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Ukraine – Russian military options…?

March 24, 2014

Summary: Vladimir Putin retains the military initiative, but this will not last.  Several options present themselves, from staying put and absorbing the Crimea to a quick “lightning war” all the way to the Transdniester.

Map, Ukraine, north, south, east and west divisionsIt is difficult to know if Russia is on the brink of further military incursions into Ukraine.  The Ukraine government certainly seems to think it highly possible.  NATO has growing concernsUnited States intelligence gathering assets seemed to have struggled to spot Russia military activities thus far and are now attempting to increase the resources available.  But while this might perhaps give an early tip-off regarding Russian next steps, it will probably add little else that might halt or deflect Russian actions.

President Putin’s calculations remain intentionally opaque but the array of military, special forces, training and propaganda activities currently gathered would appear to give him considerable scope, while keeping everybody guessing.  In this way Vladimir Putin likely calculates that the initiative remains his.  Through seizure or massive long-term disruption of large parts of eastern Ukraine (where a large number of ethnic or pro-Russian populace live) Putin’s goal appears to be to prevent any viable Ukrainian nation moving into a Western European (aka EU, aka NATO, aka non-Putin) orbit.  A jealous and murderous lover might express it thus: “Well, if I can’t have her, nobody else can”.

Four Russian military options – presented in order of increasing difficulty – suggest themselves at present:

1)      Do Nothing/Defensive – begin the process of absorbing the Crimea into Russia, possibly using military/special forces in raids to seize key infrastructure and installations in and around the edges of the Crimea – gas, transport, fuel, communications, military – before the geographic borders become too clearly defined.

2)      Move into East Ukraine – including the oblasts (administrative divisions) of Kharkhov, Donetsk, Luhansk with the intention of securing more “Russian-rich” population centres while the population is still simmering.

3)      Move into South and East Ukraine – securing a firm land link to where the Crimean peninsula joins the mainland.  The oblasts of Kherson, Zaporizhiya and Donetsk would all be critical components here.

4)      As option three but going further west to link to Transnistria (also called Trans-Dniestr or Transdniestria).  Another casualty of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this slice of land between the river Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine is an independent government but unrecognised as an independent nation.  The nationalities within are Moldovan, Ukrainian and Russian (roughly a third of each), with Transnistrian Russians apparently, “post-Crimean”, calling to be reunited with Russia.  I think this would give the only guaranteed Russian-controlled land gas pipeline through Ukraine.

Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb…?

One expert, however, highlights the problems of Russian military action:

Ukraine administrative divisions

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military expert, said he did not expect to see long columns of Russian tanks rolling across the black earth border regions into eastern Ukraine.

“The time of year for serious warfare is totally wrong,” he said. “This is black soil area and at this time of year it’s wet, wet, wet. The Germans found that. They’ll have to wait until June for it to dry up or they won’t be able to move off the roads.”

“Russia does not have the will or capability for mass invasion of Ukraine. It can bite off some pieces and the government in Kiev would not likely survive. But I’m anticipating a long drawn out stand-off.”


Although timeframes are difficult to predict, Russia’s strategic initiative can only last for so long.  The Ukraine government will presumably be doing its utmost to get itself together after the simultaneous upheavals of revolution and surprise attack.  International diplomatic and economic sanctions are being brought to bear and Western intelligence assets will provide a clearer picture of Russia deployments and intentions.   It seems to suggest that Russian military actions might need to be taken sooner rather than later – while the engine is still switched on and warmed up…

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