By Daniel Serwer
All indicators are go for a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. The troops, equipment, and support apparatus are in place. Weapons have been moved close to the northern and eastern Ukrainian border inside Belarus and Russia. Amphibious landing ships are in the Black Sea. Large-scale military exercises, used as cover in the past for Russian troops deployments in neighboring countries, are in progress.
The diplomatic indicators are also signaling war. Foreign Minister Lavrov walked out of a press conference with the UK Foreign Secretary yesterday. President Biden has called on Americans to leave Ukraine right away. A European “Normandy format” (France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia) discussion of the never-implemented Minsk 2 accord broke up yesterday without a press statement. Public discourse inside Russia has become more strident.
The question is which invasion Putin will try. He could attempt to push forward on all fronts at once, from the north, east, and south. The aim would be to take Kiev and install a puppet government there. That would unify the Western powers and provoke the strongest economic sanctions. Or he could use the troops in Belarus to distract Ukrainian defense while pressing in the south to take a land bridge along the Sea of Azov from territory Russian proxies already control to Russian-occupied Crimea. A limited operation of that sort might divide the West and enable Putin to declare victory with minimal combat losses and lesser sanctions imposed.
Ukrainian intentions are clear. Kiev will try to defend its territory. But its capacity is dubious, despite a massive infusion of military assistance in the past year or so. Ukrainian forces are not only smaller than Russia’s but far less technologically advanced. Neither their equipment nor their training is equal to Moscow’s. The will to fight can make up for such shortfalls, but we won’t know much about that until the balloon goes up. As we saw in Afghanistan, even a well-equipped force can disintegrate rapidly.
There is no sign however that the Russian forces are anything but robust and committed. Putin has told Russians for years that fascists who took power illegitimately govern in Kiev. They are Western puppets in this view. He claims Ukraine is not a real state and that Ukrainians are really Russians, or at least close kin to Russians. Russia’s state and culture he says originated in Ukraine. In this view, the invasion will liberate Ukraine, not conquer it.
Ukrainians will not validate that perspective. Occupying Ukraine and setting up a proxy regime there will be many times more difficult for Putin than what he has done in the Donbas region. There the Russians have failed to establish functioning governance and a viable economy. Crimea is in somewhat better shape, but mainly because of the massive military presence.
Kiev hasn’t been a model of good governance, but it has been improving. Ukrainians, especially those in the Europe-oriented west, aren’t going to like whatever regime Moscow imposes. But even in Kharkiv, the second largest city, most people are not going to welcome a Russian invasion.
The south is the real target
Putin presumably knows this. He also knows occupying all of Ukraine will lead to a ferocious Western reaction. My bet is on a massive Russian attack from three directions in the first few days, accompanied by cyber attacks, disinformation, and destabilization. But then Putin will pivot to focus on the south once it is clear the Ukrainians are resisting. The south is the real military target. Putin is committed, but not a fool.