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On Monday, January 11, 2021, police in Kiev received an anonymous warning schools across Ukraine’s capital city had been rigged with landmines. The following day, similar warnings were received for schools in the cities of Cherkasy and Lviv – and that similar devices had been placed at four Metro stops in the capital.
By the Friday, multiple Ukrainian government websites were temporarily defaced with warnings in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish that readers should be “scared” and rehashing a host of the Kremlin’s hostile narratives against Ukraine. CNN was quoting US spies warning that Russian agents might already be in place within Ukraine to stage a provocation.
According to the New York Times, not even those at the top of Russia’s government truly knew whether President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade. Russia’s diplomatic rhetoric, mass military movements and now suspected covert hybrid activity give him the luxury of choice, the advantage of unpredictability and deliver a blunt strategic message of capability.
What is now happening is an evolution of the techniques Russia has been using for more than a decade, from its 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia through Georgia in 2008 to the fighting in Ukraine that has come and gone since 2014. But it also marks significant escalation.
If Moscow sends the forces it currently has mobilised – approximately 120,000 personnel, potentially more following in the event of even a limited invasion – then it may be the most significant ground combat and combined arms action Russian forces have been involved in since 1945. Whether or not war is imminent, we are learning a lot about how Russia approaches conflict, and how great power confrontation and conflict will work in the 2020s.
Even if Russia stands down now, this will happen again, either in Ukraine or elsewhere.
From hybrid “grey zone” action to overwhelming force
When Russia first went to war with Ukraine in 2014 after the Maidan uprising, it did so in ways that were deliberately deniable. “Little grey men” without insignia on their uniforms and covert support to pro-Russian separatists were supported by further information operations designed to muddy the truth.
These tactics remain in play – this month with the deployment of what Western officials say are Wagner Group mercenaries to Mali, and the cyber attacks and threats to Ukraine outlined above. But there is much less ambiguity about Russia’s broader threat – massed troops, artillery, rockets and airpower – and the ammunition to supply them – that are designed to persuade not just Ukraine but other neighbours that the threat of conventional war is real, and that they risk fast and real defeat.
If Russia strikes, that may mean a very different war to that of 2014 – something much more akin to the “shock and awe” of the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. Moscow is showcasing not just enough forces to overwhelm Ukrainian forces face the separatist territories of Donbass and Luhansk, but also strike with aircraft, missiles and drones across Ukraine.
In Georgia in 2008, Russian forces made an elaborate show of seizing US-made Humvees, but largely held back from more than a handful of airstrikes into the main territory of Georgia. This time, however, Russia might well choose to take the chance to seriously degrade Ukraine’s military, particularly new capabilities that worry it such as Turkish drones and new naval establishments along the Black Sea coast.
This fits emerging Russian doctrine. In 2015, Russian General Andrey Kartapolev outlined a multistage approach to modern conflict, beginning by pressuring the enemy politically, economically and through information warfare, spreading dissatisfaction and supporting armed opposition detachments. This, he argued, should be followed by intensifying diplomatic pressure then full-scale war to establish full control over the “state-victim”.
Such actions, however, would also be broader strategic messaging – particularly to the Baltic states and NATO nations that protect them, an unmistakable warning that the Kremlin could do the same to them. It’s a message that has clearly already landed – witness request last week from Estonia for further NATO troops.
Local land grabs R’us
if Russia does invade Ukraine, it may well choose to strike targets across the entire territory of Ukraine – but that does not mean it will then move to annex the whole country. The latter option would require a potentially very bloody long-term occupation in the face of ongoing Ukrainian resistance, with casualties that could be a real political problem for Putin.
Since 2014, the most hawkish pro-Kremlin figures such as Alexander Dugin have suggested that Russia should seize roughly half of Ukrainian territory, so-called “Left Bank Ukraine” comprising everything east of the Dnepr River. More limited options would seize a “land bridge” between Crimea and the separatist territories of Donbass and Luhansk, also grabbing the North Crimean Canal and opening up freshwater supplies to Crimea.
Analysis by the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies suggests multiple potential invasion options for Russia, including driving Ukrainian forces from the Azov Sea coastline to seize the town of Mariupol, which Russian-backed forces trying to take and failed in 2014. Seizing Kherson and the canal would solve Crimea’s water issues, while a thrust from Belarus towards Kyiv might also necessitate taking the rail junction at Chemikiv.
Some believe Russia might also like to see is the Black Sea port of Odessa, likely requiring both airborne and amphibious operations as well as potentially major urban combat.
For now, most analysts still expect a smaller war than that – but the announcement this week that Russian troops had entered Belarus for joint exercises broadens and complicates the picture, making it easier for Russia to advance on Kiev from the north.
Western states have made it clear that their primary response to any of those options would be crippling economic sanctions, effectively cutting Russia out of the international financial system. Whether that is enough to deter Moscow is another question. Scott Ritter, a former US Marine and UN weapons inspector and now regular contributed to RT and other pro-Russian sites argued earlier this month that: “Russia can survive being blocked from SWIFT transactions longer than Europe can survive without Russian energy.”
Testing Russia’s new model army
Any of those options would likely involve relatively dramatic armoured thrusts into Ukrainian territory, supported by some serious firepower. Open source analysis of social media footage of Russian military moves have shown significant proportions of the 1st Guards Tank Army, the 41st Combined Arms Army and 58th Combined Arms Army taking up position within striking distance of Ukraine.
