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US President Joe Biden (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin meet in June 2021. Alamy Stock Photo

Tom Clonan Is Russia planning on invading Ukraine?

The security expert looks at the likelihood of an all-out invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and how it will play out on a global stage.

IN RECENT WEEKS, Russia has deployed a very large force of combat troops to its border with Ukraine.

Estimates vary from 125,000 to 175,000 Russian soldiers in situ. The Russian units include elements of the 41st Army including the 74th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, the 1st Guards Tank army, along with combat units of the 20th and 8th Guards Armies.

Russian troops have also reinforced positions on the recently annexed Crimean Peninsula. In addition, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is readied in support of these highly mobile, highly maneuverable formations. In short, Russia seems poised to invade Ukraine. But will they?

Russia’s massive military build-up has taken place over two months. Significantly, there has been little or no attempt to conceal or disguise this fact. From a logistical and support perspective, it represents a serious investment on the part of the Kremlin to forward deploy and maintain such a large, combat-ready force to its border with Ukraine and Belarus. Such an investment clearly signals that Russia is ready, capable and willing to invade its neighbour.

Historical perspective

From a historical perspective, the North European Plain – and Ukraine – have been a well-worn pathway of invasion into Russia. Most recently, in June 1941, as part of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany invaded Russia through southern Poland and Ukraine. Under the command of General Gerd Von Rundstedt, this was one of three main thrusts into the heart of Russian territory.

Over thirty million Russian civilians and soldiers were killed in the war that followed. It would be an understatement to say that the western approaches to Russia are a sensitive matter for ordinary Russian citizens.

President Putin cites NATO’s eastward expansion as one of the reasons for their build-up of forces on Ukraine’s borders. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union – and contrary to promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev – 14 former satellite states of the USSR have joined NATO. Estonia and Latvia are on Russia’s border.

The remainder, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia and Bulgaria make NATO the biggest military alliance in the world – on Russia’s doorstep.

Many Russians see the encroachment of western military assets on Russia’s territory, in what they term ‘the near abroad’ as provocative. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has stated, ‘For us, it is absolutely mandatory to ensure Ukraine never, ever becomes a member of NATO’. This is Russia’s stated ‘red line’.

The best indicator of future behaviour – whether or not Russia will actually invade Ukraine – is probably found in past behaviour. In April 2008, at the NATO Bucharest Summit, in a somewhat unexpected move, US President George W Bush nominated Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership. From 1992 until this point, both countries were regarded by Moscow as relatively ‘neutral’ states. The announcement – with no predicted date – that they would join NATO was seen as provocative in the Kremlin. President Putin acted swiftly.

Invasion of Georgia

In August 2008, in a short, 10-day campaign, the Russians invaded Georgia. Their military build-up was swift and decisive. The Russian 58th Army along with Airborne troops and Spetsnaz special forces – supported by the 4th Air Force Command – hammered their way into Georgia.

This force comprising over 100,000 troops was ten times larger than Georgia’s tiny full time army of approximately 10,000 soldiers.

At the time, a Russian contact informed me that the invasion of Georgia was ‘an opportunity that presented itself at relatively short notice. After much provocation, we did a quick cost-benefit analysis and concluded that Georgia, while strategically important, was militarily small and therefore presented the Russian government with the prospect of a short, winnable war’. The invasion would result in 850 deaths and would make 35,000 Georgian citizens homeless.

14 years after the invasion, approximately 20% of Georgia’s former territory remains occupied by Russian forces – a buffer zone of sorts between Russia and NATO member Turkey. This short – and from a Russian perspective – spectacularly successful war, was an important victory for Vladimir Putin and his newly reformed and reconfigured Russian Army.

During this period, Putin more than quadrupled military spending in Russia to transform a two-million conscript army – designed to fight a relatively static conventional conflict according to Cold War norms – to a more nimble, mobile army of professional soldiers, capable of swift power and force projection.

Annexation of Crimea

The response to Ukraine’s proposed membership of NATO has been a much slower burn, however.

In 2014, following the removal of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, Kremlin-backed forces annexed the southern Crimean peninsula. Within Ukraine, fighting began with Russian separatists seizing ground in Luhansk and Donetsk along the border with Russia.

This conflict – which has continued for almost a decade – has claimed over 14,000 lives. Russia has always denied direct involvement in these events. This denial also extends to the shooting down – with a Russian-manufactured Buk anti-aircraft missile – of a civilian airliner, Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014, resulting in the deaths of 298 men, women and children.

NATO and EU defence and intelligence analysts have described Russian activities in Ukraine and the Baltic States in the last decade or so as ‘Gray Zone’ operations – a form of asymmetrical or hybrid warfare involving overt and covert military operations, proxy attacks, propaganda and disinformation campaigns along with Cyber-attacks.

In the German White Paper on Defence of 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel predicted the potential for a serious regional escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. At the time she wrote, ‘The past years have shown that we must not take the achievements of the European post-war order for granted. We would not have believed it possible that borders would be re-drawn by military force and in breach of international law in Europe in the 21st century. Wars and conflicts are raging on Europe’s doorstep’.

The recent, dramatic escalation of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine appears to confirm the German Chancellor’s grave warning of the potential for a regional conflict within Europe.

The current German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock visited the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv this week. Expressing solidarity with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky she stated there would be ‘extreme consequences’ for Russia if they invade. The US and Britain have also pledged support for Ukraine.

In 2021 alone, the Biden Administration has given $450 million in security aid to the Ukrainian military. Recently a further $60 million in weapons – including Javelin anti-tank weapons – have been delivered. The US have also deployed 165 troops to Ukraine as part of the Joint Military Training Group – Ukraine (JTMG-U) to help prepare Ukrainian troops for ground combat. In Operation Orbital, the UK military have also deployed 53 troops and have recently supplied 2000 main battle tanks and light anti-tank weapons (MBT LAW).

The stage is set for a major confrontation. However, unlike Georgia – Ukraine has a relatively large standing army of approximately 200,000 troops. Many of these troops have had combat experience over the last decade and are occupying defensive positions.

Unlike Georgia in 2008, Ukraine is prepared for an invasion and in addition to foreign military aid, they have over 2,500 tanks, 12,000 armoured vehicles and almost 100 attack aircraft.

If Russia decides to invade, it is unlikely to be a ‘short, winnable war’. If Russia’s war aims were to invade and occupy all of Ukraine – it might resemble the disastrous war in Chechnya. Russia might however decide – in a relatively limited incursion – to invade the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine to create a ‘buffer zone’ along their border – similar to their strategy in Georgia.

In the last few months the Russians have issued 500,000 passports to Russian-speaking citizens in these contested areas. US analysts have warned that the Russians might invade to ‘protect’ these citizens in a ‘false flag’ operation.

Moscow is testing the weakened resolve of NATO and the EU. China will also be watching with great interest the coherence and cohesion of US and European responses to the threat of force. Recent setbacks for NATO and the West in central Asia – with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan – and the disastrous wars in Iraq and Syria have shown western military interventions to be costly and ineffective.

Cynics will argue that the crisis in Ukraine is really about regional dominance and a leveraging of the extremely lucrative supply of gas and energy to Europe from Russia. Whatever happens next – the principal victims will be the ordinary men, women and children of Ukraine. The crisis is a critical moment for Joe Biden’s presidency – and an equally critical test of the resolve of the EU and NATO post Brexit.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.


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