Ukraine, Russia and NATO: A Strategic Assessment
April 3, 2014 § 1 Comment
While Russia appears to have paused to digest its first victim and may even be satisfied with Crimea, a quick review of the strategic palette shows that Russia needs a heftier chunk of Ukraine to fulfil its long-term ambition.
Holding Crimea alone is of limited value.
As many commentators have pointed out, Crimea is more of a liability than an asset to Russia – except for one particular item: oil. In political, economic and practical terms, both domestic and international, the annexation of Crimea yields nothing but headaches of the deep and persistent kind.
Sanctioned, criticized and ostracized by the international community that matters most to Russia in terms of sales and profit, and suffering from increasing domestic disturbance, Putin has but gained another sinkhole for a rapidly deteriorating economy. Worse, the annexation of Crimea has galvanized Ukraine, NATO and the West at large, as well as domestic dissidents, up to and including Duma members, against his actions. All of this works at cross-purposes to Mr Putin’s grand scheme. For the capture of Crimea to make sense, Putin must continue to the next level: to secure Ukraine.
It’s the oil, stupid
The oil and gas fields just offshore of Crimea is of enduring value however, and the price of holding Crimea’s natural assets against the condemnation of the United Nations, may balance the cost in Vladimir Putin’s eyes. However, before the asset can be liquefied, the political environment must stabilize to accept Russia as a viable trading partner. That notion is invalid until Russia release and retreat from Crimea.
Other factors that propel Russia toward conquest rather than retreat include the substantial strategic contribution to Russia’s military capability offered by Ukraine’s industrial base, chief among them Motor-Sich and the Antonov industries. A Ukraine that denies its military products to its formerly biggest client must be brought to heel, forcibly if need be. However, Russia has the option to secure armaments and components delivery by retreating behind her borders.
Fundamental political aims
Beyond these objectives, Putin is or course compelled to establish a buffer zone of compliant states between the evil western democracies and the glorious motherland. A hostile Ukraine increasingly integrated with EU and possibly applying for a NATO membership in the not-so-distant future, is simply out of the question.
Ironically enough, Putin does not seem to have reckoned with the immediate effect of his invasion: he has single-handedly alienated Ukraine from Russia and speeded up its transition toward openness, democracy and a functioning market economy.
Russia must make hay while the going is good
The Russian forces assembled around Ukraine’s borders are significant and poised to move at a moment’s notice, according to NATO SACEUR General Philip Breedlove. An estimated 40,000 troops, including the estimated 20,000 troops currently in Crimea, have been conducting ”exercises” close to the Ukraine border in the Belgorod, Bryansk and Rostov regions. The numbers does not include units in the deep Russian rear that may be on stand-by, either for airlanding or for general reinforcement purposes. The build-up has been partially documented by eyewitness reports and, most assuredly, in detail by ever watchful satellites and E-3 AWACS aircraft monitoring Russian movements. So far no appreciable movements to the rear has been seen, according to NATO statements.
Military exercises of the type that involve mechanized and motorized units typically have a manoeuvre component where tanks, APCs, attack helicopters and supporting units take up battle positions, traverse fields, ford streams, conduct all-arms live ammunition shoots etc. Thus far, nothing of the sort has percolated down from the border areas. On the whole it has been eerily silent. All we know is that there are 40,000 troops, stores, field hospitals, workshops and enough hardware to drive comfortably to the Dniepr and beyond, at the drop of a hat from Vladimir Putin. If the troops are not conducting an exercise – other than waiting patiently in the woods below satellite-defeating camouflage nets – their true purpose is to send a message of intimidation: “We can subdue you at our leisure, just like we did in Crimea”. They will stay there until Putin backs down, or until he decides to take action. Which do you think is the more likely?
What can NATO do?
As previously discussed, NATO has done a lot already. The results so far, backed up by the patriotism and willingness of the Ukrainian army to fight, are plain to see: Russia has not yet dared take a step beyond Crimea. Still, to induce Russia to retreat completely and permanently behind her border, something more is clearly needed.
NATO is taking general steps toward reinforcing its European presence by advocating that countries increase military spending. That is all fine and dandy, but it will have little immediate effect. Another ship beside the USS Truxton in the Black Sea is a fine signal, but again, that too is likely to have limited effect. Russia already has very potent P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles set up on Crimea to act as a deterrent beyond its capability to deliver anti-ship cruise missiles by attack aircraft and strategic bombers, so the US Navy presence in the Black Sea is mostly political in nature. Its military contribution would be to divert Russian assets from the main points of interest, to deter Russia from a air- and seaborne move against Odessa, and to challenge Russian air superiority: while USS Truxton is a multi-purpose missile destroyer, its primary role is missile and anti-aircraft protection.
