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Tom Clonan: The next 24 hours will be pivotal in the future of peace in Ukraine and Europe

The security analyst says a Russian invasion of Ukraine could mean the largest conventional ground offensive in Europe since World War II.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

IN POLITICAL, DIPLOMATIC and military terms, we have reached the point of maximum exploitation for the imminent invasion of Ukraine. The next 24 hours will be pivotal in the future of peace in Ukraine and Europe. Based on fast-moving events today, we may be on the precipice of invasion.

As I write, the US and UK media are quoting ‘intelligence’ sources indicating that a Russian invasion of Ukraine will commence between 1am and 3am Irish time, Wednesday morning. If this is the case, it will signal the commencement of the first conventional ground offensive in Europe since the Balkan conflict – and possibly the largest since World War II.

The signs are ominous. In political terms, the Russian Duma today voted to ask President Vladimir Putin to recognise the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ within Ukraine as independent, sovereign nations.

This is a dangerous moment. If President Putin agrees to this proposal, the Ukrainian government has stated that this would mean an end to the 2015 Minsk Peace Process.

In other words, without sending one Russian soldier across the border into Ukraine, if the Kremlin formally recognises Donetsk and Luhansk as independent entities, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba today stated that this would represent the ‘de facto and de jure withdrawal of Russia from the Minsk agreement’. In political terms – irrespective of any military manoeuvres or movements – any such recognition would bring Ukraine and Russia one step closer to war.

Thus far, President Putin has not yet stated whether or not he supports the Russian Duma’s resolution on the independent status of Luhansk and Donetsk. However, President Putin did state today that the situation in Donbass resembled a ‘genocide’ – presumably of Russian speaking and Russian passport holding citizens in that area.

Speaker of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin also complained today of the ‘shelling’ of Donbass and Luhansk by the Ukrainian military. Echoing this view, Russia’s envoy to the EU also stated today ‘that Moscow would “respond” if Russian citizens started being killed anywhere, including Donbass’.

Last ditch diplomacy

He further stated Russia’s position to the EU, ‘We will not invade Ukraine unless we are provoked to do that … If the Ukrainians launch an attack against Russia, you shouldn’t be surprised if we counterattack. Or, if they start blatantly killing Russian citizens anywhere — Donbass or wherever’.

In political terms therefore, one could argue that the stage has been set for a possible Russian military intervention in Eastern Ukraine. In diplomatic terms, last ditch attempts are being made to prevent such an intervention at the highest levels.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited President Putin in Moscow today in order to dissuade him from any military operations against neighbouring Ukraine. In response, President Putin has stated that he still awaits assurances and guarantees from Nato and the US on limits for missile and troop deployments in central and eastern Europe.

In this insistence, Putin has signaled quite clearly that he does not attach much weight to the EU’s status as a negotiating party to this crisis. In political terms – post Brexit – and in military terms, the EU is regarded as weak.

Despite assurances that Russia has begun to withdraw some troops from its border with Ukraine, diplomatic tensions remain high. Frankly speaking, Russia still has a very large number of troops deployed along Ukraine’s borders from Transnistria through the Crimean Peninsula in the west and south and from Rostov on Don, to Smolensk in the east and in Belarus to the north.

Evidence of intent

The German Foreign Minister has reiterated today that ‘the situation is particularly dangerous and can escalate at any moment’. Nato General Secretary has also stated today that there is ‘no evidence’ of a Russian de-escalation along Ukraine’s borders.

In military terms, Russia’s deployment of ground, air and naval assets to the region remains very high. Over 100,000 combat troops remain forward deployed to Ukraine’s borders. This represents a very serious commitment in terms of personnel and logistical supports. To maintain such a force in the field – for such a prolonged period of time – demonstrates ample evidence of capacity and intent.

The Russian units deployed are highly maneuverable and fast moving armoured and mechanized units including elements of the 41st Army including the 74th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, the 1st Guards Tank army. They are reinforced with combat units of the 20th and 8th Guards Armies to form so-called all-arms ‘Battalion Tactical Groups’ or BTGs. In turn, these are supported by naval assets from the Black Sea Fleet and considerable air assets from the Russian Air Force.

On paper – and on the ground – these units represent the optimum force that would be required to swiftly seize, occupy and hold an area approximate to that of Luhansk and Donetsk. In my view they would not be sufficient to mount an invasion of the entire territory and land mass of Ukraine.

Russia has stated today that it is withdrawing some of these troops. The specifics of their statements are interesting. Russian Defence Ministry Spokesperson Igor Konashenkov stated that ‘units of the southern and western military districts … will begin moving to their military garrisons’. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigh stated that ‘military exercises are ending’ and that more would ‘end’ in ‘the near future’.

The units identified as ‘returning to garrison’ would by virtue of their proximity to Ukraine – remain available and organic to any Russian command structure engaged in any cross border military intervention in the region.

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What happens next?

The wording of the Defence Minister’s statement is also interesting. He does not speak of withdrawal, but an end to the exercise phase. Ideally, before offensive or defensive operations, large military formations rehearse and manoeuver together in large exercises. Therefore, in military terms, President Putin has the wherewithal to invade Ukraine in the next 24 hours.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. If President Putin endorses the Duma’s call for the recognition of the sovereignty of Luhansk and Donetsk as Russian-speaking Independent People’s Republics, then all bets are off.

In such a volatile scenario, Russian troops could be ‘called upon’ to pour over the border and ‘defend’ their citizens. Based on the numbers of troops deployed to the region, I do not believe that a full-scale, nationwide invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Russia has the capability to strike at Kyiv and to consolidate its hold of Donetsk and Luhansk.

However – like the US-led experience in Iraq, or Nato’s experience in Afghanistan – Russia could not occupy and hold 40 million Ukrainians at gunpoint. To do so would draw the Kremlin into a prolonged and catastrophic war of attrition in Europe.

Such a war would result in the deaths and displacement of millions of innocent men, women and children in Ukraine – not to mention the deaths of many thousands of Russian troops. It would also carry with it the risk of escalation – proxy war with the west and ultimately the risk of a new world war.

The military stage is set for conflict. It would be an untold human tragedy if war were to break out – based on fragile ego and brittle ambition. The next 24 hours will require ethical and imaginative leadership as diplomacy and political efforts reach their elastic limit.

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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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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