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A Deep Dive Into The War
What you need to know about russian-ukrainian conflict
«Special Thanks to Dmitri Alperovitch: follow him on Twitter he is really very good and describing all the most important updates day by day» — Mirko Milito
In the last few weeks, I have become increasingly convinced that Kremlin has unfortunately made a decision to invade Ukraine later this winter. While it is still possible for Putin to deescalate, I believe the likelihood is now quite low. There are numerous signals that Russia has sent recently that make me believe invasion is almost certain, as well as a substantial number of reasons for why this is the preferred route for Putin. The military build-up on Ukraine’s borders (in the north, east and south in Crimea). This mobilization is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the past. 75% of Russia’s total battalion tactical groups have been moved. Artillery, air defense units, tanks, APCs, bridge-laying equipment, mine clearers, armored excavators, engineering equipment, refueling, huge amount of logistics, etc. Like a rifle in a Chekhov play, you don’t put it there if you are not expecting to use it.
Cyber prep. Since early December, there has been a dramatic increase in cyber intrusions on Ukraine government and civilian networks from Russia. Targets are precisely the ones that you’d expect to be targeted for intel collection and battlefield preparation ahead of an invasion. The list of demands that Russia issued last week was a non-starter for the US and NATO allies. It is simply not a serious proposal for the start of the negotiations. In fact, it would likely be rejected by Russia itself if it comes to reciprocal steps to not deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and cruise-missiles in Russian western territory. Making the list of demands public — and making it difficult to climb down from them without losing face - is an unprecedented diplomatic step that further signals they are not serious about having actual talks and want a propaganda pretext for invasion. Rejection of multilateral negotiations and demanding 1:1 US-RU talks. This is designed to either provoke a rejection from the US (yet another pretext for war) or drive a rift between US and its allies in Europe. Either way, a win-win.
A real negotiation on the points Russia is raising would take years. Expecting it to be resolved quickly is unrealistic and Russia knows it. Yet another pretext for invasion by claiming the US is not serious about their concerns. Rhetorically, things are reaching a boiling point. Diplomatic language is being thrown out the window and with each day comes a new escalation. The information battlefield is now being prepared for a provocation that can be pinned on Ukraine, US or NATO (or all 3). They will be used as part of an excuse to justify an invasion.
Let’s talk now about the reasons to invade - from Putin’s perspective
Fear of shifting military power balance between Kiev and Donbas separatists. Putin observed the Karabakh War last year and has a good appreciation for what a military armed with modern NATO weapons, such as Turkish TB2 drones, can do to retake territory. He has lost faith that Zelensky has any interest in resolving the issue of Donbas diplomatically and believes he needs to forestall a change in the status quo there militarily - sooner or later. Incidentally, Saakashvili’s push to rearm and take over Georgian separatist territories and change the status quo is what triggered the Georgia War in 2008. Similarities to today are eerie. Real concerns about NATO expansion. We can debate all we want about whether NATO truly presents a threat to Russia, but what’s important is that the Kremlin elites believe that it does. Over the last three hundred years, there had been numerous devastating invasions of Russia (Hitler, Napoleon, Swedes, Poles, etc) which had been launched either through from what is now Belarus or Ukraine. The prospect of either country joining NATO (an implicit anti-Russia military alliance) has been and would be unacceptable to any Russian leader - Putin, Yeltsin, Gorbachev or even someone like Navalny and is viewed as an existential threat.
Pro-western government in Ukraine, protests against Lukashenko, color revolution in Georgia, protests in Moscow, etc have all been viewed by Putin through the same lens - covert Western attempts to undermine Russia and build coalitions of enemy states in the near abroad. Even without Ukraine joining NATO, Putin has become convinced that a pro-western Ukraine poses a serious threat given the deployment of NATO weapons and advisors there even without formal membership. His talk of 4-5min missile flight time to Moscow or threat to Crimea may sound like paranoia to us, but he believes it — which is all that matters right now. He knows that an invasion of Ukraine, would put a permanent end to all talk of Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus or any Central Asian states of ever joining NATO or deployment of NATO weapons and troops on their territories without Russia’s agreement. It would instantly reinstate Russia’s sphere of influence in that part of the world. No former Soviet Union state (aside from the Baltics) would dare to flirt with NATO or EU again.
From a timing perspective, this might be the best time he will ever have to invade. US is distracted by domestic politics and new geopolitical confrontation with China. Energy prices are skyrocketing. Europe is wholly dependent on Russia’s gas and even the US is currently importing Russia’s crude oil. There is little chance there will be economic sanctions on fossil fuels as a result. Sanctions are not an effective deterrent. Russia has learned to live with them, even if it dislikes them. Its economy is much more resilient today to them — including in part due to help from China. Moreover, it has learned to expect sanctions no matter what it does. Sanctions instituted this year for activity traditionally considered acceptable espionage — such as the SolarWinds/HolidayBear hacks — have undermined their use for deterrence as they send a signal that we will sanction Russia for everything it does.
