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Published on: April 7, 2014
Invade A Little or Invade A Lot
Russia’s Next Move in Ukraine

Carefully thinking through Russia’s different tactical options for invading Ukraine would have seemed unnecessarily alarmist as little as a few weeks ago. Today, it seems downright prudent.

Russia’s swift occupation and annexation of Crimea has come as a huge shock to the international community—and the United States and NATO are scrambling for an adequate response. Russia’s next move in Ukraine, however, may quickly come to overshadow Crimea’s annexation.

Despite public statements to the contrary, movement on the ground indicates that this could only be the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign. At the time of this writing, some of Russia’s elite troops, such as the 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division and the 4th Guards Kantimirovskaya Tank Division, have concentrated along the Russian border near the major Ukrainian cities of Chernigov and Kharkov. While the Russian government has attributed the troop buildup to military exercises, U.S. government sources say there is little evidence that any training maneuvers have actually been taking place.

So far Putin’s efforts to retain Russian influence in Ukraine through increasingly bold, risky, and at times counterintuitive tactics have caught his opponents off guard. There is little reason to believe that the former KGB colonel has any intention to let up.  In fact, it appears he has only begun to play his cards. What are his options?

Maintaining the Status Quo

Though it’s unlikely that Russia has been deterred by the West’s response thus far—the EU could not bring itself to enact sanctions at the level the U.S. was proposing, and President Obama explicitly ruled out any form of military assistance in Ukraine—it’s still possible that Putin has determined that the status quo is good enough for now.

Sending agents provocateurs into the eastern Ukrainian cities, as he did over the weekend, may be the prelude for a broader military incursion. But it also might just be a means for keeping Kiev and its Western friends off balance. If the situation continues to look like it’s about to spin out of control, he may be counting on skittish Western patrons forcing Kiev to accept his proposal for Ukraine’s federalization. In a federal Ukraine, Russian influence in the Southeast would be preserved and central government authority permanently attenuated.

The beauty of the status quo is that Putin can pursue a “wait and see” approach, assessing his political and diplomatic options while maintaining the ability to intervene militarily at a moment’s notice. If the Kremlin’s covert, political, and diplomatic maneuvering do not produce the desired result, then the West may wake up to a very unpalatable reality: a deeper Russian push into Ukraine.

Capturing Eastern Ukraine

In a repeat of the Crimean operation, Russian troops could enter the Lugansk, Donetsk, and Kharkov regions under the guise of defending the local Russian population. Anne Applebaum has already noted that tanks along the Ukrainian border have been painted with peacekeeping slogans, and that pro-Russian activists storming the government buildings have called for ‘peacekeepers’ to come to their aid.

The occupation of the strategically significant Donbas region and Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkov, would provide Russia with new leverage, as it could either annex the territory or give it back in a negotiated settlement that would transform Ukraine into a federal state. Such an operation would be in clear breach of international law and could create a strong backlash even among Russia’s diminishing list of allies. But some of this fallout could be minimized by using local paramilitary groups in tandem with Russian special forces, creating a confusion on the ground—as was done in Crimea.

Russia could also be contemplating capturing all of southeastern Ukraine for several reasons. It would be a very Putinesque display of pique to deny rump Ukraine any access to the Black Sea. Furthermore, such a strategy would solve the infrastructural hurdles Russia is facing after Crimea’s annexation. Finally, Russian officials have already implied that the status of the tiny breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova could be a sufficient pretext for Russia to do something. Transnistrian activists, for their part, have pulled out of further negotiations with Moldova and, citing Crimea as precedent, have rekindled agitation for integration into the Russian state.

But this kind of move would come with a high price. Few believe that the Ukrainian military could resist a proper Russian invasion for long, but most of southeastern Ukraine is not as likely to welcome Russian forces as Crimea was. Annexation would not be a popular move in Odessa, for example, where pro-Russian demonstrations have attracted low turnout and where polls show the majority of the population opposing Russian military involvement in Ukraine. Brushing off international opprobrium is easy. Occupying a hostile territory is less so.

Blitz into Kiev

Russia’s current force on the Ukrainian border—which estimates peg at 30,000 to 100,000 men— is too small for an outright sustained invasion of Ukraine. To put it in perspective, the invasion of Iraq required approximately 300,000 coalition troops who had greater military capability than those currently at Russia’s disposal—and Ukraine is both quite a bit larger and more populous than Iraq.

But that’s where the comparison ends, and therefore should give little comfort. Russia does not need to occupy the entire country to achieve its apparent strategic goals. Indeed, the concentration of troops near Chernigov suggests that Russia may opt to attain tactical and strategic surprise and, rather than move into pro-Russian territory in the southeast as most would expect, march along the most direct available route to Kiev. U.S. estimates indicate that Russia could achieve its military objectives in a handful of days with little prior warning.

The goal probably wouldn’t be outright regime change. Putin has to be aware that owning the political establishment in Kiev no longer guarantees stability in Ukraine. In light of how successful the Euromaidan protesters were in quickly toppling the Yanukovych administration, any overtly pro-Russian authority would not last long. And prolonged occupation of the capital could trigger a fierce guerilla resistance—something a shocked and perhaps more unified West could not ignore.

