The tensions between Ukraine and Russia heated up this week. It didn’t help that Biden called Ukrainian President Zelensky and told him that Kiev would soon be “sacked” by Russian forces.
Biden also said a Russian invasion was virtually certain once the ground froze and Ukraine had to “prepare for impact.”
The National Security council spokeswoman Emily Horne denied the reports. However, CNN said they received the information from a Ukrainian official.
Is a Russian invasion of Ukraine certain? Not necessarily. The informal “Normandy Format” talks between Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany has led to an agreement to continue to honor the 2014 ceasefire.
Of course, ceasefires are historically short lived, when one side has a strong interest in abrogating the agreement. Putin is a nationalist who has said the breakup of the Soviet Union was the worst event of the 20th Century. And Putin would find a permanent place in Russian history as one of the great Russian leaders if he could reclaim a large part of Ukraine.
Although man-for-man, the Russian Army is better than the Ukrainian Army, the outcome is uncertain. Will Putin go for a major war that could bring in NATO forces or a small conflict that limits NATO involvement?
Although many analysts say that the flat, open terrain favors the armored Russian forces, it’s important to remember that Ukraine soaked up millions of Russian and German dead, wounded, and captured during WWII in tank battles. There are several rivers that run north to south that will hamper Russian tank forces heading east or west. There is also the large Pripet Marsh that was a refuge for large Soviet partisan units fighting the Nazis behind the front lines.
The Pripet Marshes are in Southern Belarus and Northern Ukraine and form a natural barrier between the two countries. Although the Pripet Marshes aren’t as bad as they were in WWII, Russian armor will still be forced to move along narrow channels that will give defensive forces with anti-tank missiles an advantage. That is one reason why analysts think Putin will wait until February when the swamps freeze.
A historical example of the difficulty the Germans experienced in the Pripet Marshes in WWII was the original assault in 1941. General Guderian was advancing rapidly on Moscow, when Hitler ordered him to turn his Second Panzer Army south to assist Army Group South capture Kiev and the soldiers defending it. The Germans were successful and captured Kiev and over 700,000 Russian soldiers.
However, the success came at a cost. When Guderian once again moved towards Moscow, his tank units had taken serious losses around Kiev and needed replacement and repair. In addition, the winter was beginning. As we know, the German tanks were stopped at the outskirts of Moscow.
The Opposing Forces
The Russian Army is clearly stronger. If a conflict occurs, Russia will own the sky over the Ukraine. As was seen in and around Donbass, the sky will be a graveyard for Ukrainian aircraft.
The Russian Navy will also control the Black Sea off the coast of Ukraine.
That does NOT mean the Russian Army doesn’t have any weaknesses. Putin has not made the Russian Army a professional one that doesn’t rely on the draft. The Army also lacks the senior enlisted cadre that is the core of any army. They also rely on railroads and lack sufficient truck transportation, which will make it hard to sustain an offensive deep into the Ukraine.
The best that can be said of the Ukrainian Army is that it is considerably better than it was in 2014 – 2015, when Russian and Russian supported militia defeated the Ukrainian Army. At that time, the Ukrainian Army consisted of obsolete Soviet tanks badly in need of maintenance and repair. They also lacked fuel and training. Worst of all, they had serious corruption problems.
Although the Ukrainians still rely on obsolete tanks, they have received training from over a dozen NATO countries and a good supply of man portable anti-tank missiles. Training has focused on negating the Russian tank advantage. There appears to be a focus on operating behind enemy lines.
Currently there are British and American Special Forces in the Ukraine. There are also about 150 members of the Florida National Guard (53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team). If these forces are caught in the middle of a conflict, they could seriously stiffen the Ukrainian will to fight.
Ukrainian – Russian Combat Scenarios
Although we don’t know what Putin is planning, here are several scenarios.
Since the majority of the Ukrainian Army is in the east in the Donbass area, Russian forces in Belarus could attack across the border from the west and surround Ukraine’s army. The advantage is that this strategy avoids attacking big cities.
A Ukrainian Army that is surrounded puts Russia in a strong position in any political negotiations.
As we have mentioned before, this strategy requires a frozen Pripet Marsh. Otherwise, the advantage goes to Ukraine, who has received training in anti-tank tactics and has a good number of portable anti-tank missiles. The narrow fronts that the tanks must advance on, and the truck shortage could bog the Russians down if the Ukrainians have taken their training to heart.
A Russian attack would also give the Ukrainian Army interior lines so they could shift their forces from East to West. Since the Russian Army around the Ukraine is about the same size as the Ukrainian forces, the Russians would be violating one of the prime rules of combat – never divide your force in the face of a superior enemy.
Russia also has several amphibious options. One is to capture Snake Island, which is just off the Ukrainian coast and would seriously restrict the Ukrainian Navy and merchant shipping along its own coast. They could also institute a blockade. However, international law recognizes a blockade as an “Act of War,” which would give Ukraine a valid cause to escalate and ask for international assistance.
One option that may limit NATO reaction is to capture a canal on the Crimean Peninsula that could supply the water for the Russian forces that must bring water in from the Russian mainland. The Russians might be able to limit a NATO response by pleading that this is a humanitarian operation.
Capturing the canal would also allow the Russians to capture a land bridge from the Crimea to the insurgent controlled area in Eastern Ukraine.
Another low-risk operation would be for the Russian Army to move into insurgent occupied Ukraine. The move would be largely symbolic and the risk of combat with the Ukrainians would be less.
Another tactic would be a “salami” tactic – take a small part of the Ukraine like the Crimean canal and see how NATO reacts. If the NATO response is limited, Putin could press ahead and take another “slice” of the Ukraine.
This strategy is slower than a full-scale attack and gives the Ukrainian Army and NATO more response time (if they have the political will to respond). There is also the decision that Russian generals must make at when and where to stop. Despite Biden’s comment that the Russians could “sack” Kiev, the cities would be nearly impossible to capture and hold. Light Ukrainian units with anti-tank missiles would make a battle of Kiev look more like the Battle of Stalingrad – except the Russians would be on the losing side this time.
In the end, there is considerable risk for Putin - and considerable reward. Ukraine is a large country, with a population that remembers the brutal Russian occupation during the Cold War. Insurgents, armed by NATO countries next door, would have the advantages of swamps and forested land.
For the Russians, the war might be less another Afghanistan than a Northern Ireland.