How such invasion may unfold and what its primary goals might be
First, Russia is going to need a casus belli for attack. The most likely scenario is that Putin will create a pretext for war by manufacturing a Ukrainian attack on Russia. His other option is to try to provoke the Ukrainians into reckless action but that is less likely given how cautious and watchful they are for this scenario and how restricted their rules of engagement are in Donbas.
In 1999, there were a series of apartment bombings across Russia, blamed on Chechens, which kicked off the Second Chechen War. To this day there is significant suspicion about who was truly behind it, in part because FSB was found placing explosives in a building as an 'exercise'. In 1939, a Soviet border village of Mainila was shelled with artillery, which Stalin immediately blamed on Finland and used as a casus belli to start the Winter War, not unlike Hitler a few months earlier staging an attack on Gleiwitz as a pretext for an attack on Poland.
Khrushchev later admitted in his memoirs that the shellings (which killed 4 Soviet border guards) were orchestrated by the Soviet army. A pretext like this - perhaps another shelling of a Russian border village, while not original, will be sufficient to launch an invasion. The invasion will start with a fires - campaign missiles, multiple launch rocket systems, howitzers, self-propelled gun-mortars (Nona) and fixed-wing air strikes against UKR air-defenses, air bases, entrenched defensive positions, mobilization and command & control centers.
The goal would be to quickly establish air dominance over the skies of Ukraine, impede mobilizations and take down major communication nodes used by Ukranians.
With the enormous capabilities of Russia’s long-range fires, they can bring down absolute hell on those targets. The Ukrainians, lacking short and intermediate range air defenses, won't be able to do much in response. Russia also has some of the best electronic warfare (EW) systems in the world. They will be used to blind Ukrainian air defense in the initial hours before they are destroyed with fires. Expect to see extensive use of the new Orion UAVs as well. Russians may also target TV & radio transmitters, Internet exchanges, as well as use wiper malware against media and gov websites to make it harder for the UKR population to receive information. They are also likely to launch psyops in cyberspace to sow confusion and despair.
The fire campaign is likely to be followed by a ground invasion designed to encircle and destroy Ukrainian units to the east of the Dnieper river. With the forces Russia is positioning, they will be able to launch a ground attack from 4 directions:
- Belarus (west)
- Kursk, Bryansk and Belgorod regions (northeast)
- Rostov region (east)
- Up from Crimea (south)
In addition, we might see airborne (VDV) air assault units parachuting in to take strategic locations behind UKR lines and naval landing ships deployed in the Black Sea and Sea Azov conduct landings near Mariupol. Perhaps later even as far as Odessa if they are feeling ambitious. The goal of the simultaneous assaults supported by long-range fires and close air support would be to eliminate organized Ukrainian defensive units or push them to the west bank of the Dnieper. While all this is taking place, GRU Spetznaz operatives likely already deployed in eastern Ukraine will attempt to organize uprisings in major eastern cities with previously identified and armed collaborators, potentially with aid from VDV.
The goal would be to take control of the eastern cities from within before the main Russian units arrive to enforce order and help eliminate any resistance. The Russians are highly likely to stop at the eastern bank of the Dnieper river and not attempt to cross it so as to avoid what would be a very tough fight in western Ukraine. However, they are also bringing in a lot of bridgelaying and engineering equipment to have the option to cross the river, but it will be a major challenge given how wide the Dnieper is in most places (and while under major fire from Ukraine artillery). The Belarus front gives them an option to execute a flanking maneuver and surround Kyiv without crossing the Dnieper but I think they are unlikely to do so and risk a Siege of Leningrad-style battle there. Such a maneuver will also leave them open to rear attacks from the west.
With such overwhelming ground, air and naval force, assisted by on-the-ground operations by GRU and FSB (and cyber intel collection), the Russians could neutralize all major organized resistance in the east within 60 days. Eastern Ukraine is exceptionally flat (except for Donets Ridge hills near Donetsk) and most of the significant forests are also in the west. This makes it very hard terrain to defend, as well as relatively ill-suited for an insurgency movement (unlike say Chechnya or Afghanistan). One point to note here is that many past Ukrainian insurgencies, including the resistance to the Soviet rule in the 1930-50s was based in the west, a much more mountainous and dense forestry region.
The insurgent leaders will no doubt try to organize urban resistance in the cities but given the remarkable capabilities of the Russian intelligence services and extremely brutal methods they employ, they will be able to identify and eliminate key leaders in fairly quick order.
How does this solve Putin’s primary objectives?