A lightning-quick strike at Kiev would rather be more of a destabilizing move—showing Ukraine’s people that their government is powerless before Russian might and demonstrating once and for all that NATO will not be coming to their rescue. Ukraine’s political elites, well-versed at flip-flopping and ‘working with’ the Russians, could be compelled to accept the federalization proposal at gunpoint, and the Euromaidan movement could lose its mainstream, middle-class supporters who conclude that their fight is for naught.

If in May Ukrainians elect a President that Moscow does not trust or feels that it can’t work with, Putin may calculate that driving for Kiev, risky as it is, may be worth it.

The above scenarios, weeks ago considered farfetched, are probably more likely than most Western analysts are willing to admit to themselves. This is a mistake. Putin has given every indication that he is playing hardball and is not interested in the kinds of positive-sum solutions that European and American diplomats have come to expect as the norm. He has intimated that he does not consider Ukraine a legitimate country, is clearly leaving the door open to more territorial revision, and is unlikely to settle for much less than his already articulated preference for a weak confederation of regional governments on his border.

If this is true, what is the West’s response? The only thing more chilling than the recent Russian troop activity on Ukraine’s border is the fact that it’s hard to imagine the current crop of Western leaders coming up with a coherent answer to this question.

Yevgen Sautin is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He was previously a Junior Fellow in the Russia-Eurasia and Energy-Climate Change Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
show comments
  • Dkflbvbh Dkflbvbhjdbx

    Большего бреда не читал. Автор – проплаченный агент ЦРУ. Позор :-)

    • chuckster52

      Abba dabba doo…

      • Dkflbvbh Dkflbvbhjdbx

        Учи языки, убогий :-) Повышай свой культурный уровень..

  • Reasonable Doubt

    Every time anyone on behalf of western powers even mentioned “international law” my first reaction is to spit in his face.

    • Alex K.

      Says a troll with one (1) post on his/her Disqus profile.

  • Алексей

    Автор, ты дебил!

  • Alex K.

    I agree that the Russian army could simply advance towards Kyiv and Kharkiv and capture these cities in a Blitzkrieg. It’s 55 miles from the Russian border to Chernihiv and 110 miles more to Kyiv.

    It’s only 25 miles from the border to Kharkiv, the erstwhile capital of Soviet Ukraine.

    However, the US is far from powerless. If Moscow is still capable of understanding anything, it must have realized that the US can wreak havoc on Russia’s economy by merely blocking Russian exporters’ dollar transactions. Russia got a foretaste of that when Visa and MasterCard stopped servicing cards issued by some Russian banks, and JP Morgan Chase blocked a payment by a Russian embassy.


    Jews should leave Palestine. Then we talk.

    As for Russia, it is only protecting Russians in Ukraine.

  • Alex K.

    Partly irrelevant, partly delusional.

  • VictorAhn

    What’s happening now in Eastern Ukraine is just what was happening in Kiev months ago. Only it’s vector is different. So we witness hypocrisy and shameless double standard of the West once again. West said the protesters on Maidan were legitimate opposition force. But now they say the protesters in Eastern Ukraine are no legitimate lol

    • Alex K.

      “What’s happening now in Eastern Ukraine is just what was happening in Kiev months ago.”

      No. There was a genuine popular protest in Kyiv supported by millions of middle-class Ukrainians. What we’re seeing in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk are small but aggressive crowds led by Russian nationals, not locals.

      • Tatiana

        You aren’t right. You even can’t imagine how many people in Donetsk, Kharkov and other cities are against new government (about 70-80% of people in Eastern Ukraine!!!). My relatives live there. They write they hate people who made Maidan and destroyed Kiev while they were working. And now nazist from Maidan are called “heroes” and paid good money while my relatives as well as all the Ukrainians from EASTERN Ukraine have to pay 10% of their salaries for reconstructing Kiev after Maidan… Pensions were cut and taxes were raised….Who will like it and won’t protest?

        • Alex K.

          I can easily imagine how many people dislike the new government in Kyiv, however this does contradict my claim that the crowds seen protesting – violently – in the streets of the three Eastern cities are small and coordinated by Russian plants.

          Your personal experience may be valuable but cannot substitute for research. The 70-80% number your offer is not based no polls and is as worthless as the 95% “yes” vote at the recent Crimean referendum.

          And, of course, your labeling the Maidan protesters “Nazis” reveals an enormous bias on your side.

          • Tatiana

            And your statement that “..protest in Kyiv supported by millions… What we’re seeing in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk are small but aggressive crowds led by Russian nationals, not locals….” is not based no polls, too…
            Your opinion is based on Western articles while my opinion is based on my family and relatives’ personal experience.
            That’s the difference!

          • Alex K.

            No, my opinion is not based on “Western articles.” It is based on my observations of Russian and Ukrainian social networks.

          • chuckster52

            “my opinion is based on my family and relatives’ personal experience.”

            Perhaps your relatives are pro- Russian extremists!

