Guest post by Jim Waurishuk, Colonel, USAF (Ret)
I’ve been saying this and have continued to say — Russia will not invade Ukraine. First and foremost, the Russian military has too much experience to think a full-scale invasion is a good idea. Secondly and equally important is that Putin knows that Russia couldn’t occupy Ukraine if he wanted to … so let me explain.
It is quite obvious that based on ongoing reporting, ops-eds and opinion pieces over the last several months, many analysts both in the United States and Europe are convinced an invasion of Ukraine is now the most likely outcome of their claim of Russian troop movements near the Ukraine border. Some have gone further in concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to impose a Russian military occupation on all or part of Ukraine. They believe the Russian military will try to establish a new political and social order in Ukraine, replacing the government under President Volodymyr Zelensky with a Moscow puppet regime.
There is little doubt that the build-up of what are now around 80 battalion tactical groups, which include tanks, artillery, and around 130,000 troops, represents a profound threat to Ukraine. The apparent presence of airborne military units and amphibious assets indicate how multifaceted any military onslaught could become. Perhaps most worrying are the movements of Rosgvardiya detachments, or Russian National Guard troops, who would be responsible for providing security on territory behind the frontlines, managing prisoners of war and securing logistics. These are all potential signals that a comprehensive plan for occupation may be in place.
Yet any discussion of potential Russian action toward Ukraine needs to take into account the resources available to Putin’s Russian and the history of previous Russian, Soviet, and other great military-powers occupations. And here the picture becomes less clear cut than a lot of speculation over the potential invasion of Ukraine, woefully acknowledged by many will happen.
First, we should quickly look at Russia’s disposition of forces and the order of battle (a military term). Few have pointed out that the actual locations of many of the Russian military units positioned or even pre-positioned in western Russia are 100 miles plus from the actual Ukraine border, as well as to the northwest near Russia’s border with Belarus. Despite this, it needs to be understood that Putin can move, position, and maneuver his military forces anywhere he wants, any day of the week inside Russia’s sovereign borders. Yes, countries can do that. So don’t be alarmed. These are same people who freak-out when they see convoys or miles of trains moving military equipment around the U.S. or hear “Black” helicopters at night over their house.
Understanding that, the key consideration that must be addressed is an invasion would subsequently require an occupation in order to hold ground, and to eventually seize and maintain control of the county of Ukraine. Ukraine is a huge country. That, in and of itself is a massive task and certainly will be a costly task. What does that look like in simple terms? It would be a vast move to seize and hold large cities, including Kiev, Kharkiv, or Odessa, would require enough troops to destroy the Ukrainian army, crush a potential insurgency and back up any permanent security force that can be recruited from local collaborators or hired from outside Ukraine. Kyiv alone has a population of 3 million in a dense urban landscape, while Kharkiv has 1.5 million and Odessa has 1 million. Smaller cities east of the Dnieper River, such as Dnipro or Zaporizhya, each have populations in the hundreds of thousands. If Crimea and the parts of the Donbas region occupied by Russia are removed, the population of Ukraine as a whole has a massive overall population officially of 41 million. I haven’t even addressed logistics, supply lines, terrain, conditions, and access, weather, climate and environment, or command and control that Russia will be required to maneuver and mitigate.
Political and military strategists and planners always struggle to assess and determine the critical tasks and costs. Looking historically of such requirements provide rational, reason, and at the same time skepticism and second thought. For Russia and the former Soviet Union, the level of manpower that previous occupations of this scale required provide a hint of the challenges Russia would face when occupying all or a large part of Ukraine. The occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which faced no armed resistance, was initiated by a move of nearly 250,000 ‘Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops’ that in weeks was bolstered to nearly 500,000 in order to hold down a population of 14 million. Russia today, has none of that militarily and would certainly be in quite the opposite position. Also note that from 1999 to 2003, during the second Chechen War in Chechnya, the Russian army surged over 90,000 troops into a territory with a population of less than 1 million to brutally suppress an armed insurgency. Chechnya was also a southern province of Russia. During the Chechen conflict Russia suffered upwards of 14,000 KIAs.
What most don’t take into consideration is the fact that Ukraine is heavily armed and by far the most tactically viable and deadly militaries of the former Soviet states, second only to Poland which is a NATO country. The U.S., under President Trump ensured that Ukraine was extremely well armed and trained so as not to have to deploy U.S. forces to the region, following the Russian incursions and taking of the Crimea and Black Sea port of Sevastopol during the Obama administration in 2014. Trump also knew that to thwart any opportunity of a Russian incursion across the vast plains of eastern Ukraine would require Russia to employ armor. Hence, the U.S. provided Ukraine a massive stockpiles of Javelin anti-armor missile system as a formidable deterrent. And yes, Russian tankers and armor vehicles fear the Javelin.
Second and most likely, the biggest counter threat to Russia would be the formation of an armed resistance should Moscow attempt to establish and implement any form of an occupation of Ukraine. And I must guarantee that will happen. There is no doubt about that. Also consider that with Ukraine surrounded and bordered by Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, a formidable armed resistance and insurgency against Russian forces would provide an endless supply of arms and equipment to anti-Russian forces. Putin cannot afford to undertake and withstand an endless and costly irregular unconventional conflict. It would more than likely be quite bloody and certainly deadly for Putin’s occupying forces.
