Forget the Troop Buildup: What the Next Invasion of Ukraine Might Look Like

Russian special forces: Spetsnaz.

Any further Russian annexation of parts of eastern or southern Ukraine will follow the Crimea model. The fevered discussion about massed troops on the Ukrainian border misunderstands Putin’s operational model. Notably, the most interesting element of Putin’s takeover of Crimea was that, needing a highly disciplined force, he deployed the Russian special forces, the Spetsnaz, not because they are the best killers in the military, but rather because they would be least likely to cause a bloodbath. It is critical to understand that the purpose of massing conventional forces is to signal the Kremlin’s seriousness, and not primarily to preposition troops to seize territory. The conventional forces build-up is primarily there to buttress the psychological part of the operation and act as a follow-on force if needed. The mere presence of troops on the border acts as a deterrent, to intimidate first the provisional government in Kiev, and, second, NATO.

In the case of a Russian takeover of additional Ukrainian territory, if it occurs, Russia’s core mission will fall to the special forces. How those same forces conducted their mission in Crimea provides a blueprint for understanding what such a mission would look like on the ground. The three main objectives for Russian special forces in Crimea seem to have been the following:

  1. Keep local pro-Russian militias from causing casualties among ethnic minority or opposition populations.
  2. Seize key infrastructure, especially the gas line junction at Strelkovoye, which sits on Ukrainian territory.
  3. Contain Ukrainian forces while avoiding the actual use of force.

Strategic success rested on achieving these operational objectives in order to create a fait accompli before the “West” could mobilize a countermove.

A move by Russian forces into eastern and southern Ukraine would look similar. Indeed, it strains credulity to think that Russian special forces are not already in place in these areas. Putin’s otherwise absurd insistence that what looked like Spetsnaz troops were just “local self-defense forces” wearing knock-off military uniforms served a purpose. The disciplined repetition of this line by senior Kremlin officials was a critical part of the psychological warfare being conducted in support of the ground operation. The denial maintained an exit for Putin in the case actual local defense forces or sparked violence, or actual special forces did. Having that option allowed Putin to move forces in with confidence because the deployment itself did not represent a final decision to annex as long as the thin veneer of deniability remained. Kiev, Washington, and Brussels all shared in this fiction about “local” defense forces. No one pushed too hard against it because they assumed it was Putin’s way of preserving a face-saving exit strategy for himself. It was. But it was also what allowed him to move with such speed and assurance.

The same basic model is almost surely in place along the Ukrainian border, with some key exceptions. First, the absence of legal cover for the presence of troops is a problem. In Crimea, Russia could legally put 25,000 troops on the peninsula. That’s roughly the number of U.S. forces still in the whole of Afghanistan, a much larger geographic area. Lacking that cover is all the more reason to use special forces instead of conventional ones.

Second, the lack of a clear termination line, a geographic boundary marking the furthest extent of the operation, is a problem. On the peninsula of Crimea, this was not an issue. In eastern Ukraine, it begs the question of how much popular support for annexation is enough to support the military operation. In Crimea, the ethnic Russian population did not comprise more than 60 percent of the peninsula. And even in that population there was less than 100 percent support, so the mandate for annexation was weak.

Ethnic Russians who also supported the ‘deposed’ President Viktor Yanukovich in elections (Yanukovich is viewed as ‘deposed’ in Moscow) are an overwhelming majority in four administrative regions: Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhia, In this case, maintaining the public argument that what happened in Kiev was an illegal takeover of power provides Putin a rationale for further intervention, if he wants to.

Again, Putin is preserving options. He has a strong incentive to have significant numbers of special forces already in place, doing what special forces do: engaging with communities, organizing rallies, and supporting local leaders that further the strategic mission. Even so, as long as the official line is that local forces are doing all the organizing and agitating, then Putin keeps an exit open. Absent a worst-case scenario, if conventional forces move across the border, it will be to formalize the results of a battle that was already won by special forces and supported by local populations. Any kind of military countermove by the West would thus be nearly impossible. Putin has created a situation where the only way to get at his main Spetsnaz elements is to engage in a counterinsurgency; no one has the stomach for that kind of fight. So long as Putin has the will to create a partially artificial insurgency against Kiev, he retains this type of deterring capability.

If a further move into Ukraine is in the offing, western analysts should pay attention to Zaporizhzhia. Taking this region puts Russian forces tantalizingly close to the wellhead at Strelkovye and a land-bridge into Crimea. If I were Putin, this would be a tier-one aim.

Any further Russian annexation efforts will take place before the May 25th Ukrainian elections. Any later than mid-May, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election monitoring teams, other international observers, and the results of the election itself will cause problems for the public relations requirements of the operation.

While a further Russian invasion is not inevitable, the likelihood of it happening is considerably higher than 50/50. The costs of the sanctions are already figured into Putin’s calculations, and the United States will speed up liquid natural gas exports no matter what happens now, so why not take what can be taken? Only novel, unexpected, responses are likely to cause Putin to redo his strategic calculations. The question is if the United States and Europe can come up with any.