Beyond naval reinforcement and the advertised deployment of F-15 and F-16 fighters to Lithuania and Poland, additional reinforcement should be contemplated – some to be advertised and some to remain covert.
- OSCE observers: up to 500 personnel are slated for all areas of Ukraine.
- EU and European NGO’s: additional personnel to monitor the May election.
- NATO representatives: there are a lot of details to work through on the selected grounds and in conferences, leading up to previously scheduled joint exercises in Ukraine. The establishment of quite a few military missions and logistics centres is likely.
- Re-scheduling and activation of NATO-Ukraine partnership initiatives concerning reforms in the defence and security sector will add to Ukraine’s defensive capability, and ramp up the presence of NATO personnel on the ground.
- NATO Rapid Response Force: activation, drills and forward deployment to Germany, including mechanized brigades comprising the latest hardware such as Abrams, LeClerc, Challenger and Leopard tanks. While small, it packs a powerful message.
- Drone deployment to German airfields. I’d venture a guess that U.S. drone-delivery capability is something that Russia dreads more than anything. Russia’s own drone program is rudimentary in comparison.
- The deployment of additional air force assets to establish air superiority, if and when drone strikes are deemed necessary.
- The establishment of a military no-fly zone extending over Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern provinces: This is a distinct possibility, although enforcing it against the region’s most powerful air force requires a massive deployment. Discussion of a no-fly zone is viable measure however. As can be seen from Iraq and Libya, the side that announces the no-fly zone establishes a very considerable moral advantage, on par with calling for the opponent’s unconditional surrender. Again, the requirement is the ability to enforce it.
- JTAC teams: Small, flexible and agile, the JTAC team forms the backbone of any contemporary military deployment. The JTAC team controls and guides a host of weapon delivery assets ranging from mortars and artillery to airborne munitions delivery. Getting these guys out in terrain likely to be contested, beforehand, embedded with Ukrainian army or with the civilian population, is a smart move.
- Advisors/liaisons to Ukraine’s armed forces: I’d be very surprised if NATO advisors are not already hard at work, albeit on a limited scale, in Ukraine.
- Intel co-operation: At some point it will benefit NATO to share crucial intelligence gained by satellite data with Ukraine’s armed forces. The command and control of modern western armies depend largely on real time satellite data and imagery, something that Ukraine’s military is unlikely to have on tap.
What can Russia do?
As pointed out by Paul Goble in the Interpreter, Russia does not have sufficient troops for an all-out war in Ukraine followed by occupation and pacification of that vast territory. The 40,000 troops now believed to be poised for attack is just about sufficient to support a lightning strike at the capital along a single axis – the Klimov/Novozybkov area in Bryansk oblast via Chernihiv to Kyiv offering the fastest route. Of these estimated 40,000, half are deployed to Crimea. Forces operating out of Crimea will likely have a limited mission: to secure the lower Dniepr bend bounded by Armyansk-Kherson-Vasylivka-Melitopol and to support a “popular uprising” in Odessa with marine and airlanding troops.
This, if numbers are to be believed, leaves 20,000 troops divided on three axes: Bryansk-Kyiv, Belgorod-Kharkiv and Rostov-Donetsk/Dnepropetrovsk. None of the three axes are strong enough to do more than advance on a very narrow front against a limited objective. Considering the distances involved to the “grand prize” of Kyiv, and the amount of opposition Ukraine’s army is likely to offer, the Bryansk-Kiev axis is the most likely, in support of an airborne and airlanding contingent preceding it to the objective. The Belgorod and Rostov concentrations are likely to have limited objectives: Kharkiv, Luchansk and, on the outside, Donetsk.
However, the actual numbers at readiness may be considerably higher and once the decision to attack is taken, further reinforcement is likely. That said, Russia is unlikely to field more than 80,000 to 100,000 troops in total, and that is still well short of the 500,000 likely to be needed to secure all of the territory east of the Dniepr. It is all the more likely that the 20,000-something troops seen in Crimea, and elements of the troops reported on the border, represent the cream of the crop of the Russian army. Beyond this force, there may be little left to muster in terms of combat-worthy troops.
”at the start of the second Chechen war, Russia’s 1.5 million-man army was unable to form a functioning force of 60,000 men”
Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal, July 2013
The high standard of the Russian troops in Crimea is not representative for the army at large. The Crimean troops, boasting the latest in weaponry, telecom, optical, body armor, gear and battledress – the “Ratnik” gear – are far more advanced, and likely better trained, than the typical Russian army units that make up the great bulk of its force. The Ratnik suite, similar to what Western armies have been fielding for decades, is scheduled for distribution to the regular army by mid-2014. What we saw in Crimea was the exception, not the norm.