) estimates.

Alternative interpretations of Yelnya

First, Kyiv is in breach of two aspects of its agreements in respect of the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics”. The first aspect is Kyiv’s clear legal obligations under the Minsk Agreement, which bind it (by agreement, and by a UN Security Council Resolution enforcing that agreement) to hold consultations with the leaders of the two republics, followed by agreement on a new (federated) constitutional settlement within Ukraine and then free elections. Kyiv has complied with none of those requirements, and has instead made repeated abortive attempts to retake the republics by force of arms.

The second breach is that Kyiv has violated the ceasefire agreed of Spring of 2021, most recently by using new (Turkish supplied) drones to attack republic forces. It is entirely possible, and indeed likely, that Kyiv will in due course launch a larger assault on the republics. Moscow may have concentrated forces in its Western Military District (a) to deter that assault, and (b) to react to it by moving regular forces in strength into the republics to protect its ethnic cousins from harm and/or assimilation.

Ossetia 2, the return of Ossetia

A move of that nature would be an almost exact parallel to Moscow’s reaction to Georgia’s assault on the Ossetia exclave in 2008. That series of events saw Georgia’s military swiftly defeated and Russian forces permanently stationed in Ossetia (where they regularly shift the border markers southwards). Moscow clearly backed the Luhansk and Donetsk republics from their birth. To be sure President Putin has repeatedly denied that assertion, but few outside Moscow believe those denials However, Moscow has so far been unwilling to upgrade “tacit support” to “active occupation”. A Ukrainian attack on the “republics” could be used as justification to make that move, but only if the occupation forces are close enough at hand to react quickly.

A Russian move into the rebel republics might not be in breach of international law, if Moscow could successfully assert that there was a material risk that Ukrainian forces intended to carry out ethnic genocide in Donetsk and Luhansk. Genocide does not imply the killing of “everyone” – the killing of more than a few probably stands genocide up as a charge. International law contains a right to use armed force to prevent a genocide from taking place, and it is this right which Moscow might use to justify the movement of its regular troops into the republics if sufficiently provoked. Moscow notably changed its Donbas narrative on October 29 by describing people living in the Donbas as “Russian Citizens”, which slightly supports this thesis. Moscow has issued some 600,000 Russian passports to Donbas residents so far.

An attack on Nato membership

Moscow may also be conducting a play to end Nato’s flirtation with accepting Ukraine’s membership. Informed and balanced observers may think of Ukraine’s membership of Nato as an extreme example of rash strategic overreach, but some Nato members do not see it that way. While the North Atlantic Treaty contains no provision forbidding the accession of a state in conflict with a neighbour, a convention has grown among Nato members that an accession state must be at peace with its neighbours. In any case, accession requires the unanimous consent of all members (under Article 10), which is unlikely to be forthcoming if an accession state is at war with a neighbour, especially one as large and as strong as Russia. Perhaps President Putin has decided that Nato’s Council needs some additional discouragement from thinking about Ukrainian accession, and that the assembly of a potential invasion force at Yelnya would provide that discouragement.

Or on EU accession

Nato membership is one problem. Accession to the European Union is another. While the Commission currently has no desire at all to see Ukraine, with its poverty, its corruption, its near-Nazi nationalists and its geopolitical problems, accede to the Union, there is always a risk that the Commission’s desire for continuous expansion neutralises its own gag reflex. However, the EU does have an accession provision, which prevents accession by states with live border disputes. Moscow, by keeping Ukraine’s border disputes very much alive, is keeping the Ukrainian dream of EU accession firmly out of sight.

While Moscow poises its forces to present possible obstacles to Kyiv’s dearly held European ambitions, Kyiv is wasting no time in making as much geopolitical capital out of the situation as it can. Near-hysterical messages are flying to the EU, Nato, the US and the Normandy Two. In the words of Foreign Secretary Lavrov, answering a question in the Kremlin last week, “…we are seeing a clear effort by the Kiev regime (sic) to divert attention from its policy of destroying the Minsk Accords by fuelling all kinds of scare stories, including about the Russian threat. They are appealing to Berlin and Paris for protection, asking Nato to send troops to defend ‘free and democratic Ukraine’ and discussing the construction of naval facilities with Britain.”

Appeals for money, weapons, intelligence support and even (possibly) air support might well succeed. Appeals for boots on the ground will not – no Western government is going to persuade its voters that Ukraine is worth a single European or American soldier’s life, irrespective of the joint promise from France and Germany of “serious consequences” for Russia following an invasion (in the mainstream media narrative of the meeting “serious” was upgraded by an unknown correspondent to “dire”).

But while Europe is unlikely to welcome President Zelenskiy into its institutions, the presence of Russian troops poised near Ukraine is visibly driving European leaders and Zelenskiy further into each others’ arms. Prime Minister Johnson has, for example, allowed Kyiv to take over two retiring Royal Navy minehunters, and promised to supply (unspecified) missiles to Ukraine on credit. Neither are of strategic importance, but both are the antithesis of what Moscow would like.

With similar warming noises coming out of France, Germany and the United States it very much looks as if the “Yelnya poise” strategy is beginning to backfire. If Moscow comes to see it that way we may see the poised force return to its peacetime barracks, probably in dribs and drabs, accompanied by the words “move along, nothing to see here”.

If the strategy has backfired, it will have yielded one small but useful result. Ukrainians will have looked carefully at whether they have the men, material, money and mates to withstand a Russian invasion, and will have come to the same conclusion argued here – that resistance is futile. That realisation is a useful step towards a reluctant but popular future federation with Russia, which was President Putin’s overriding objective from the beginning.

Gav Don trained as an officer in the Royal Navy and has a degree in international law. He grew a global energy intelligence business over 25 years and now specialises in geopolitical analysis, focusing on the interactions between politics, law, energy and armed force.