MOSCOW.- Faced with the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers to the north, east and south of Ukraine, Fears are growing in Kiev and Western capitals about a possible new Russian attack, although the Kremlin does not deny it.
Western military analysts say that for logistical and economic reasons Russia would not be able to keep such troops deployed indefinitely, and would have to withdraw them by summer.
Estimates of the new troops mobilized by Russia to the border with Ukraine vary between 60,000 and 100,000 troops, although there are US intelligence documents that suggest that this figure could be close to 175,000. US officials have indicated that Russia could even attack Ukraine this month, in the dead of winter, when the ground is firm with snow and ice and tanks and other armored vehicles can move faster.
In this week’s talks with the United States and NATO to defuse the crisis, the Moscow government has demanded guarantees.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his government was not willing to wait forever for a response and wanted a detailed, written response to each and every Kremlin proposal.
But what would a possible Russian attack on Ukraine look like and what would be its objective?
“The current troop deployment is very versatile,” says Keir Giles, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based international policy analysis NGO. “Russia does not rule out any option and thus keeps its opponents on edge.”
These are some of the possible scenarios
Heavily armed and Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists have controlled large portions of eastern Ukraine since 2014, and despite a ceasefire in 2015 that ended hostilities, skirmishes with the Ukrainian military continue.
The Donbass War, as that conflict is often called, 15,000 victims have already been claimed, according to data from the Kiev government. Ukraine has long accused Russia of having infiltrated troops in the region, although the Kremlin denies this. Russia, for its part, accuses Kiev of plotting to recover the region by force, something Ukraine denies.
In this atmosphere of feverish distrust, the risk of a misunderstanding or an unwanted escalation is multiplied, an incident that Russia could brandish as beautiful case, or cause of war.
A source familiar with the Russian Defense Ministry’s plans says that if Moscow decided to attack, that would be the most likely scenario, but that at the moment no one is talking about an attack. Kiev could also be moved to attack when provoked by Ukrainian separatists, who would then ask Russia to send them relief troops, the same source said.
Russian troops could extend the Donbass clashes and drag Ukraine into a conventional warsays Neil Melvin, director of International Security Studies at London-based think tank RUSI. Melvin adds that Moscow could try to occupy Ukraine’s coastal regions on the Sea of Azov, thus creating a land bridge that would connect the Russian city of Rostov with Crimea, passing through the Donbass. “That situation would really leave the Ukrainian government between a rock and a hard place.”
Russia moved new troops into Crimea, a peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
moscow could launch their attack on Ukraine from Crimea and occupy the entire territory up to the Dnieper River, which would function as a natural barrier against any attempted Ukrainian counteroffensive, says Konrad Muzyka, director of Poland-based consultancy Rochan.
The military operation would start with artillery fire, missiles and air attacks on the Ukrainian units stationed in the south. Next, Russian special forces units would seize the bridges and railway junctions, to free the crossing of troops and armor, Muzyka says. The weak point of this possible course of action: from Crimea there are only two routes into the country, which could be blocked or destroyed.
In that case, Russian forces would secure control of a canal, supplying Crimea with fresh water until Russia annexes the region and Ukraine cuts off supplies.
A public US intelligence document states that this month Russia could launch an invasion with up to 100 battalion tactical groups (BTG, for its acronym in English) or about 175,000 troops. The same document reports that in the north and east of Ukraine and from Crimea to the south there are already about 50 BTG deployed.
By occupying southern Ukraine, Russia could cut off Kiev from the coast and NATO forces in the Black Sea, Melvin said, and that would encourage Russian nationalists who consider the region part of Novorossiya’s historic lands. or “The New Russia”.
A multifrontal attack could also include an advance into northeastern Ukraine, bypassing cities without entering them, to prevent Russian forces from becoming entangled and delayed in urban fighting. Added to this is the possibility that troops advance towards Belarus, opening a northern front that would leave Russian forces at the gates of Kievsays Giles of Chatham House.
“Of course that would be the most costly scenario, both politically and economically, and also in terms of human lives, so it’s also the least likely,” says Melvin, referring to a full-scale invasion.
Military analysts say that even if it defeats Ukraine’s army, which is twice its size, Russia would have to face “guerrilla warfare” resistance, and that would make it difficult for it to maintain control of the territory.
According to Giles, other possible scenarios include long-range missile strikes or cyber attacks, in both cases targeting Ukraine’s basic infrastructure. Missile attacks have one advantage: the weakness of Ukraine’s missile defenses.
“Russia’s options for punishing Ukraine and trying to persuade the West to meet its security demands don’t even necessarily include a ground invasion,” says Giles.
Translation of Jaime Arrambide