First, let’s discuss what those might be. They are multiple:
1. Stop further NATO expansion to post-Soviet states
Yes, Putin and the rest of Russia’s elites (going back to Gorbachev and Yeltsin days) believe it is a threat. And no amount of Western pronouncements to the contrary will change that incidentally, the claims that NATO is a purely defensive alliance don’t square well with the Kosovo and Libya operations, which the Russians remember well. The fact that they were done for humanitarian reasons provides no consolation to the current Russian leadership and for Putin — NATO expansion does not only mean membership. He is also very concerned about NATO’s involvement on the ground in Ukraine (and Georgia). Weapons sales, advisors and trainers, reconnaissance flights near Russian borders — he wants to put an end to it all.
2. Bring Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence
In addition to stopping all NATO involvement in the country, he wants to reverse the pro-Western orientation of its policies. That includes ending any prospects for eventual EU membership. Putin has enjoyed remarkable success over the last few years in reestablishing firm Russian influence in much of the post-Soviet space. Armenia, Belarus and most recently Kazakhstan have been brought firmly into Russian sphere - and at very little cost Ukraine invasion would nearly complete Putin’s project of restoring Russia’s power in its near abroad given the (justifiable) anti-Russian feelings among the majority of Ukrainians, he knows that the only way to get influence over Ukrainian government and their policies is through a change to their constitution and system of government. More on this in a bit.
3. Diplomatically cement Russia’s ownership over Crimea
Realists realize that Crimea is not returning back to Ukraine. No Russian leader would allow it and Russia would go to war to keep it - and no one is going to be insane enough to fight them for it. In addition, the majority of the people in Crimea, except for the Tatar minority (and even they are warming up to Russian annexation), want to remain in Russia. Has dumped tens of billions of $ into Crimean infrastructure, remaking much of the peninsula, and integrating it deeply with the rest of Russia—physically, economically and politically. And economically life has objectively become significantly better for the people there. There’s really no realistic imaginable scenario under which Crimea will rejoin Ukraine and Putin undoubtedly wants an official Ukrainian rejection of their claims on the peninsula.
4. Resolution to the Donbas crisis
Russia does not want to own Donbas or suffer the burden of supporting it economically, which is one reason it hasn’t annexed or recognized its independence. Plus Putin needs the pro-Russian voters in that region to have influence in Ukrainian government, so he will likely push for reintegration of Donbas in Ukraine but on its own terms and with high degree of autonomy (what he tried with the Minsk agreements). Putin knows he can’t get his way on any of these key points through negotiations with the US which is why he is so likely to launch a major invasion and a limited incursion will not achieve anything.
The first thing that is likely to happen in an invasion is the fall of Zelensky government, who is already deeply unpopular and polling in the low 30s. It is no accident that his political opponent and former president Poroshenko recently returned to Ukraine despite the threat of arrest for treason. He smells blood in the water. Much of Ukrainian export industry - agriculture, metallurgy and heavy industry - is based on the eastern side of the Dnieper river, as well as in Odessa region. If Russia establishes de fecto control over these areas, Ukrainian GDP will plummet
The pressure on whichever government emerges on the western bank will be immense. The economy will be in tatters, there will be tens if not hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Russian troops from the east, the military will be decimated, Putin is counting on this: his objective will likely be to pressure the Ukrainian side under these horrifying conditions into a settlement. The proposal could look something like this: change the Ukrainian constitution to create a Lebanon-style power-sharing political system. For example, a PM elected from Western side and a President from the East. This would give Russia permanent influence in Ukraine through their proxies in the east. In addition, Putin will insist on recognition of Crimea as a Russian territory, broad autonomy for the East and a constitutional rejection of pursuit of accession to NATO and/or EU. In exchange, he will pullback his forces (at least overt ones) out of eastern Ukraine but will likely keep intelligence operatives to continue influence campaigns. This gamble may or may not work for Putin. Ukrainians may very well launch a do-or-die resistance campaign to the bitter end and refuse to accept any deal. People leading it will likely be targeted for assassination. But Putin probably thinks that the combination of a military and economic chokehold gives him a good chance to succeed.
In summary, he is gambling that a rapid military operation in the East will result in a sufficient compellence campaign to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence, recognition of Crimea as a Russian territory, and resolution to Donbas. It will also establish a Putin Doctrine of no further NATO expansion into post-Soviet space. Any country that decides to flirt with NATO will know that it risks invasion and loss of independence. The risks to this operation are, of course, substantial. The military campaign may not turn out to be as easy as he thinks and may cost many more Russian lives than can be successfully hidden from the Russian public (as in past conflicts).
Russia will suffer economic sanctions, although most severe sanctions against its oil & gas industry and major banks like Sberbank, VTB and Gazprombank will likely not be put into place due to blowback on European and US economies, as well as impact on already high energy prices. There will be further militarization on Russia’s borders in NATO countries. Sweden and Finland may very well opt to join the alliance at some point in the future. However, if he achieves his primary objectives, these costs will look minor in comparison to the historic and strategic gains he will have acquired.
That is the gamble that he is looking at. The lives of thousands of innocent people in Ukraine are hanging in the balance: a special thought must be made for these people.