An all-out invasion of Ukraine, with the aim of pacifying the capital, Kiev, would result in Vladimir Putin starting a war on a scale not seen from Iraq in 2003, prompting Western experts to question whether a victory could be achieved. durable Russian.
Estimates suggest that around 100,000 Russian soldiers are gathering near Ukraine’s borders. Yet experts closely following the crisis say that for a nationwide invasion, that number would have to nearly double again, and it would almost certainly involve forces passing through Belarus.
Dr. Fred Kagan, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said: “This will likely require an invasion on a scale not dissimilar to that of 2003, between 150,000 and 200,000 troops.”
He predicted that a force of that size could be in position by the end of January. About 175,000 US troops and other allies participated in the invasion of Iraq.
Is occupation possible?
Kagan, co-author of a series of reports that led to the surge in US troops in Iraq in 2007, said the real challenge for Putin was how the Russians could control an almost certainly hostile Ukraine if there were an insurgency after the capture of Kiev. .
A given operation would require one counterinsurgent for every 20 residents, Kagan said in an article he co-wrote with other experts from the Institute for the Study of War. That “would suggest that a 325,000-strong counterinsurgency force requirement” would be needed to keep the main cities of Kiev and Ukraine in the south and east, they added.
Ukraine has an army of 145,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), but there are also some 300,000 veterans of the low-intensity conflict in the Donbas region of the country that began in 2014. Polls say a a third of the citizens of Ukraine would be willing to take up the “armed resistance”.
Burned by the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, Russia generally viewed US attempts to keep countries against insurgents a mistake. “Putin will have studied what happened to the United States in Iraq after 2003. The difficulties of dealing with partisan activity keep my mind open to the possibility that the Russian president may not try to invade and conquer Ukraine,” Kagan told The Guardian .
The advantages of Russia
However, Moscow has overwhelming advantages in terms of an initial invasion, especially in terms of rockets and airpower. Ukraine faces potentially terrifying consequences, in an all-out attack, which could shatter a country’s morale and cause millions of people to flee west, rather than fight.
Rob Lee, a former US Marine and member of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said: “Russia has the ability to devastate Ukraine’s military units from afar with weapons such as Iskander ballistic missiles. We hardly ever see modern weaponry like this unleashed; it gives Russia the ability to inflict thousands of casualties per day. ”
A military assault will also have a transformative effect on international opinion. Civilian casualties in sizable numbers are almost certain, amounting to an operation unlike almost any other Putin has ever conducted before, including the 2014 war with Ukraine, where responsibility for military action was denied.
Dr Samir Puri, a senior member of the IISS, who previously spent a year as a conflict monitor in Ukraine, said: “It is difficult to imagine a total invasion without the use of airpower, but that is such a big threshold for Russia.” to cross.”
Much has been made of Ukraine’s recent weapons purchase to the west, but Javelin anti-tank missiles have a range of about 1.5 miles (2.5 km) and can only delay a mechanized advance.
The country has a relatively modest number of Turkish TB2 drones for now, half a dozen or a dozen, a small number compared to the thousands of tanks from Russia, the core of any ground force.
Russia also has to decide how to deal with cities in Ukraine, mainly Kyiv, with a population of 3 million, but also Kharkiv in the northeast, with a population of almost 1.5 million. “Urban warfare is tough, it does terrible damage and Russia fought with it in Aleppo,” Kagan said, citing Putin’s intervention in Syria’s civil war.
Speculation about Russia’s plans, based in part on Apparent leaks published in the German newspaper Bild – suggests that the Kremlin would surround Kharkiv and ultimately Kyiv, cutting off supplies, hoping they would surrender in a medieval way. That may be less violent, but it would still undermine the idea that Russia acts as a unifying force.
Surrounding Kiev is also not easy, Western analysts say. Key points in the city, including the presidential palace, lie west of the easily defensible Dnieper River. The first bridges south of the city are 60 miles away; a dam four miles to the north has turned the stretch of river that runs to the border with Belarus into a lake.
The simplest way to cross the river is to cross into safe territory – Belarus to the north. That would require Minsk’s support, which would be highly likely given its recent rapprochement with Moscow. In a speech to mark Orthodox Christmas on January 7, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said his country “Do everything” to regain Ukraine.
Russian mechanized forces would attempt to encircle Kiev from the west. One route is to cross the Pripet swamps, which freeze in winter, and the Chernobyl area (which is not considered a major complication for a modern army capable of operating in a radiation zone).
An alternative would be to attack from further west in Belarus, such as the Baranovichy training area. A key sign that Russia is ready to act, Kagan said, will be if “Russian mechanized forces are deployed to Belarus.”
Even if Putin does not invade, a permanent Russian military garrison in Belarus would have advantages for the Kremlin, as a potential threat not only to Ukraine but also to the northern Baltic states. “It would create a large military base that would give Russia air dominance over NATO’s eastern flank,” said Orysia Lutsevych, a researcher at the foreign policy think tank Chatham House.
Putin’s military alternatives
The risks inherent in invasion and occupation leave experts like Dr. Taras Kuzio, associate member of the Henry Jackson Society, arguing in a just-released document that an all-out attack is “the least likely” of the military scenarios available to Putin. Instead, the expert on Ukraine sees three other options.
In the first, Russia simply occupies and annexes the part of Donbas controlled by separatists, a partial invasion that mirrors the Georgia crisis of 2008. That began, Kuzio wrote, after “repeated military provocations” by representatives “led to the intervention of Georgian troops ”, which gave Putin a pretext to respond.
A second is to expand the occupied territory with a land corridor to previously annexed Crimea, capturing the coastal city of Mariupol. Russia could also seize other key industrial sites and try to degrade Ukraine’s nearby military. “They could wipe out Turkish TB2 drones and artillery in Donbas” in an open and limited campaign designed to weaken Ukraine, Lee said.
A final option, Kuzio said, is the “revival of the 2014 ‘New Russia’ project” that would attempt to “isolate Ukraine from the Black Sea.” This would amount to seizing the south, capturing the port of Odessa and perhaps the industrial city of Dnipro.
Taking Odessa, with a population of 1 million, would likely require a dramatic air and naval operation, using paratroopers from Crimea followed by Marines landing on nearby beaches.
Of those options, annexation of the occupied Donbas would almost certainly be popular in Russia. However, it would be an extremely limited response given the Kremlin’s insistence that its main objective, as repeated more recently by Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, is “the non-expansion of NATO, the non-adherence of Ukraine, Georgia and other countries to the alliance,” which raises concerns that a military campaign is likely.
“You have to step back and ask yourself what the political goals of Russia are,” Lee said. “If Russia wants to force a change in Ukraine’s political orientation, you can see why the Kremlin might consider military options.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism