If Putin Invades Ukraine …

Today NATO stated that Russia has amassed about 20,000 battle-ready troops near the border of eastern Ukraine and stands ready to intervene in the war raging around Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian-backed paramilitaries are losing ground to Kyiv’s forces. Ukraine has been making slow yet steady progress in its “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) against Moscow’s proxies in eastern Ukraine and it’s now clear that, if the Kremlin does not directly intervene in the conflict — beyond the artillery support from across the border that the Russian military has been providing its paramilitaries for weeks — it’s likely that the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) will soon unravel altogether. NATO has warned that Moscow may send troops across the border under the guise of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission (observers have spotted Russian military vehicles near the border pre-painted with “peacekeeping” insignia), in a Putinesque version of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine that the Obama administration cited in its 2011 Libya intervention.

While the Ukrainian military has made considerable progress against DNR and LNR forces, it must be kept in mind that Moscow’s proxies represent a third-rate force of mercenaries and volunteers, mostly with antiquated weaponry, some dating to the 1940s, under the guidance of Russian military intelligence (GRU). Fighting against Russian regular forces would present Kyiv with a far greater challenge. Not least because the Ukrainian media is replete with tales of woe from the forces waging the ATO around Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine is now paying the price for more than twenty years of neglect of its armed forces after independence in 1991. Logistics are a mess, supplies of even ammunition are haphazard, while Ukrainian forces are rife with Russian spies; officers as senior as a major general have been arrested for passing classified information about troop deployments to Moscow. Worse, the standards of training are inadequate, with many volunteers being dispatched to the front with minimal refresher time (most Ukrainian troops previously served, usually as conscripts, in the military, but frequently many years ago). It’s no exaggeration to state that most Ukrainian army units are learning to fight by fighting. Against DNR and LNR militias, such on-the-job improvisation has worked more often than not, but against elite Russian forces it will invite disaster.

From the outset in any clash, Moscow’s forces will enjoy considerable fire superiority in artillery — long a Russian forte — and airpower; high losses to date among Ukrainian air force units in close air support missions indicate inexperience and it is to be expected that the Russian air force will sweep Ukrainian opponents from the skies, at least around Donetsk and Luhansk, with relative ease. One wonders how well mostly green Ukrainian ground units will withstand hard pummeling by artillery and air strikes.

While NATO says there are fifteen or more battalion battle-groups of Russian ground forces, 20,000 or so men in all, poised to invade, the true number may well be higher, given longstanding Kremlin acumen in denial and deception, what the Russians call maskirovka. The actual figure may be closer to 40,000 troops within a short distance of the Ukrainian frontier. Latest information indicates that these battle-groups are drawn from Russia’s best ground forces: the 4th Tank and 2nd Motorized Rifle Divisions, the 76th and 106th Airborne (VDV) Divisions and the 31st VDV Brigade, the 23rd Motor Rifle Brigade, plus unidentified units of Naval Infantry (i.e. Marines), and experienced GRU special forces (SPETSNAZ). Many of these units contributed to the Kremlin’s near-bloodless seizure of the Crimea in the spring and should be considered the best that Russia has. Most of these combat units are composed of professionals, not conscripts, and Ukraine’s improvised forces are by and large no match for them.

Russian readiness is the outcome of serious, long-overdue defense reforms commenced in 2008 under then-Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, that aimed to produce a smaller, more professional and combat-ready army. Missteps in the brief 2008 Georgia war demonstrated continuing problems with the Russian military that needed fundamental repair. No longer would Russia base its ground forces on a mass-mobilization model, opting instead for higher-readiness units better able to respond to regional crises. Given the vast sums Moscow has spent on its military in recent years, it would be unwise to underestimate its combat prowess when fighting close to home, as in Ukraine, with the support of a Russian public that is supercharged with nationalism and eager to settle scores with the “Nazis” ruling in Kyiv.

