Friendly arguments: Biden’s and Zelensky’s disagreement on the threat from Russia

Russia’s preparations for a full-scale war in Ukraine provide it with plenty of coercive options short of a massive invasion. Ukraine and the US may have different assessments of the threat, but they both need to prepare for all likely scenarios.

US President, then Vice President, Joe Biden Travels to Kyiv, Ukraine, January 16, 2017

In recent weeks, differences have surfaced between US President Joe Biden and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, on the likelihood of Russia launching another military offensive in Ukraine. In fact, this issue has divided the two leaders since October. Given that their countries are closely cooperating and that US support for Ukraine seems more crucial than ever (especially in military and intelligence affairs), it is important to understand the deep political issues behind the disagreement.

There are many reasons why Biden and Zelensky have different views of the situation. Biden’s assessment draws on US intelligence intercepts of Russian communications and plans, while Zelensky’s focuses on deployments of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. This is why US estimates of troop numbers have often accounted for forces that had not yet reached the border. However, this gap is closing rapidly. Russia has now deployed close to 80 battalion tactical groups around Ukraine, including in occupied Crimea. Taken together with Russian forces in Donbas, this roughly amounts to the equivalent of the 100 battalion tactical groups that US intelligence agencies expect Russia to deploy in and around Ukraine.

Russia appears to be using radio-technical exercises in its Western Military District to disguise the formation of operative manoeuvre groups’ command structure. An influx of personnel and logistical preparations are also visible in the area. These formations will be ready for action soon, while those deployed to Belarus will be ready a little later. Russian naval and aerospace forces are conducting exercises that increase the readiness of these units and help them prepare for operations. The Rosgvardia (Russian National Guard), an organisation that would play a key role in regime change and the suppression of dissent in occupied territories, is also deploying to the border area – although the size of this force is hard to estimate.

US and Ukrainian military analysts disagree on the size of the force Russia would need to launch an invasion. The Ukrainian government and most Ukrainian defence experts state that the Russian force currently deployed near Ukraine’s border is not large enough to invade and occupy the country – although there are huge differences between these experts’ estimates of the capabilities and number of troops Russia would need to do so. On the higher end of such estimates, Stanislav Aseyev argues that Moscow would need more than 500,000 troops to occupy Ukraine. No publicly available US intelligence report has estimated that Russia would deploy such a vast number of soldiers in Ukraine.

Ukrainians see their armed forces as having stood their ground in tactical engagements with the Russian military. In the case of war, Ukraine would throw all its forces – including conscripts and reserves – into battle. The country’s land forces have expanded in recent years to include, inter alia, seven air assault brigades made up of professional soldiers; four tank brigades, nine mechanised brigades; two mountain infantry brigades; and four light infantry brigades. On paper, this force is not much smaller than the assembled Russian invasion force. And conventional military thinking would suggest that the aggressor would need a numerical superiority of 3:1 to achieve victory. But that is just theory.

Ukrainians have a hard time believing that Russia’s operational plans involve a certain amount of wishful thinking

In practice, Russia would establish air dominance a few days after the invasion began – Ukraine’s airforce is underdeveloped, while its Soviet-era air-defence systems would be easy for Russian aerospace forces to track, jam, and attack. Even though the Russian military would have a long list of targets to destroy, the end result would be obvious. This dominance would enable Russian forces to attack Ukrainian troops at will, partly by using drones to spot Ukrainian formations and then targeting them with artillery, particularly long-range multiple launched rocket systems. Russia would not attack on a broad front but would push armoured columns into weak spots in Ukraine’s defences and then attack Ukrainian forces sent to counter the Russian incursion while they are on the move. Russian forces could not only choose the time and place to attack, but could also weaken and disrupt Ukrainian forces before an assault. Employing similar tactics, US military units overcame numerically stronger opponents in offensive operations – particularly in the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Hence, the US believes that Russia’s current deployments near Ukraine could be sufficient for an invasion.

Equally, Ukrainians have a hard time believing that Russia’s operational plans involve a certain amount of wishful thinking. For example, when London accused Moscow of planning to install a puppet government in Kyiv headed by Yevgeniy Murayev, Ukrainians shook their heads in disbelief: how could they seriously consider such a marginal figure for this task? Several Ukrainians told this author that the British must have fallen for Moscow’s maskirovka (political or military deception). But the Russian debate on Ukraine – particularly that among hard-line forces in the security apparatus – is shaped by political correctness and dominated by figures within pro-Russian Ukrainian party Opposition Platform, as well as allies of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. To these figures, Russians and Ukrainians are one people – meaning that much of the Ukrainian population longs for liberation from a government in Kyiv controlled by the West and a few nationalists. So long as such views dominate the debate on Ukraine in the Kremlin, Russia is likely to gravely underestimate the will to fight of Ukraine’s armed forces, reserves, and paramilitary groups – and, accordingly, the size of the force required to occupy Ukraine and sustain a new regime.

Hence, American analysts believe that Russia could launch a new offensive in Ukraine in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Ukrainian experts believe that the Russian military build-up is designed to divert attention away from other forms of destabilisation, such as cyber-attacks, terrorist attacks, attempts to instigate unrest, propaganda, economic coercion, naval strikes and airstrikes against strategically important infrastructure, and offensives launched by proxy forces in Donbas.

Moreover, Ukrainians fear that the West will accede to Russian demands to avoid war, thereby rewarding Moscow for its threats. They watched the revival of the Normandy format (comprising Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany) with considerable anxiety, as this increased pressure on Kyiv to accept Moscow’s demands that it recognise the territories in Donbas currently controlled by forces, and give Russia a voice in Ukraine’s constitutional affairs. Ever since French President Emmanuel Macron suggested in January 2022 that Europe needs to negotiate a new security order with Russia, Ukrainians have grown increasingly wary of France’s position. Their fears have resulted in sometimes clumsy attempts to reassure Western leaders – even if the recently published US reply to Russia’s demands suggests that Washington has no intention of throwing them under the bus.

That said, the crisis is far from over. Russia’s preparations for a full-scale war provide it with plenty of coercive options short of a massive invasion – all of which Ukraine and the West need to prepare to handle. At this point, there is no merit in trying to guess which option the Kremlin will choose. Yet, in the face of such threats, Ukraine’s government could benefit from showing more unity, particularly by refraining from a politicised trial of a former president.

In the meantime, the prospect of escalating conflict has already damaged Ukraine’s investment climate. Western states should respond to this challenge by immediately providing financial assistance to the country, as well as by adjusting their rhetoric to make it clear that a full-scale war is not inevitable.

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

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