Russia’s military options in Ukraine

A resumption of Russian military provocations is likely, to keep Ukraine destabilised and maintain pressure on its government.

After the fall of Debaltseve on 19 February – four days after the ceasefire agreed in Minsk came into force – the front remained relatively calm for some time, suggesting that Russia had shifted from war to political and diplomatic efforts to destabilise Ukraine. However, the war in Ukraine has had many on and off phases, and the current phase of relative calm may not last. Russia conducted larger military manoeuvres in March 2015. Usually, such manoeuvres are a cover for troop rotations. Many formations leave the barracks; some will return after the manoeuvres, some will head for the Donbas, and others will return from Ukraine. Western intelligence finds it difficult to know who is where. Russia is trying to hide its military engagement from its public, so it cannot deploy the same formations over a long time in the war zone. The Royal United Service Institute has observed that an increasing number of Russian formations are being used to provide troops and materiel to the Donbas in order to keep the numbers of death per garrison small. The winter fighting season has ended, and if Russia wants to conduct a spring offensive with fresh troops, it needs to have put them in place during March and April. Further military escalation cannot be ruled out. Therefore, the West should not stay idle, but should consider what it can do to deter Russia from escalating the war again and what to do if deterrence fails.

The war in Ukraine has had many on and off phases, and the current phase of relative calm may not last.

The war so far

Ukraine faced a very difficult military situation after the capture of Crimea. In April 2014, Russia deployed about 150,000 soldiers on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Around half of the forces were paramilitary forces of Russia’s Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry for Emergency Situations. This showed that Russia was considering occupying Ukraine and setting up an occupation regime. The Ukrainian armed forces were at an all-time low. Of the entire Ukrainian Army (then about 41,000 men strong), not more than 6,000 were judged combat-ready. Initial mobilisation yielded no more than 10,000 additional troops. No armoured unit was able to leave the barracks, because of lack of fuel and bad maintenance. Those sent to the Donbas were in a dismal state. The supply chain was non-existent, so was resolve and discipline. Russian intelligence services were well aware of the state of Ukraine’s armed forces. They knew that victory would have been easy. However, they decided not to invade, and moreover, they never again took a similar posture on Ukraine’s borders or mobilised the paramilitary services to a meaningful extent. Today in the Donbas, Russian paramilitaries take only minor roles, such as enforcing discipline among Russian troops or repairing damaged infrastructure. Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders provide a backup for operations and train and equip Russian volunteers. But nothing suggests that Russia’s military planners again considered a full invasion of Ukraine.

The creation of voluntary forces (the so-called Maidan battalions that were later integrated in the army or national guard) and voluntary organisations that provide all kinds of services for the armed forces (food supply, spares, personnel equipment, ambulances, repair-shops, upgrades for equipment, etc.) took Russia by surprise. Ukraine proved much more resilient to military pressure than Russia expected. Furthermore, the informal structures on which the Ukrainian military effort rests, might work as well in a partisan war. If Russia’s military had pushed deep into Ukraine, it would have to fight a counter-insurgency campaign that it can hardly afford. The results of such a campaign would be uncertain. Hence Russia abandoned the idea of total war in favour of limited war. It is noteworthy that if all-out war would have too high a cost, raising the stakes of a limited war will hardly make Moscow reconsider this calculus.

After Ukraine made considerable progress in pushing back the pro-Russian separatists in the summer of 2014, threatening the existence of the People’s Republics, Russia deployed regular mechanised combat units against Ukrainian forces from August onwards. At that point, the voluntary National Guards battalions were carrying out much of the fighting on the Ukrainian side. The regular army was mostly engaged in combat-support duties. The voluntary forces were light infantry in essence and despite being highly motivated, they proved no match for regular Russian armoured formations.  The slaughter of the voluntary forces culminated in the battle of Ilovaisk, where about 5,000 Ukrainian servicemen were encircled. Aside from the lack of equipment, the loss came about because of mistakes in tactical and operational leadership.

With Russian forces advancing simultaneously in other places across the front line, Russia could have pushed much further into Ukraine, encircling Mariupol and pushing for the borders of Donetsk Oblast at least. Russia chose not to do so. It was enough to inflict a humiliating defeat at Ilovaisk and to demonstrate that Russia could at any time disrupt Ukrainian military operations in the east. After the battles of September-October 2014, the war entered a temporary cooling-off phase, used by Russia to rotate, relocate, and re-supply its troops. Due to increased defence spending, partial mobilisation, and improvements in the supply chain (particularly because many tasks of supplying the army were handed over to voluntary organisations), Ukraine was able to field many more regular army units. The winter fighting season started with the battle of Donetsk airport in January 2015.