That said, conquering Southeastern Ukraine — to say nothing of creating “Novorossiya” by driving along the Black Sea coast to establish a bridgehead to Transdnistria, as Russian nationalists advocate openly — is a very different proposition than taking Crimea. Not only would this operation be vastly greater in size and scope, but Ukrainian forces can be expected to resist mightily. The capability, not will, of Kyiv’s forces in defense of their country is the question, following months of Moscow’s depredations and dirty dealing. While Ukrainian forces will lose the fight for Donetsk and Luhansk if the Russians invade, this will be no cakewalk, and Moscow would be very unwise to think different. Having lost Crimea, the Ukrainian public is in no mood to give in to the Kremlin without stiff resistance.

If Moscow intervenes openly in Southeastern Ukraine, it will start a war it cannot win. Conquering territory is one thing; pacifying it, in the face of serious resistance, is quite another, as the U.S. military discovered in Iraq a decade ago. Russia’s new model army lacks the manpower it once possessed, and by creating a smaller, more professional force, Moscow has made the occupation of Ukraine impossible without a large-scale mobilization that may not be popular with the Russian public, particularly as casualty rolls expand rapidly. Big battalions of the sort Napoleon recommended Moscow no longer has in abundance. As the Russian defense analyst Aleksandr Golts recently explained, “Even if the Kremlin has managed to mass approximately 40,000 servicemen on Ukraine’s borders, this is absolutely insufficient for occupation. Absolutely no fewer than 100,000 men and officers would be required for this. But we simply don’t have them.” Unless Vladimir Putin wants to embroil Russia in a protracted war for Ukraine that will bear no resemblance to the walkover  Anschluss with Crimea, he would be well advised to reconsider invasion. This will no longer be Special War, but a real war — one which may not be possible to limit to Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Russia has a long habit of invading places in August — East Prussia and Galicia (1914), Poland (1920), Manchuria (1945), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Georgia (2008) — so all bets may be off. It’s clear that Putin is reluctant to back down in the face of Western economic pressure, scoldings, and admonitions, not least because consistently doubling-down has worked well for him many times in the past. I have no crystal ball, but if we learn in a few days, perhaps this weekend, that Russian “peacekeepers” are moving by the battalion into Southeastern Ukraine, you won’t count me among the surprised.



48 comments on “If Putin Invades Ukraine …”
  1. Cegorach says:


    As an old (lurking) follower it is embarrassing to correct the date of the Polish-Russo war which started as early as in early 1919 or late 1918 (various self-defence forces clashing with the Red Army coming after Ober Ost left the east). Even the first major, repulsed (but sadly not demolished) Soviet offensive in 1920 was launched in May (Belorus) and June (Ukraine).

    August is clearly a good month for an invasion, perhaps the best given it is Ukraine (e.g. 1648, 1651, 1654, 1660 or 1920), especially the invasion limited in size and territory it is supposed to grab but the escalation… we will see what is in the playbook. If there really is a playbook anymore.

    My regards

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks. The Soviet invasion – which was an effort by Moscow to win the war, which had begun to drag painfully – did not reach central Poland, ie what would be Poland today (1945 borders), until early August 1920, culminating in the Battle of Warsaw mid-month: the “Miracle on the Vistula” if you prefer.

      1. want2no says:

        “…culminating in the Battle of Warsaw mid-month: the “Miracle on the Vistula” if you prefer.”

        Actually, the “Miracle on the Vistula” happened in/near Radzymin, about 12 miles northeast of Warsaw, and that is where annual commemorations took place in the following years. Close enough, but don’t want the residents of that Radzymin, which has been though so much in the last century, to be overlooked. Cheers.

  2. Very good article. Of course invading is one thing and occupation another. Still many ppl in west like to sacrifice Ukr for peace… but it doesn’t work like that not mentioning the fate of Ukr

  3. John, you might have left out on scenario, the Milosevich Scenario.
    I think Putin’s plan is to force all ukrainians out of what he calls Novorossya and then hold that territory.
    Milosevich did it with Bosnians, Croats and Albanians later. No success with croats and albanians due to NATO/USA.

    But Putin is Milosevich x 100.

    I don’t think neither Putin nor Patriarch Kirill will have any regrets about millions of ukrainians displaced. Russians don’t recognize Ukraine as a nation anyway.

    I think that is the plan which would minimize the quantity of dead russian soldiers which is an extremely important thing to remember. Russian mothers won’t have much tolerance on that number, in my view.

