What would a Russian attack on Ukraine look like?
It depends, of course, on what Russia intends to accomplish. But Ukrainians and Western observers say a new push into the country could bring aerial and artillery bombardments of populated areas, deadly urban warfare, and a long, guerrilla-like insurgency by Ukrainian forces that have been improving ever since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.
Defense One spoke to a senior Ukrainian senior military official, a senior military official from an allied country, a Ukrainian combat veteran, and U.S. military analysts about how the coming conflict could unfold.
A new incursion could produce casualties far beyond the nearly 7,000 Ukrainians who were killed or injured in the months after Russia seized Crimea.
Several broad scenarios are possible, according to one analyst at a military-affiliated think tank that did not grant him permission to speak publicly about them.
The most likely course of action for the Russian forces, he said, is a very limited incursion, mostly to reinforce Russia’s position in territory it already has under control via proxy forces, namely areas in the Donbas. Moscow would also likely start stationing troops in Belarus—not just rotating them through for exercises—so they can menace Ukraine and NATO allies Poland and Lithuania.
The second-most-likely scenario, the analyst said, would see Russia’s 8th Combined Arms Army move into the Donbas, an area of eastern Ukraine currently held by Moscow-aligned Ukrainian separatists.
Two things lend credence to this scenario, the analyst said. Recent information operations suggest that Moscow is preparing its population for an increased presence in the Donbas and a more permanent presence in Belarus. And the training and readiness of Russia’s current force in Belarus—the 35th, 36th, and 92th Combined Arms Armies and the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade—leave them ill-suited for a major push to the capital or another Ukrainian stronghold.
Ukrainian government forces would find it difficult or impossible to dislodge the Russian troops and Moscow could follow this military move with a diplomatic one: granting recognition to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. A major fortification of those two territories could help Moscow press the West to cede that stolen territory to Russia, though Washington and Kyiv insist they won’t.
Either of these scenarios might fit what U.S. President Joe Biden called a “minor” incursion in that they don’t really open up new fronts for ground assault. (The White House walked back the remark after Ukrainian outcry.) But even these limited moves would likely be preceded by air and artillery strikes that would cause Ukrainian civilian casualties.
A less likely but still feasible scenario involves a wider attempt to seize new territory along Ukraine’s southern coast, including the city of Mariupol. This could connect the Russian-controlled areas in the east with the annexed Crimean peninsula, and ease the peninsula’s severe water shortage.
A siege of Mariupol would mean a massive expansion of the war and far higher civilian casualties. Ukrainians can be expected to mount a prolonged resistance campaign using tactics and techniques learned from foreign special operations forces and honed in the continuous war in eastern Ukraine and even in Afghanistan, where Ukrainians undertook a rescue mission in August.
“Of course, we try to train” for a major Russian assault, said the Ukrainian military official. “I can say that wherever Russians go they are going to meet a hostile environment and a hostile population. So every window will shoot.”
It’s unclear how the Russian government or the West would respond to a terrible and protracted siege and counterinsurgency. Would it resemble the Putin regime’s crude and brutal approach to suppressing resistance in Syria? “Once you take Mariupol and once you connect the land bridge to Crimea, you’re working in an entirely different world,” said the analyst in terms of what both sides are prepared to do.
A third scenario would see Russian forces move past Mariupol, possibly all the way to the Black Sea port of Odessa, encountering resistance and insurgency all the way.
A fourth would see troops move in from north of Donetsk to the city of Kharkiv.
It is even conceivable that the Russian force in Belarus might attempt “to bisect Ukraine down the Dnieper river, including taking Kyiv,” said the analyst. But the force in Belarus lacks the Russian army’s best unit for that kind of action: the 1st Guards Tank Army.
New Technology and Hardware
As the scenarios increase in severity, there is a greater role for weapons whose capabilities have advanced on both sides.
Eight years ago, Russia took drone warfare to a new level, using relatively simple machines to quickly find and fire on Ukrainian positions. The Russian military has since honed its strategies and tactics in Syria while upping production at home. Today, it has an estimated 2,000 drones, “probably the second-largest working UAV fleet in the world after the United States,” said Sam Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an adviser at the CNA Corporation.
These drones have finally given Russian forces aerial eyes that operate “around the clock, providing battlefield imagery through a variety of sensors. And this is a very big deal,” Bendett said. Russia has also begun fielding the Orion and other armed, medium-altitude long-endurance drones that can strike targets.
“What I think Russia has over Ukraine is the fact that it has had years of testing and formulation of using these machines in actual prolonged around-the-clock combat” in Syria, he said.
Russia also has a massive artillery advantage over Ukraine and much better air defenses.
But Ukraine also has a better fighting force than it did in 2014. Special operations troops from Poland, Lithuania, Canada, and the United States have worked to train Ukrainian operators in “battalion-level stuff to NATO standards,” a senior Ukrainian military official said.
Today, U.S.-trained special operators are deeply embedded in eastern Ukraine, where their capability overlaps with Territorial Defense Brigades that Ukraine stood up in 2015.
Ukrainian forces are also much better at fighting off Russian armor and electronic warfare. “It’s not just training,” said a Ukrainian combat veteran who is currently serving as a military contractor and advisor to Kyiv. He described weekly engagements with pro-Russian forces that have helped Ukraine much better understand and prepare for engagements. “It can not be compared” to 2014.
Ukraine also has combat-capable drones procured from Turkey. And they’ve asked for Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and more Javelin anti-tank missiles, better communications equipment, and air defenses, the veteran said.
Outside of the military preparations, Putin has made covert attempts to overthrow the Ukrainian government. That provides a stark reminder that however much land Putin does or does not take, whatever his grumblings about NATO or U.S. activities in Europe the regime’s real enemy is a free and democratic Ukraine.
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