          • Tatiana

            They ARE pro-Russians like most of the people in Eastern Ukraine. But they are not extremists. Unfortunately they have no time to attend pro-Russian meetings and protests because they work and look after their children and babies. And they live in the countryside, not in the big city.

          • chuckster52

            OK…Sorry, they do sound nice. What is it they want? Annexation by Russia, or more autonomy within a loose Ukraine Federation?

          • Tatiana

            They just want to live in peace like they did before…

          • Tatiana

            To get an answer to your question you should go to Ukraine and ask Ukrainians what they want.

          • chuckster52

            i meant what do your family and relatives want. You have used them as your source! What do they want?

            “my opinion is based on my family and relatives’ personal experience.”

          • Tatiana

            If you want to make a good research you should go to the Eastern part of Unkraine (or at least to any Eastern city) and move form the house to house asking people about their attitude to Maidan /government/ prohibiting of the Russian language/ Rusiian invensions and so on.
            And then you’ll get the polls and data “substitute for research.”

  • Валентин Юрьев

    from Donetsk….People we want to talk in Russian … and fight for it, hope to protect against Putin seized power illegally

  • gabrielsyme

    Putin has given every indication that he is… not
    interested in the kinds of positive-sum solutions that European and
    American diplomats have come to expect as the norm.

    Firstly, it is probably not “positive-sum” solutions that Putin is opposed to, but the very marginal positives the West is willing to condescend to allow him. It is not surprising that someone will prefer a whole loaf to half a slice.

    More importantly, I’m not sure whether this “positive-sum” game supposedly played by the West can really be seen that way from the Russian point of view. Western policy has focused on containing Russia and drawing areas of former Russian influence into a more Western orbit. It’s hard to find the “positive-sum” solution in that.

  • Jim__L

    “The only thing more chilling than the recent Russian troop activity on
    Ukraine’s border is the fact that it’s hard to imagine the current crop
    of Western leaders coming up with a coherent answer to this question.”

    That’s because Step 1 is to increase defense spending, something no Western leader is willing to do.

  • ShadrachSmith

    “Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting;” Sun Tzu

    Since the Ukraine dissolved into chaos, Putin has been using the Charter of the United Nations: “Chapter I: Purposes and Principles. … nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,…” as the perfectly legal basis of resetting contested borders after the collapse of a neighboring government.

    It was the collapse of Ukraine’s government that caused this disaster, and US and EU agents provocateurs did as much to bring down the Ukrainian government as the Russians did.

    Putin is playing by the rules and winning conquest after conquest. Perhaps the Russians for all their faults have a more skillful leader than we do.

  • Jim__L

    Putin’s question to the West: “What are you willing and able to keep?”

  • Am_Expat

    From my point of view as a property owner in Ukraine, and American living in Russia, with hundreds of friends in the middle, eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, the popularity of the coup is a lot lower than is reported in the west. The terms of the EU trade agreement that started the peaceful protest have not been described in the west, but if they had been, I think most people would have been surprised if Yanokovich would have signed it. It was definitely not to the best interests of the citizens and would have limited trade with Russia, by far Ukraine’s largest trade partner.
    After talking to many friends and relatives of my friends in the eastern region, if a referendum was held today, the clear majority would select to leave Ukraine. They have all heard the speeches by the coup leaders who are ultra-nationalists, and their promises to rid the country of Russia language and Russian speakers right to vote. Far west Ukraine is nothing like the east, have few things in common with different language, culture and histories. From Kiev eastward, few families do not have members on both sides of the Russian border so which ever choice is made, it will depend on access to family. The entire eastern portion of the country has had their Russian language broadcasts shut down so news and entertainment links to their community has been cut by the new coup government, which just pushes them further away from the new nationalist government. They know they will be second class citizens with few avenues of access to government services or participation, or even access to school.
    A partition along the historic divide between Ukraine and Russia makes sense for these people. Western Ukraine was part of Poland and Lithuania, while all east of the Napier River was part of other nations since the middle ages, and part of the Russian empire since the 1700’s.

    The most frightening element of all the events in Ukraine as reported in the west is how similar the drumbeat of propaganda has polarized the discussion in the same way the media ginned up the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it took little time for 93% of the US population was demanding war and not even questioning their own views for 10 years or longer of why they were so easily duped.

  • Am_Expat

    This is not new information, the BRIC countries have been openly discussing the desire to move to either regional or a international reserve currency, with Russia and China making the most firm negotiations. The only country to be negatively impacted would be the US which has had a strong advantage for a long time, and one of the reasons the euro was created..
    Whatever happens with Ukraine, the longer term impact of recent events will be weakening of the dominance of the US in dictating policy for Europe. If the bill in the senate passes, and is signed into law, which bans any country from recognizing Crimea, and prevents countries trading with any country recognizing the new alignment, might be the most unfortunate law passed in a long time. It will force a number of EU countries and China so weaken ties with the US. It is one thing to place bans on Cuba but quite another to force trading partners of Russia, China and India to stop trade that is a mainstay of their own economies. If the Russian switch to Ruble energy transactions does not undo the Petrodollar, the sweeping sanction bill in the senate certain will.

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