    My solution:
    Get NATO involved. Send F-16s.
    Putin will stop as soon as he faces brute force. He’s not that stupid. He can’t afford to lose hundreds of dead young russians send home in bodybags.
    Just my opinion.

    1. 20committee says:

      I think (hope?) that Putin has learned from Milosevic, from Kosovo at least, that overt ethnic cleansing will force some sort of NATO response. I’m assuming the Russians are smarter than that …. but, alas, I could be wrong.

      1. Mister No says:

        You guys are living in a CNN-style fairytale… (a) It is Croats & Albanians who — supported by NATO — conducted ethnic cleansing, check number of Serbs living there before and after on at least Wikipedia. NATO was highly supportive, as they had interest in it, and many of high-level politicians involved are personally profiting from it. (b) Most of current refugees from east Ukraine are ethnic Russians, not ethnic Ukrainians. Even UN acknowledged Ukr army nondiscriminatory shelled civilian towns. Millions of lives are turned into nightmare because chocolate daddy decided early July that he prefers war to truce. Can you e.g. remind us how’s investigation over burning 50 people in Odessa developing, while the youtube is full of videos?

        I understand you want to believe in a tale of good, peace-loving, highly-honorable NATO dudes, and ugly, evil all others as needed, but get at least some basic facts straight.

        As for the F-16 idea, and getting NATO involved in the Russian backyard, you must be much less than 16 years old… How about this: you start working, earn enough money, then purchase an F-16, and then fly ahead to show Ruskies who’s the real boss? I’ll applaud you then…

      2. 20committee says:

        If you have read my work you would be aware of my skepticism about NATO intervention in the Balkans. That is all.

    2. switch ares says:

      I imagine that the reason this whole scenario continues to move forward is because Putin expects no significant response, and that is just what he is getting.

    3. ncc1960 says:

      If Nato was to get involved then i think the Russian people would back Putins Ukrainian intervention. If i was Putin i would have fabricated an incident and launched a rescue mission to save the the areas russian kids. Would have sent army across the northen Ukrainian border heading twards Kiev then negotiated a withdrawal that included independents for selected areas.

  4. Homer Simpson says:

    I don’t want to go to war for Putin, but I don’t want to go to war against him either. Not for the EU, America, and liberal nation wreckers.

  5. switch ares says:

    Isn’t occupation a different animal when it happens next door and invader-nation communities are already present? I find it hard to believe that a Russian occupation of Ukraine would be similar to the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan other than in name only.

    1. 20committee says:

      There are differences, of course, but Ukraine – even half of it – is a vast country with tens of millions of people. Tough no matter how you slice it.

      1. A.I.Schmelzer says:

        So far, very broadly speaking, Russias interfernce in Ukraine has the goal of not allowing Kyiv to physically destroy the opposition. Let us not mince worlds, full scale submission, backed by the threat of physical destruction, is what Kyiv demands of the South East.
        This is one out of 4 Options they have available, in order of being restrained to not being restrained these are:
        1: Do nothing while Kyiv obliberates the Opposition.
        2: Prevent Kyiv from obliberating the Opposition.
        3: Conquer “Novorussija” for the Opposition
        4: Militarily effect Regime Change in Kyiv.

        Putin is so far choosing Option 2. They have, very explicitly, not gone for Option 3 let alone 4, even if they could have done just that.

        Any actual threat to Putins power within Russia would be coming from people more interested in option 3 and 4, most particularly from people that actually did attempt “Option 3 and 4” in Ukraine without being the Russian state.

        Maidan basically ended up replacing one goverment of thieves with 3 goverments of murderers for Ukraine (Kyiv murders, “Novorussija” murders, and Kolomoisky of Dnipro does a lot of murdering on his own account too). You do not want to find out what is going to “replace” Putin.

      2. 20committee says:

        I’m sure your comments sounded better in the original Russian.

    2. TSB says:

      It’s worth remembering that it took the Soviet Union until the mid 1950s to stamp out the resistance movements in Ukraine and the Baltic States following the Second World War. The Red Army then was comparatively much stronger than the Russian Army today, and the resistance movements were mostly cut off from outside help. Russia might be able to seize eastern Ukraine, but I don’t see how it could afford the blood and treasure that it would need to expend holding it. When you consider that such an invasion would almost certainly trigger far more serious sanctions, the idea looks even stupider.