Historically, keep in mind, what occurred during and following the United States 2003 invasion of Iraq, a country with a population of 26 million. The U.S. employed around 190,000 U.S. and allied forces, as well as 60,000 Kurdish Peshmerga auxiliaries in support. Analysts concerned this force would be too small to stabilize Iraq were proven right as a swift victory over Saddam Hussein’s regime on the battlefield slid into multiple insurgencies and armed resistance that shattered U.S. control. For all the strengthening of the Russian military in the past decade and differences in context between these examples, the precedents they set make it more difficult to see how 130,000 Russian troops currently positioned in western Russia near the Ukrainian border could sustain a stable occupation regime unless their numbers were substantially increased further. In fact, it would require a massive deployment by Moscow and to what end? What is the desired end-state for Putin? And, what would the impact be on Russia from the standpoint of economic, political and diplomatic status, militarily, etc?
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Whatever potential political gains to be achieved by the Russian state in an occupation of Ukraine need to be balanced by consideration of the pressure it would put on the Russian military to hold down large regions while having to fund their economic reconstruction in the long-term. The price that Ukrainian society would pay for even moderate resistance in such a scenario, never mind a full insurgency as in Syria, would be brutal and bloody in ways that many in the United States or European Union pondering these options should consider more carefully. Further, with such a substantial number of war veterans who are hostile to Russia, at least in some areas of each region in Ukraine, as well as the surrounding countries mention, a degree of resistance is without a doubt a distinct and major consideration for Putin.
Looking at Syria, the Russian military could rely on Wagner mercenaries (Russia’s version of Blackwater) or Iranian-backed militias to do the dying for Moscow. Unfortunately, in Ukraine it would be professional Russian soldiers and even conscripts that would have to shoulder the burden for who knows how long. Even if Moscow could muster local proxy forces using the Russia-backed separatist militias in eastern Ukraine, it would be difficult. Recall, as the Soviets and Russians discovered in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and the Americans in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a commitment that is leapt into quickly can drag out into a struggle to sustain stable and successful outcomes. While there may be viable tactical victories won along the way, Russia in 2022 does not have the military or economic power the former Soviet Union once had. Nor does it have the stomach to deal with and endure a long and bloody conflict with a tough Ukraine military along with an armed resistance and insurgency backed by both regional international players providing training, equipment and endless deadly arms.
Of course, it is important not to dismiss such worst-case scenarios out of hand. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, great powers have regularly shown a propensity for promising quick results before discovering that realities on the ground did not match their geopolitical fantasies. To close, an article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” written by Putin last year on relations between Russia and Ukraine where he pretends Russia and Ukraine are historically one, indicates a level of wishful thinking that has crossed into delusional realms. As I noted in my previous related article, I believe Putin is struggling to show his relevance.
For now, Putin’s intent is an effort to demonstrate ‘influence’ and some semblance of ‘dominance’ in Europe. What Putin and Moscow are doing is essentially seeking to be the dominant power in Europe right now — controlling energy markets, commercial sea lanes, and relations between nations. Russia wants the U.S. out of Europe or at least a sizable reductions of U.S. military forces in Europe and NATO. He realizes economically, it will become a sizable burden on the U.S. as our economy slowly collapses and we face subsequent drawdowns of military spending. The cuts will have to come from somewhere. He also views Biden as weak and vulnerable particularly with regard to Ukraine because of his corrupt dealings in-country. Putin’s saber-rattling will likely reveal Biden’s hand in how he deals with Russia and the Ukraine.
Putin and Moscow want to be the Hegemon of the continent. In the meantime, currently lacking the ability to exert the same economic pressures that the U.S. possesses at least for now, or the diplomatic influence that go with it, Putin is using ‘the one’ area of power that it possesses, the threat and use of military force. Again, he sees Biden as weak and vulnerable. Similarly, perhaps he feels his military maneuvering inside his own borders will contribute to it and at the same time raise the stakes for the U.S. in the Pacific and China. Certainly, the last thing the U.S. needs is to have to deal with a Russia – China front. Putin’s strategy is an inexpensive and a safe way to keep the U.S. off-guard and on edge. This is especially the case with the ‘forever endless war-chomping’ U.S. political-left Establishment and ‘Republican Neocons (Austin, Milley, Liz Cheney, Kinzinger, etc.) who see a conflict in Europe as a way to distract Americans from the Biden regime’s failures and economic woes that Americans are dealing with on a daily basis, and to do the bidding of the U.S. military industrial complex, respectively.
Putin knows exactly what he is doing – playing Biden, the political-left and sadly, even an unfortunate number of Conservatives … like a fiddle.
Jim Waurishuk, Colonel, USAF (Ret)
30-year career as a Senior Strategic Intelligence, Special Reconnaissance and Special Mission Intelligence Officer to multiple USSOCOM and Joint Special Operations Command units. Served combat/combat-support tours; Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and numerous strategic – special missions and activities.
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