National Security

Chicken Kiev

Will Russia risk an all-out invasion of Ukraine?

In September 2013, Russia unnerved the Baltic States and several NATO countries by holding military exercises on the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and in the Kaliningrad enclave that involved an estimated 70,000 troops. Earlier, in April, the Russian Air Force had practiced mock bombing runs near Swedish air space. The unease caused by these events -- along with many others, including the resumption of a Russian Naval task force in the Mediterranean and international flights of strategic bombers -- was considerable, prompting many analysts to remark on the Russian military's resurgent confidence and capability. It was confidence and capability born of a massive modernizatsiia program designed to remedy the inadequacies exposed by the 2008 war with Georgia, and to create a modern, professional military capable of protecting Russia's status as a great power.

Today, Russia is flexing that newfound military might in Crimea and on its eastern border with Ukraine, where it is massing troops and carrying out a series of military exercises. As the clock ticks down toward a referendum on secession for the Black Sea peninsula, fear is mounting about a full-scale invasion of the Ukrainian heartland -- this time, involving Russian troops with insignias on their uniforms. But as analysts speculate about Moscow's intentions, the question that led most observers to discount the possibility of a Russian takeover of Crimea remains unanswered: To what end?

The most likely answer is that the Crimean invasion -- and the current military exercises along the Ukrainian border -- is intended to signal to the new government in Kiev that Russia's interests are not to be ignored. In that case, they would represent a continuation of Russia's efforts to negate any incipient relationship between Ukraine and the EU that would threaten Moscow's influence in the region. As my colleague and FP columnist Michael Weiss notes, "That's why the Kremlin has created a shadow EU known as the Customs Union, which includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and whose sole mission seems to be keeping ex-satellites from being lured into Brussels' orbit."

If the efforts to "persuade" Ukraine to join the customs union -- such as the $15 billion loan offered to President Viktor Yanukovych prior to his ouster -- can be seen as part of this strategy, then the latest military exercises are probably just a more forceful iteration. These exercises are largely consistent with the more muscular military posture Russia has adopted since 2008 -- and don't involve the level of manpower needed to mount a full-scale invasion. In other words, Russia is making a powerful political statement -- and it may well hang onto Crimea -- but it's not about to march on Kiev.

Russia's ambitions are stamped onto the troop movements and military exercises themselves. Clearly, Russia isn't messing around in Crimea. The professionalism and equipment displayed by the occupying troops are extremely telling, displaying a level of command and control that only the Russian military would be able to project. This professionalism suggests that the troops in Crimea (other than the 810th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade, which as part of the Black Sea Fleet is ordinarily stationed in the peninsula) come from the elite Airborne (VDV) and various Spetsnaz (special forces) units: The 76th Guards Air Assault Division from Pskov, the 31st Guards Airborne Brigade from Ulyanovsk, and the 45th Guards Independent Regiment (VDV) located in Kubinka, outside Moscow, are all alleged to be in Crimea. The 7th Guards Air Assault Division is also located next to Crimea in Novorossiysk and could be involved.

Additionally, there are numerous units in Russia's Southern Military District (Russia is broken up into four regional commands: Western, Southern, Central and Eastern) that are most likely involved in the occupation of Crimea. The Southern MD covers the restive Caucasus region, including the Russian "peacekeeping" operations in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has priority over other military districts for personnel and new equipment, and so would be a prime candidate to contribute to the ongoing operations in Crimea. The 22nd Spetsnaz Brigade, which is subordinate to the Southern MD, is also allegedly in Crimea.

Regardless of which forces are actually in Crimea, the numbers and capabilities pale in comparison to the very real and very public displays of Russian military might on the Ukrainian border, which Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, claims involve 80,000 solders, 270 tanks, 370 artillery systems, and 140 combat aircraft. Still, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt; because Parubiy's statement is meant to sound alarm bells in the West, his estimates most likely include troops and hardware that are normally stationed in the region.

That's not to say Ukraine has nothing to worry about. Given that Russia has conducted military district wide maneuvers, air defense exercises, and airborne troop parachute drops, Parubiy's claims are not the musings of a hyperbolic politician. On February 26, Moscow ordered a massive, 150,00-troop exercise involving units from the western and central military districts (The Central MD's 2nd Army in Samara is available to be mobilized in the event of war to support the Western and Southern MD's, which border Ukraine). Then on Tuesday, it announced that the 98th Guards Airborne Division, based in Ivanovo outside of Moscow, would be conducting a parachute drop into Rostov -- which directly borders Ukraine. Additionally, Russia has launched large scale exercises involving its air defense forces -- including advanced S-300 and Buk M1 air defense systems -- and dispatched 6 additional Su-27 fighters to Belarus, possibly as a response to America's decision to send 6 F-15 fighters to the Baltics and a dozen F-16's to Poland.

But as menacing as these maneuvers might seem, they are fairly standard from a readiness perspective. As Mark Galeotti, a Russian security specialist at New York University, noted about the recent exercises, "In general terms, this is what a military does if it wants to keep at readiness. But in circumstances like this, they're very aware of the political implications of any movements."

Any serious invasion would require far larger numbers of Russian troops to effectively occupy eastern Ukraine. It would also require units to be brought up to full readiness (despite efforts to professionalize the military with kontraktniki -- contract or professional soldiers -- the military still relies on conscripts and the mass mobilization of understaffed units). And as Johan Norberg notes over at the Carnegie Endowment, an invasion would require the construction of field hospitals close to the border (although one could argue that field hospitals would be part of any mobilization).