      None of this is to say that Putin won’t do stupid.

    3. thesurlybeaver says:

      It’s worth remembering that it took the Soviet Union until the mid 1950s to stamp out the resistance movements in Ukraine and the Baltic States following the Second World War. The Red Army then was comparatively much stronger than the Russian Army today, and the resistance movements were mostly cut off from outside help. Russia might be able to seize eastern Ukraine, but I don’t see how it could afford the blood and treasure that it would need to expend holding it. When you consider that such an invasion would almost certainly trigger far more serious sanctions, the idea looks even stupider.

      None of this is to say that Putin won’t do stupid.

  6. Svarun says:

    In case If Russia focuses all their allegedly highly-professional & well-trained, but scarce units in Ukraine it faces few problem:

    1) Nations being bullied and intimidated by their aggressive neighbour – namely Moldovans, Chechens, Georgians and Azerbaijanis would have a great opportunity to settle scores. Moldova has already demanded withdrawal of Russian “peacekeeping” units in Transnistria and Azerbaijan… well, you know what.

    2) If the NATO wouldn’t react, it can close a business.

    1. thesurlybeaver says:

      Now would be a perfect opportunity for the Japanese to demand a resolution to the Kurile Islands dispute or else. Or perhaps Poland could take a brotherly interest in the Poles living in Kaliningrad. I’m sure Romania and Moldavia have an interest in guaranteeing the safety of the Moldavians in Transdnistria. And Russia continues to occupy Finnish and Georgian territories it seized by force. Russia may be capable of defeating most of its neighbours individually, but not if they begin to cooperate against it. It isn’t even necessary to engage in overt military action, simply using the same tactics that Putin regularly engages in, would force the Russians to divide their attentions and resources.

  7. amdgilmore says:

    40,000 is probably enough to occupy the spit of territory currently held by the militants. The creation of a frozen conflict is probably the new goal, after Novorossiya failed so miserably to gain any traction among Ukrainians. Antyufeyev’s sudden appearance over there would seem to point in that direction too.

  8. Airwalk says:

    Thanks for this article.
    If Putin invades … Well the answer is in Putin’s head only.
    Historically Russia has always sacrificed its own people. The numbers were never really a problem. On the contrary: the more the better because it is used later for propaganda (“so many of us died during WW2” – did they forget that they started WW2 together with Hitler? Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, hello?)
    My bet is that Putin will not enter Ukraine because he could do so a long time ago. Also he knows that in so doing he would catapult Russia’s economy back to the Stone Age. And contrary to so many economists praising him for the latest deals within BRICs will not help Russia at all. The least China, which will rather use this opportunity and play Russia against the US (“Using Barbarians to check Barbarians”, from On China, H. Kissinger) but that’s another issue.

    But then again I might be all wrong. I remember a taxi driver in St. Petersburg saying: “You know, in Russia a human life doesn’t count very much”. Putin could simply sacrifice a few hundred/thousand men in the Ukraine.

    P.S.: Many thanks for this blog. Becoming a huge fan.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks so much for your kind feedback.

  9. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Interesting situation—-but-at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy nut, I find myself wondering how much of the big Hamas brouhaha in Gaza is a useful diversion for an SVR patron….

    Nah ! Couldn’t be !!

    1. WJM says:

      Just to stirr into a similar horns nest:
      I recall having seen reports 1-2 years ago that the influx of sub-African refugees into the southern belly of Europe isn’t all that spontaneous either….whether that implied sponsoring by Gulf States, Al-Qaida, Russians, or an even worse mix/conspiracy of all together….

      One might even wonder if *some* of that isn’t also applied to the southern belly-border of the USA….
      At least there is the distinction of southern nations doing *something* against it, from their own southern border, versus doing absolutely nothing, or even thriving on the inherent bribery & corruption that comes with it….

  10. Phineas Fahrquar says:

    Reblogged this on Public Secrets and commented:
    It looks like Vlad the Terrible is putting all the pieces in place to invade Ukraine and continue his carving up of that state. Schindler argues that, while the Russians can beat the Ukrainians army-on-army, holding seized territory will be much more difficult.

