Russia Expected to Escalate War in Ukraine Soon

That’s what a number of prominent experts think. Andrii Parubii, the vice speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament and former national security adviser, stated on March 27th that there is a “high risk” of a “full-scale military operation” in the next few weeks. An expert team led by Wesley Clark, a retired US Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander, informed the Atlantic Council in Washington on March 30th that “Ukrainian forces expect [an] attack within the next 60 days. This assessment is based on geographic imperatives, the ongoing pattern of Russian activity, and an analysis of Russian actions, statements, and Putin’s psychology to date.” Finally, Russia’ premier military analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, said on March 31st that the next “Russian offensive campaign” is “highly likely to begin soon.”

Heightened fears of major Russian escalations—up to and including air strikes and a massive land assault—have occurred every one-to-two months since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in February 2014. Russia has confounded these expectations by escalating slowly, steadily increasing its supply of arms, money, irregular forces, and regular troops—while always stopping short of a full-scale war.

No one knows why. Has Vladimir Putin been skittish about the risks involved? Did he just make a mistake and fail to seize the best opportunity to attack—i.e., anytime in the first few months after the Maidan Revolution? Or has he been developing fiendishly clever plans and sharpening his knives?  

To launch a truly big war now would be a huge strategic mistake for Russia. Ukraine has a functioning government, police force, and army, and the latter has shown that it can dole out serious punishment to Putin’s commandoes in eastern Ukraine. According to official Ukrainian sources, the Russian separatists have lost 14,600 men since the spring of last year. In comparison, Ukraine’s armed forces incurred 1,232 deaths in 2014 and 2015.  (If the number were to include soldiers who are missing in action, and probably dead, it would probably be 2,500–3,000.) That’s a kill ratio of 1:4 or 1:5 in Ukraine’s favor. The kill ratio in the Battle of Debaltseve, in mid-January, was similar, putting the lie to the claim that it was a rout for Ukraine.

Russia has more soldiers and better equipment and it could defeat Ukraine in a massive land war, but the cost to Russia would be extremely high, especially as victory on the battlefield would not immediately translate into control of the country. Ukraine has a vast volunteer movement, an active civil society, a newly found sense of national solidarity, while Ukraine’s population overwhelmingly supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Resistance would be fierce, and a Russian occupation could easily turn into a strategic defeat.

As Felgenhauer argues: “There will in all likelihood be no drive toward Kyiv or Lviv, up to the Polish boundary. It won’t happen because Russia lacks the forces. In order to occupy Ukraine and place 45 million people on their knees, it is necessary to have many human resources and the army should consist of no fewer than a million. Seizing Kyiv is much easier than controlling it … We don’t have the capacity.”

Worse for Russia, a major escalation in the next few months would torpedo Moscow’s carefully calibrated attempts to split the European Union and convince Brussels to drop its sanctions. War—and the certainty of thousands of civilian deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing westward—would consolidate the Europeans and probably lead to an intensification of sanctions. Even the Obama administration would feel impelled finally to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons, as the only argument against provisions—that they would provoke an escalation—would fall away in the face of Putin’s unprovoked escalation. Stephen Cohen, North Korea, Marie Le Pen, and Germany’s Russlandversteher might cheer Putin’s aggression, but that would be small consolation for the Kremlin.

Still, Putin just might be irrational—or ill—enough to do something profoundly stupid and inhuman. Power-hungry dictators presiding over crumbling regimes and fearful of their own physical decay have been known to sacrifice millions for the sake of their manias.

The West must understand that Ukrainians will fight and that Putin’s war, if he launches it, will not be a cakewalk for Russia. Ukraine and Russia could be destabilized. If they are, Europe will be next. The EU’s favorite mantra—that there is no military solution to the war—can come to pass only if Ukraine has the capacity to stop a Russian assault. And that means provisions of lethal weapons.

Here’s what the Clark team recommends:

1. strategic imagery and other electronic/communications intelligence detailed and timely enough to be able to provide warning of an impending attack;

2. long-range, mobile anti-armor systems, as well as the shorter ranger Javelin system, both equipped with thermal imagery;

3. secure tactical communications down to vehicle level;

4. long-range, modern counter battery radars able to detect firing positions for long range rockets;

5. sniper rifles with thermal or night vision sights for counter sniper teams;

6. modern intelligence collection and EW [electronic warfare] systems effective against Russian digital communications; and

7. whatever counter UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] systems can be made available on a near-term basis.

Most important, the West must act immediately. “At the minimum,” concludes Clark, “a palletized, emergency assistance package consisting of as much of the lethal components as possible should be assembled and pre-deployed for strategic airlift upon commencement of the Russian offensive.”

As the Romans said, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”




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