The Ukrainian soldiers – both regular and voluntary – again showed great courage and resilience, but the battle for Donetsk airport revealed major shortcomings of the Ukrainian Army: poor coordination between armour, infantry, and artillery, as well as between formal Army and National Guard militias, faulty situation-awareness, insufficient communication of changes to the tactical situation, and again tactical as well as operative mistakes. Russia did not beat the Ukrainian forces by overwhelming them, but by outmanoeuvring them. Again, the Russian forces did not exploit their victory to penetrate further into Ukraine. The same pattern was repeated in the fight for the pocket southeast of Debaltseve. Ukrainian soldiers fought with bravery, especially in the city of Debaltseve itself, where the urban environment reduced much of the Russians’ technical and leadership advantage. But Ukraine’s forces should have been withdrawn as soon as possible; it was clear that the bulge would allow the Russian Army to encircle Ukrainian troops again. The Ukrainian withdrawal was chaotic: it was “self-organised” on the ground rather than ordered from Kyiv. The state of denial of the military and political leadership in Kyiv cast doubt on the ability of the general staff. Again, Russia was exploiting the destabilising effect of the defeat without having to govern larger parts of Ukraine on its own.

Russian military behaviour throughout the conflict suggests that the military effort is part of a destabilisation policy aimed at breaking down Kyiv’s resolve to resist Russian demands. Hence, Russia does not need to conquer large parts of Ukraine: it concentrates on inflecting humiliating defeats that come at a low cost. Russia believes that Ukraine will collapse sooner or later: politically, militarily, or economically. Politically and militarily, Moscow so far has underestimated Ukraine’s resilience. But a renewed military offensive seems likely if Ukraine proves to be economically resilient as well.

How will Russia proceed?

Calm should not be taken for granted: as long as Russia sticks to a limited and (officially) undisclosed war, it needs breaks between different phases of fighting. Russia cannot leave its units in the Donbas for very long, because disproportionate losses in the battalions would be hard to hide. So, it is rotating its brigades and battalions in the Donbas. Russia may also hope that one of the pro-Russian states in Europe – Austria, Hungary, or Greece, for example – will veto an extension of sanctions if the front stays calm.

Russia still wants to enforce its rule over Kyiv. If the war were just about the Donbas, Russia would probably have recognised the “people's republics” as independent states. This would give Russia the opportunity to openly display its presence in the “brother-states” and consolidate its gains. However on several occasions Moscow declined to do so, indicating that the war is just another tool to force Kyiv into submission and hence will continue.

The war is another tool to force Kyiv into submission and hence will continue.

An undisclosed war means Russia must stick to a limited war, or a war of attrition. Any larger, multi-phased mechanised assault into Ukraine would reveal Russia’s direct involvement in the war to the domestic audience as well as to even the most pro-Russian foreign government. Russia would then face increased sanctions, at the least. Russian military analysts are nervous about what the United States would do in such a scenario.

A total offensive to conquer all of Ukraine seems highly unlikely. Russia probably does not have the resources to support an occupation regime all across Ukraine, buy local complicity, and fight a counterinsurgency campaign on a grand scale. A more limited option would be the conquest of Novorossiya up to the Dniepr River. This scenario would omit the probable centres of fiercest resistance and the terrain most favourable for guerrilla warfare and would increase leverage for negotiations with Ukraine on “federalisation” and “neutralisation”. However, it would also increase the costs of the Russian occupation and a counterinsurgency campaign would still be necessary. Moreover, private enterprises would likely avoid doing business in “Novorossiya” for fear of Western sanctions, so Russia would have to pump in Russian public money. Russia could not be sure that Ukraine would negotiate with Russia or that the West would not ramp up its political, military, and economic support – or even accept “West Ukraine” into NATO and the EU, as it did with West Germany. In that scenario, Russia would permanently lose the rest of Ukraine. Therefore, it will try to find a cheaper solution to destabilise Ukraine without provoking a strong Western reaction.

Russia’s most likely course of action is to conduct limited offensives against Ukrainian forces (not necessarily territory) to show Ukraine that violence will only end on Russia’s terms, and to reinforce Kyiv’s economic woes. The war has caused severe economic difficulties and continuing uncertainty about Ukraine’s future will prolong these problems. The longer the economic crisis persists, the greater will be the pressure on the government in Kyiv to find a compromise. Additionally, the West has to pump money into Ukraine because of the economic effects of war, investor uncertainty, and Russia’s trade policies towards Ukraine. Highly visible but militarily cheap victories like Debaltseve could increase frustration among the Ukrainian population, on which Russia could capitalise. Hence, limited military escalations are embedded in a policy of political subversion, trade war, financial isolation, terrorist destabilisation, and political defamation of Ukraine in the West. Russia will be flexible in using its military superiority and will take chances that arise on short notice. Discontent with Ukrainian political measures agreed at Minsk (such as the law of self-governance for the rebel areas) could be used to spark limited rebel provocations or offensives, and Russian troops will be waiting to exploit the Ukrainian response.