  11. peteybee says:

    I think if we look at the Georgia war as a template, then there is less cause to worry about extreme consequences such as a full invasion of Ukraine, or an extended occupation.

    According to the wiki article on the subject, the Russian military action in Georgia lasted under 2 weeks. They went in, fought for a few days until they gained dominance, proceeded to destroy enough Georgian forces to send a loud and clear message, then left.

    There was no military occupation after that in the conventional sense. Russia’s allies in South Ossetia were restored to power. Georgia’s relationship with the West wasn’t really affected either I don’t think, although I am not up to date on this angle.

    1. 20committee says:

      I think Georgia and Ukraine are more dissimilar than similar here.

  12. Markos says:

    Consider : WWII Eastern front was not fought in Russia proper, except for a small territory around Moscow, but in Belyoruss and Ukraine, the biggest Soviet fronts were the Bielorussian and the Ukrainian fronts, the soldier was Bielorussian and Ukrainian not Russian.
    Most civilian victims of the German-Soviet war were peoples of the Bielorussia and Ukraine, not Russians.

    1. WJM says:

      Hmm….interesting….wonder if this could also explain why the ‘Russian’ POW-cemetry behind Bergen-Belsen is so utterly & shamefully neglected, and also 99,9% nameless?
      A sharp contrast to all the monuments in every Russian town & city?

      (Fallingboestel/Oerbke, close to the military ring-road, parking lot closed for years/decades (because of vandalism I assume; current access is best by walking out the back porch, to the right side of the big monument, take a right turn, and walk nearly a kilometer on sand & forest road (only a few waymarkers, not enough to feel reassured to be on the right way, barely enough not to get lost)

      (including the shame of a tipped over pedestal/tripod+flowers, remaining from the annual visit of the Russian consul)

      Hmm….after re-reading I do see some Ukrainian elements in either memorial site….but still….


      (I was stationed there in the late 80’s, returned a few years ago for a reunion….and while every one of us did visit Bergen Belsen in the 80’s, I didn’t know about that Russian cemetary until that second visit, plus some prior research….yet still had to look hard not to miss it….both baffling & shameful that so little was and is told about the entire history of both site and military complex; both back then/originally and later, between liberation and cold war)

  13. Jim A. says:

    Well, it’s probably cold comfort, particularly to those facing them, but I don’t think all those Russian troops massed along the Ukrainian border are as battle-ready as their chain of command would like us to think. The overwhelming majority are 12-month conscripts, and so probably of less utility than one might think. Russian law requires that Russian conscripts may not be sent to a combat zone until they have had at least six months of training, but six months’ training produces a very basic soldier, not one capable of a whole lot more. The draft cycles run in fall and spring which probably leaves Russia with pretty narrow windows for launching a military campaign: the spring 2014 class isn’t fully trained up yet, while the Fall 2013 class is already antsy short-timers. In terms of trained soldier availability though, I might invade in late August to early September to best take advantage of Russia’s available conscript manpower. That also just happens to be the same time of year when Russian runs its annual set-piece military exercises. Thanks to Russia’s archaic military manpower system, the upcoming six weeks are the most potentially dangerous for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.

    Numbers weren’t a problem for the Russian military of the past, but they are now. The mass mobilization force of the Cold War is long gone, and there is little in the way of a reserve force. I don’t mean to suggest the Russian buildup should not be taken seriously, it should, but rather the Russian Ground Troops and VDV have some real personnel impediments to their effective employment. This was supposed to have been fixed with the introduction of a professional enlisted force and NCO corps, which was one of the original planks of the Noviy Oblik (New Look) reforms of 2008-2009, but this has been walked back several times now due to the failure of sufficient qualified recruits. Both the VDV and Ground Troops have attempted to deal with this through implementation of Permanently Ready battalions (battalions, not brigades here, e.g, always fully manned. mostly with professionals), but even this will may be hard for them to sustain.