While the term “Army” might bring visions of World War Two-scale multi-corps formations, they are more like the equivalent of a NATO corps or over-strength division. Each has its own heavy embedded firepower, including multiple rocket and fellow weapons as well as intermediate range Iskander ballistic missiles that can hit targets 300 miles away.
Russia’s logistic capability constrains what these forces can do – this is not a force designed for large-scale conquest in mainland Europe, but for winning limited and decisive wars along Russia’s own borders. It is also now supported by a smaller revamped Air Force with several hundred new or revamped combat jets, as well as an increasingly revamped navy, both with enough missiles to dominate the Black Sea.
That doesn’t mean Russia won’t have challenges. A 2017 U.S. Army report by Captain Nicolas Flore noted that Russian Battalion Tactical Groups (tank or infantry-heavy formations formed from half a regular Brigade) have sometimes struggled to work effectively together, their heavy firepower and manoeuvrability making the most effective in small confrontations.
Refining much larger scale command and control has been a central feature of more recent Russian military exercises – but a full-scale invasion of Ukraine will test that to its limits. Russia will likely also want to use electronic warfare, cyber and other means to disrupt Ukrainian command and control and civilian systems – but until it tries, it will not know how effective that might be.
Whatever happens, the UK military should be watching closely – if Russia ever does move on a NATO state most likely in the Baltics, this will be the clearest indication yet of how they might choose to fight.
Disinformation, however, will also be part of Russia’s strategy. This week saw the reappearance on the Donbas front line of Russian war reporter and occasional “local commander” Semyon Pegov, also known as “WarGonzo” whose personal Telegram feed has often been a source of disinformation in Ukraine and Syria, including about Western forces – his material sometimes then amplified by Russian mainstream TV and other media.
This is a war the UK and its allies are also now in
The United States and Britain may have made it clear they will not send combat troops to the defence of Ukraine, but in sending anti-tank weaponry they are still making themselves players on the frontline, supplying kit that could soon be killing Russians in significant numbers.
US-built Javelin systems have been deployed on the frontline in Donbass since late last year, clearly worrying Russian tank crews who have built makeshift screens atop some of their vehicles. Ukrainian commentators were delighted with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s Monday announcement that Britain was already sending similar systems.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have also been given permission by the US State Department to transfer US-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry direct Ukraine.
Military expert Yuriy Butusov described the NLAW missiles as “the best grenade launchers for urban warfare that have no equivalents in Russia”, and praising the UK for avoiding “another Munich agreement”. Journalist Levko Stek said the UK weapons would “significantly strengthen (the Ukrainian army) infighting Russian armoured vehicles.”
An article by Wallace on the gov.uk website unequivocally stating support for Ukrainian nationhood was also well received, and translated into both Russian and English. “Read it,” wrote journalist Petro Shuklinov. “I am impressed. Thank you, Britain. First of all, for the understanding. I feel huge gratitude. And I see who is the real ally and friend of our country.”
According to the New York Times in December, the UK and U. S. have also quietly sent cyber specialist to Ukraine to help it combat Russian hackers, while Canada has taken the unusual step of announcing that is has sent a small number of special forces. According to BBC correspondent Jonathan Beale, some 30 members of the UK’s Ranger Regiment also arrived on January 20 to commence NLAW training for their Ukrainian counterparts.
The US Navy has also taken the unusual step of announcing the presence of the guided missile submarine USS Georgia in the eastern Mediterranean, carrying more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles theoretically capable of reaching Ukraine or Russia from there. The US has also kept the USS Harry Truman carrier battle group in the Mediterranean, and other barely veiled message to Russia even as President Biden made it clear any response to an invasion of Ukraine would be primarily economic.
Such actions will likely infuriate Russia further. But the canvas for this confrontation is already much broader than Ukraine.
This is part of a broader global confrontation
As global attention focused on Ukraine in January, children in Sweden began reporting disconcerting videos on TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media platform popular amongst young people. “War is coming”, proclaimed some, while others may direct warnings about Russian bombing their country.
With Russian landing craft at sea within the Baltic, Swedish military commanders were also concerned, sending troops to the streets of the Baltic island of Gotland, seen as a likely potential target for Russian seizure in any more with the Baltic states.
For the Baltic state of Lithuania, however, the key foreign policy priority of the last year has not been Russia at all, but China, a growing spat that escalated sharply after its decisions to deepen relations with Taiwan. That has been followed by efforts by Beijing to damage Lithuanian firms by restricting Chinese exports, a row that has also dragged in the European Union.
Talk of a simple bilateral confrontation between Western states and Russia and Beijing is oversimplistic – particularly when it comes to Ukraine, where China remains the largest foreign investor even as Russia ramps up the military pressure, potentially leading to an awkward dynamic in the event of war.
What there is no doubt, however, is that the world is entering a worrying new phase of the 2020s, one in which achieving strategic goals through threat of overt military force – for Russia in Ukraine, China with Taiwan – is becoming the order of the day. That’s a lie, and the British military might wish to wonder just how prepared it is for that dynamic.
Peter Apps is an experienced foreign correspondent and British Army reservist.