Russia has no intention of ending the standoff quickly. Russia knows that even if its economy is deteriorating, Ukraine’s is deteriorating faster. At some point, Russia will probably manage to stabilise its domestic economy. A rapid military victory would inflict great costs on Russia. But as long as the war continues, the costs fall on the West. If Ukraine should collapse after several years of futile Western support, it would deter the West from trying to support any further “Colour Revolution” in Russia’s near abroad.

The myth of Russian escalation dominance

Western policymakers, particularly in Western Europe, often say “there is no military solution to the conflict”. The phrase is misleading and self-defeating. All military conflicts are ended by diplomatic agreements – but the military situation dictates the terms of the agreement.  And as long as the West refrains from further engagement, Russia can pursue its own military solution.

As long as the West refrains from further engagement, Russia can pursue its own military solution.

Moreover, the idea that Russia will escalate the conflict as soon as Western lethal aid arrives in Kyiv is out of touch with reality. In Russian propaganda, Russia is already fighting a proxy war in Ukraine against NATO, the US, or a Western conspiracy. Russia does not care whether its lies are “confirmed” by the West’s actions or not. Russia refrains from total escalation because of costs, not Western behaviour. Russia’s aggressive rhetoric aims to scare off the West – the more seriously the West takes Moscow’s empty threats, the more effective they are.The problem for Moscow is that as long as the US are able to shift forces to the European continent, the West will be capable to mount a military response Russia cannot match. Russia knows that it would lose a major war with the West. But this situation would change if Russia could split the West, especially by splitting the US from Europe. And Russia knows that Western policy makers are hesitant to resort to military means – hence Russia uses military threats for intimidation. Especially nuclear threats are aimed at subverting Western unity and willingness to react to Russian aggression. Since 2008, top Russian officials have threatened to use deep nuclear strikes against selective high-value targets should the West interfere in a conflict in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. Vladimir Putin entered this game for the first time during the annexation of Crimea, with his remarks about raising the state of alert of Russia’s nuclear weapons. In the past, aggressive rhetoric about pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons formed part of an intimidation strategy to dissuade Europe from engaging in Russia’s “sphere of influence”. But the West could escalate even a nuclear war to Russia’s disadvantage. Russia is betting that in a nuclear game of chicken, the West would back down first.

However, if Russia finds that it cannot deter the West with these kinds of threats, it will hardly escalate further. The West possesses the ultimate escalation dominance. And as long as the West is ambiguous about the support it will provide Kyiv, Russia needs to be careful about the risks it is prepared to take.

Europe’s options

The ceasefire is likely to break down once Russian troops in eastern Ukraine have rotated, reinforced, and resupplied, so the West needs to think more broadly about how to end the Russian-Ukrainian war.

One policy may be to strengthen Ukraine’s capacity to inflict costs on Russian forces – which would make it much more difficult for Russia to deny its level of involvement. Advocates of delivering lethal aid tend to forget that training and doctrine are just as important. Training of Ukrainian military personnel in the West has started begun on a small scale. The common Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian brigade as well as US and British training initiatives will also increase the professionalism of Ukrainian military personnel. However, training and education will need time to take effect. The defence -reform that Kyiv has been undertaking since January has so far yielded few results. Kyiv needs to understand that supplementing official state-structures with voluntary nongovernmental ones has its limits: the west for legal reasons cannot deliver heavy arms to voluntary organisations. Deep reform and lustration of the Ukrainian ministry of defence are necessary – most effectively under supervision and involvement of Western officers.

Other options are to deploy military personnel to Ukraine, either in the form of a peacekeeping force or as a unilateral measure of reassurance. The stakes for Russia could be raised further by an ambiguous guarantee for Ukraine’s sovereignty that would not embolden Kyiv to engage in offensive actions, but would threaten a Western military response to Russian aggression, similar to US guarantees to Taiwan. Such measures seem drastic now, and are probably beyond the threshold of acceptability to Western domestic audiences. But European governments in particular need to realise that the longer they refrain from effectively countering Russian aggression, the bolder Russia will become in airing and executing threats to neighbouring countries.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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