Russian Roulette in Ukraine

April 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

The on-going crisis in Ukraine highlights a critical disconnect between Russia’s political aims and its military’s capability to achieve said objective.

Acknowledging that Ukraine’s former status as a suitably mismanaged Russian puppet state is irrevocably lost, Russia’s only remaining option, short of outright armed conquest, is to ”divide and conquer” in classic Machiavellian style: to create a pro-Russian buffer zone of compliant states in eastern Ukraine as bulwark against further NATO encroachment. This is pretty obvious to any observer. It is less obvious that Russia’s army, and its vanguard clandestine forces, despite the perceived threat, does not pack enough punch to achieve the political aim through military means.

The Crimean Waltz
Russia is currently engaged in a ”war by other means” in Ukraine. The occupation and annexation of Crimea was a showcase of how a rejuvenated Russian army, inserted covertly and acting ”softly” by mere presence, could coax and bully Ukraine’s incredulous peacetime armed forces into near-bloodless surrender. Preceded by ”civilian” thugs and self-proclaimed ”people’s militias” to create instability and insecurity, the Russian army could walk in without a fight.

Following the unprecedented and wholly surprising success in Crimea, Russia has attempted to create similar conditions in south and eastern Ukraine according to the same script. So far the process has gone somewhat according to plan, however, developments have not matured enough to trigger the next phase: actual military presence on mainland Ukraine.

The reasons for this partial failure are manifold: some of it is attributable to Ukraine’s military scramble, to international diplomatic pressure and to NATO deployments and preparations. Other factors include Russia’s inability to muster enough ”popular support” in Ukraine to create a sufficiently valid pretext for invasion, as well as vigilance and efficacy of Ukraine’s security forces and border defences. If not for these factors Russian soldiers would be patrolling the streets of Kharkiv, Luchansk and Donetsk already.

Russia is not apt to give in just yet however. While the vanguard titushki and Spetsnaz troopers may have failed in producing favourable conditions for a ”Crimean Waltz”, Russia may still consider armed incursion a viable option, indeed the only remaining option. The big question is, can it succeed?

A Russian Market-Garden
The attempts at establishing separatist bridgeheads in the eastern provinces are still active and as long as they remain so the threat of relief from Russian troops must be considered acute. The separatists’ occupation of state administration buildings in Luchansk and Donetsk are akin to the Allied operation Market-Garden in Holland, September 1944. There, as in Ukraine, an advance guard of paratroopers (now: pro-Russian separatists) set up shop behind enemy lines while a sizeable relief force attempted to open a narrow corridor through to Arnhem (now: Luchansk, Donetsk). The attempt came close but ultimately failed. It will fail this time too. Here’s why:

To drive a corridor to Donetsk, Russian forces must travel a minimum of 120 km from the Matveev Kurgan area in Rostov oblast or a minimum of 220 km from the Shakty area, and/or a minimum of 220 km via Luchansk from the Kamensk-Shaktinsky area. This distance can be covered in 3-4 hours by a mechanized force travelling, solely on good roads, at an uninterrupted pace of 50 km/h. A conservative guesstimate of the available Russian forces in this sector puts them at around the 10-12,000 mark, or about two brigades worth of manpower. Of these, no more than half is likely to be committed to actual combat: the other half is kept in reserve. However, even the slightest intervention by roadblocks, ambushes and rear-guard actions delivered by Ukrainian forces, may cause the advance to take several days or even stop it altogether. Opposed by active defence, Russian forces must resort to a very messy, very time-consuming and highly conspicuous all-arms assault. It will not be your easy Crimean stroll. It will be full-on war.

A high-risk endeavour
Diplomatic and international military intervention scenarios aside, a Russian military advance into Ukraine must be classified as a high-risk endeavour. For any such opposed military advance to succeed, Russian planners must deploy a substantially stronger force than hitherto reported as amassed at the border, AND support its advance by massive destruction delivered by self-propelled artillery, missile launch systems and airborne fires. Such an advance will produce destruction and casualties that A) defeats the guise of a “humanitarian protection mission”, B) opens a Pandora’s box of partisan resistance and C) reveals the true, insufficient, combat ability of the Russian forces. This third revelation is potentially the most devastating, as Russia is dependent on her ability to wield a credible threat to any nation. If that threat is seen as a drunken, toothless sham, Russia’s diplomatic power evaporates.

The military threat to Ukraine is indeed a “Russian Roulette” inasmuch the hammer must not be allowed to strike for fear of hitting an empty chamber. It must remain poised as a threat but the trigger must not be drawn. The consequences of Russian military failure in Ukraine are as heavy, indeed heavier, as the consequences of military success.

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