As the war deepens, what are Russia’s military options in Ukraine?
“WHAT STANDS ahead of us, which could be weeks away, is the first peer-on-peer, industrialised, digitalised, high-level army versus a high-level army war that has raged on this continent for generations,” warned James Heappey, Britain’s junior defender minister, on January 19 , who pointed to Russia’s build-up of over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. “Tens of thousands of people could die.” Estonia’s defense chief repeated the warning. “Everything is moving towards armed conflict,” he said.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, will meet with Antony Blinken, America’s foreign minister, in Geneva on January 21. But the prospects for diplomacy are bleak. On January 19, Sergei Ryabkov, one of Mr Lavrov’s deputies, said that a 20-year moratorium was even on the cards Nato Ukraine’s membership would not satisfy Russia. In recent weeks, Russia has mobilized reservists and deployed troops and missiles all the way to the North Korean border.
Western countries are preparing for the worst. On January 17, Britain began airlifting thousands of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Days earlier, Sweden had brought armored vehicles to the island of Gotland when three Russian landing craft were cruising through the Baltic Sea with an unknown destination. On the same day, Ukraine was hit by cyberattacks that defaced government websites and blocked official computers. Meanwhile, the White House said it had information showing Russia was planning staged acts of sabotage against its own proxy forces in eastern Ukraine to provide a pretext for an attack on the country.
Such an attack can take many forms. One possibility is that Russia would simply openly do what it has been secretly doing for seven years: send troops to the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics”, breakaway territories in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, either to open their borders to the west expand or recognize them as independent states, as it did after deploying troops in 2008 to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian regions.
Another scenario that has been much debated in recent years is that Russia could attempt to build a land bridge to Crimea, the peninsula it annexed in 2014. That would require the conquest of 300 km (185 mi) of territory along the Sea of Azov, including Ukraine’s main port of Mariupol, to the Dnieper.
Such limited land grabs would be well within the capabilities of the forces gathering in western Russia. What is less clear is whether they would serve the Kremlin’s war aims. If Russia’s goal is to bring Ukraine to its knees and prevent it from joining Nato or even working with the alliance, simply consolidating control of Donbass or a small swath of southern Ukraine is unlikely to achieve this.
To do this, massive costs would have to be imposed on the government in Kiev – be it through the decimation of its armed forces, the destruction of its critical national infrastructure or its complete overthrow. One option would be for Russia to use and mimic “stand-off” weapons with no ground forces NatoAir war against Serbia in 1999. Rocket launcher and missile attacks would wreak havoc. These could be complemented by more novel weapons, such as cyberattacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure that crippled the country’s power grid in 2015 and 2016.
The problem is that such punitive campaigns tend to last longer and prove harsher than first appears. When war ensues, ranged strikes are more of a prelude and accompaniment to ground warfare than a substitute for it. “I don’t see much between them and Kiev that could stop them,” says David Shlapak of the EDGE Corporation, a think tank.
The aim would probably be to harm Ukraine, not occupy it. The country is as big and populous as Afghanistan, and as of 2014 over 300,000 Ukrainians have had some form of military experience; Most have access to firearms. American officials have told allies that the Pentagon and CIA would both support an armed insurrection.
Russia could view what the American army is calling a “thunderbolt” a rapid and deep attack on a narrow front, Mr Shlapak says, aiming to shock and cripple the enemy rather than seize territory. And an attack doesn’t just have to come from the East.
On January 17, Russian troops, some from the Far East, began arriving in Belarus, ostensibly for military exercises scheduled for February. Russia has announced that it will also send a dozen fighter jets and two S-400 air defense systems. An attack from the north across the Belarus-Ukraine border would allow Russia to approach and encircle the Ukrainian capital from the west.
“Once they are within missile range of downtown Kiev,” Mr. Shlapak asks, “is that a situation Ukrainians want to live with?” Even if Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is willing to tolerate a siege, Russia might betting that its government will simply collapse – and it could use spies, special forces and disinformation to speed up the process.
However, wars develop in unpredictable ways. Russia has not launched a full-scale infantry, armor, and airborne offensive since the climatic battles of World War II. Attacked countries may as well hold out as fall apart. Ivan Timofeev of the Russian International Affairs Council warns of a “long and drawn-out confrontation” that would be “tainted with destabilizing … Russia itself”.
Even victory would be expensive. “The Ukrainians will fight and inflict great losses on the Russians,” says Peter Zwack, a retired general who was the US defense attaché in Moscow during the Kremlin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. “This is going to be tough for Russia – and they are basically on their own.” Coupled with the threat of heavy sanctions being prepared by America and its European allies, and the apparent lack of any domestic support for a new adventure, all of this could pose a threat to Mr. Putin himself to think about now. ■
Russia and the West meet for a crucial week of diplomacy (January 2022)
Ukrainians are oddly relaxed about Russia’s troop surge (January 2022)
Russia’s threat to Ukraine is unlikely to persuade NATO to withdraw (January 2022)
Why Russia never accepted Ukraine’s independence (December 2021)
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the heading “The Cannons of January”.