Calling Putin’s Bluff

April 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

All things considered, I now believe that Russia will not attack Ukraine. Make no mistake, Putin would probably like nothing more than to give Ukraine a bloody nose – and has the popular support at home to do so – but facts on the ground points elsewhere.

Putin clearly wish to call the shots. He wants Ukraine and the west to buckle under his threat and restore status que ante bellum – meaning the instalment of a suitably Russo-friendly regime and a hard cold shoulder to NATO. Once this is accomplished he can generously return Crimea to its rightful owner. In return he will win regional respect and an indefinite lease of Crimean ports and military bases. That’s the plan. His leverage, his one and only leverage beyond the threat of choking gas delivery, is the Russian military – the threat of yet more invasion.

I believe that the threat of invasion, albeit implied rather than stated, is a complete bluff. I believe that Russia, by far the strongest contender to the world heavyweight title, does not have the oomph to conquer Ukraine by military means. Here’s why:

1. Ukraine, even if the assault is limited to a lightning coup at the capital, will be no walk in the park as in Crimea. This time, Ukraine’s military is mustered and ready. They are locked and loaded. They are dug in. They have orders to shoot. This time, they will fight, no matter the odds.

2. While Russia’s arsenal is pound for pound significantly more capable than Ukraine’s, it is virtually unthinkable that Ukraine would be totally unable to inflict casualties on an aggressor. To the contrary, Russia would have to expect very heavy casualties, and a great amount of friction, in any armed incursion. This too increases the odds against a Russian invasion.

3. The Ukrainian army is far more numerous and far better prepared than most news reports will have you believe. Conversely, the Russian forces are less numerous and less capable than media have cracked them up to be. A recent study published by the Royal Unites Services Institute (RUSI) provides ample background and reasoning for the serious student of conflict.

4. Certain technical imbalances aside, the opposing sides are equipped with largely identical equipment – and they have trained along similar syllabuses. They know each other, their tactics, their respective strengths and weaknesses. This is a factor that works in the defender’s favour. Furthermore there is no precedent to the situation in Ukraine: virtually all conflicts since WWII have been asymmetrical or with one belligerent completely outclassing the other. We simply do not yet know how a similar-capability battle will pan out. This great uncertainty must surely bother Kremlin’s planners a whole lot.

5. Traditional military theory acknowledges that terrain and occupation of prepared positions affords the defender an advantage on the order of at least 4:1. The attacker, saddled with the onus of movement in the open, invites destruction by the defender who has the option to remain in cover until the most propitious moment to open fire arrives. Russia simply cannot produce that ratio without completely denuding other strategic areas.

6. While Russia fields a more potent army with regard to tank design, munitions, fixed and rotary wing aircraft, electronic countermeasures, command and control systems, artillery and logistics, the individual factors, however superior to the Ukrainian counterparts, are not enough to produce a decisive outcome. The great unknowns of battle, friction, fog of war, morale, timing and chance, are a guarantee against a bloodless victory.

A study authored by Dr Igor Sutiyagin, a Russian Studies Research Fellow at RUSI, describes how the Russian army, for all its perceived might, is hard pressed to bring sufficient firepower to bear against a defender. Due to a relatively weak organic artillery component, lack of coordination between the manoeuver element and its supporting units, and due to shortage of precision-guided munitions, Russian artillery and attack helicopter fires can only deliver ”area suppression” that is largely ineffective against a dug-in, dispersed defender. For these reasons, ”a fully prepared Russian motorised rifle brigade would be unable to carry out effective offensive operations against the prepared defences of any unit larger than a company”, writes Dr Sutiyagin. The disparity is striking considering that a motorized rifle brigade comprises approximately 4,000 fighting men, 120 fighting vehicles and 60-70 artillery tubes, while a company fields no more than some 120 men.

7. As per above and other factors described in the study, the Russian forces at readiness, comprising approximately one reinforced mechanized brigade per primary vector, are simply not enough to force a strategic decision. They may be able to attain a local or even regional objective, but strategic manoeuvre is out of the question. The troops now concentrated represent approximately one fifth of the sum total of the revamped army available for active duty – any more than that would bite into the strategic reserve and the forces deployed to cover other sectors of the vast Russian Federation.

8. An all-out attack on Ukraine would have to follow the script established by the second Gulf War and the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya. This compels the assaulting force to establish and maintain air superiority, a process that requires several days if not weeks of high intensive preparation by air assets, guided missiles and artillery. Given that the terrain is much different from the relatively featureless Iraq desert, and the defenders vastly more capable than Saddam’s army, Russian air superiority is not a foregone conclusion. And without air superiority, no army can hope to be successful.

9. There are most likely EU and NATO personnel on the ground already. We know that some 100 OSCE observers are in the country and that up to 500 will be deployed in the coming weeks. NATO personnel both uniformed and clandestine probably match those numbers. Russia does not want to hurt these people for fear of the most severe repercussions.

10. The element of surprise is partially lost. The Russian troop concentration is an open secret. Their assets and capabilities are well known. The only surprise remaining is the actual jump-off moment. With NATO satellites watching and analysing every detail down to centimetre resolution, and with infrared capability to detect heat radiating off individual soldiers and equipment, there is nothing the Russians can do that NATO does not immediately pick up. NATO will most likely provide streaming real-time satellite data to the Ukrainian operational headquarters within minutes of detecting something untoward at the borders.

11. An airborne coup against the government in Kyiv is doable. However, it is likely to incur horrific casualties, and unlikely to be duly reinforced by units advancing from the borders, for reasons enumerated above. Because a coup is unlikely to ”stick” it must be regarded as a waste and can thus be struck from the list of potential threats.

The same goes for a coup de main in Odessa: the Transnistrian force is too small, the risks of a marine or airborne invasion much too high, and the overland route from Crimea to Odessa is bisected by waterways and natural obstacles.

12. Last but not least, the bulk of Russian ”special war” enterprises in the border regions have been foiled by the Ukrainian secret service (SBU), by vigilant border guards and local police work apprehending saboteurs and titushki. There is no popular uprising in Ukraine that Putin can use as pretext for invasion, no persecution of Russians in Ukraine and no other pet cause to prompt Russia’s intervention.

In summary: I believe Russia is too weak to launch a full-scale assault on Ukraine; that Putin is unlikely to gamble his prized military asset in a venture where success is not 100% guaranteed; and that Putin is afraid to expose the real combat capability of his military.

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