    Even though the most opportune time for the Russians in terms of manpower is just now opening up, they’re probably lost strategic momentum. The “surprise the enemy” train has long since left the station, Russia has lost whatever international goodwill it formerly had. Should they choose to invade, they’ll be choosing an enemy who’s alert, already mobilized (such as they are) and who has history of fighting a multiyear insurgency. If Putin invades, he’d need to win quickly in order to retain much support, but the odds of military success are against him there. Backing down isn’t likely part of his calculus, since there’s no saving grace there. The best I think he can hope for is another frozen conflict.

    1. 20committee says:

      Hi Jim — Great insights, as ever. Putin, et al, are an improv act here. The time to strike was months ago, when Ukraine was truly unready, both militarily & psychologically, still reeling from the shock of Crimea’s near-bloodless loss. Now, the Kremlin would be very foolish to do this …. but they just might.

  14. Oleg Balabin says:

    Another great piece John. NATO is already there – US advisors have been involved for a while now. There is actually a possibility for us mil to “face” Russians in “battle” – a military wet dream.

    1. 20committee says:

      Well, well ….. thanks!

  15. Gerard Ryder says:

    Learn the lessons of history appeasement is not an option!!

  16. silverbullet says:

    C’mon folks this scenario has been coming for months/years!!…whose suprised?? Nato/US?…certainly not!! this will come to pass ,The big bear will control east ukraine and will be allowed too sure whos gonna stop em?? the most eu/nato can do is bolster defences and give out about russia its a joke !..Putins moves are smart and hes making a mockery of the west ,one things for sure whos gonna risk ww3 for a former soviet state this will be allowed come to pass

  17. OGU VICTOR says:

    Russia should stir the water in donetsk, the impatience pests will jump into Russian boat AND there they will be trapped- empire and union will fall. Russia and China will emerge victorious.The cost will not exceed ww 11.

  18. Larns says:

    Great blog, and very interesting to read.

    Would like to share with you my thoughts on a Russian invasion and its consequences:

    If it invades further parts of Ukraine and attempts to wrestle larger chunks into its own hands the consequences would be tragic for Russia. First of all there would be an armed resistance movement springing up, most likely with guerrilla warfare style seen many other places(i.e. Iraq, Colombia). This will lead to quite heavy Russian losses. Kiev is not inclined to give up further parts of Ukraine to begin with, but especially Donetsk plays an integral part in Ukraine’s economy. It is said the chieftains of the former Soviet Union cried when they heard Ukraine would take this area. It is wise to assume that thousands of young men from all over Europe will pour into Ukraine to fight the Russians. This happens almost every time there is a major ideological conflict( f.ex. ISIS). Heavy losses won’t fly well with Russian mothers, as mentioned in this article. Putin is no longer facing a small population driven by religious extremists(Chechnya). Here he risks alienating 50+ Million people and cause widespread rage in a country which is known as the slavic birthplace.

    Another likely consequence would be Sweden and Finland joining NATO. From my perspective this is inevitable and would further isolate Russia. The sanctions will hit Russia’s financial system aiming for the SEPA and currency exchanges. Travel will be suspended and airlines denied access to European aviation space. Oil and gas imports will radically decline, and reciprocally the Norwegians must turn up their production. LNG from the U.S and Canada will be put back on the agenda and Germany will fire up its nuclear plants to compensate.

    Another likely consequence is that Russia will loose the soccer championship in 2018. Although Sepp Blatter says politics and sports should be separated, none should underestimate the far reaching power of western leaders. When Angela Merkel, Obama, Hollande and Cameron say “no”, that means no to anyone, including Sepp and Putler.

    Putin is also running the risk of enraging the wealthy oligarchs. By spitting on Europe the oligarch’s very existence might be threatened.

    All in all, it is likely that an invasion of Ukraine will be completely disastrous for the Russian people, its economy and political leadership. Man knows no boundaries in times of drought and suffering, which will hit the Russians sooner or later. Unfortunately Putin has fired up an engine which it’s hard to stop. No offramp will do the work here. He might find himself entangled in a war that costs his citizens thousands of lives, in addition to Russia becoming the new Paria state of the world.

    Russian economy has a GDP of about 2 Trillion dollars. Well compare that to the 60+ trillion generated by the Western powers and you really start to see who the idiot is.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for sharing your views

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