Additionally, Russia would likely call upon its Interior Ministry troops (VV) to support an invasion of eastern Ukraine. The VV troops are well trained but lightly armed troops that have played a paramount role in conflicts in Chechnya, and as such would be ideal for the kind of counter insurgency situation that could result in Ukraine. They include the 2nd Independent Special Designation Division, 47th Independent Special Designation Brigade (both based in Krasnodar next to Ukraine), along with several special operations forces, such as the 15th Special Purpose Detachment (OSN) "Vyatich," an elite special forces unit.

Since few predicted the Russian occupation of Crimea, it would be premature to rule out the possibility of a full-scale invasion. While it would seem unlikely that Russian troops would march on Kiev, some sort of limited incursion into the Russian leaning east of the country is a very real possibility. The airborne forces and Spetsnaz units that would spearhead such an assault are available and close to the border. But those units would need to be backed up by larger regular Russian military formations after the initial incursion.

Whatever the future holds for the rest of Ukraine, it's clear that Russia is staying put in Crimea.

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From Chess Player to Barroom Brawler

There's increasing evidence that Vladimir Putin is dangerously drunk on power -- and reckless.

It is too easy to forget that beneath Vladimir Putin's glossy and faintly plastic exterior of chilly abstraction beats the heart of a truly red-blooded homo sovieticus.

While Russian airborne forces gather at airfields near the Ukrainian border and artillery shipments roll into Crimea, it seems -- to the naked eye -- that the real battle is on the ground. In truth, it's being fought inside Vladimir Putin: namely, the Russian president's head and heart.

The head says that Crimea is just a bargaining chip -- something to make a deal that protects Moscow's interests in Ukraine without precipitating sanctions, which could cripple the Russian economy and alienate the elite. But the heart says that Ukraine is not a real country -- just a lost portion of a Greater Russia -- and that the West and its Ukrainian cohorts are cowards who will never make good on their brave words.

This is perhaps why it has proven so difficult to predict Putin's next move -- his ultimate game plan. He himself does not seem to know, or at least appears torn.

Certainly in the early days of intervention, the head seemed to be calling the shots. In both Moscow and Simferopol, the language was of autonomy, federalism, and "respect for Russian interests." While the Russians still described Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimate president of Ukraine, they also acknowledged that he was politically dead. Symbolically, he was not accorded the pomp due to a head of state, and Putin did not meet him: The Russian president seems to feel that failure is contagious.

However, after Crimea was swallowed up so easily -- it's typically easier for a leader like Putin to send the boys in than to bring them home -- Putin's emotional side appears to have come to the fore. The inability or failure of the new government in Kiev to make overtures and start haggling appears to have affronted him. Likewise, Western criticisms only seem to have toughened his resolve.

Today, "military exercises" mean that forces are being mustered along the eastern Ukrainian border. Especially alarming are indications that -- as well as the paratroopers who spearhead an invasion -- the Russians are mobilizing the regular ground troops who would follow up the initial blitzkrieg, seizing and holding territory.

If I felt confident that Putin's head were in charge, I'd see this as a characteristically muscular political gesture, a heavy-handed nudge to Kiev to make him an offer to stand down. However, Putin's heart now seems committed to following through and not appearing cowed by Western challenges.

Of course, all leaders make decisions based on both rational calculation and emotional response. But in this case, Putin's unexpected bifurcation matters more for a number of reasons.

The first of which is because of the very lack of checks and balances. Putin's regime was never as unreservedly autocratic as it often seemed. Putin was first among equals, deriving much of his power precisely from his ability to manage, balance, and build coalitions within a varied and fragmented elite. Since his return to the presidency in 2012, he has become increasingly isolated, apparently by his own design. Bit by bit, this is eroding his position. But given that the controls on him were political rather than institutional, it leaves him virtually unconstrained at the moment.

Figures such as Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, and political technologist Vyacheslav Surkov -- who once could tell him tough truths -- fell from grace. The nationalists, bigots, and ex-spooks (often one and the same) who were always a part of his court, now seem to dominate it. People who understand the wider world end up relegated to simply executing the orders from the Kremlin.

Here in Moscow, for example, sources in the foreign ministry and the military make little secret that they were neither involved in the deliberations about Crimea nor have any real sense of where the Kremlin is taking them. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as wily and experienced an operator as you'll find, apparently was not part of the inner circle that decided to invade Crimea. Instead, he had to mouth unbelievable lies, saying no troops were there -- even as video footage showed units in their Russian battledress and Russian weapons spilling out of Russian armored vehicles with Russian license plates.

Likewise, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the most efficient and honest technocrats of the administration, has been notably detached from the most significant military deployment since the 2008 invasion of Georgia. The word from the general staff, after all, is that no one in the Kremlin is asking their opinion; they are just there to make sure that whenever the vlasti, the powers-that-be, tell them what needs to be done, they get it done. One just-retired officer -- a high-flying young lieutenant in 1979, when Soviet forces rolled into Afghanistan over the misgivings of the general staff -- glumly told me how similar things seemed today.

But while all of this unfolds, the West is unprepared to deal with this new Putin. It becomes harder to know which of the usual instruments of diplomacy and statecraft will be most useful or appropriate. Measures intended to appeal to a rational actor in the Kremlin, such as targeted sanctions and threats to support Kiev, may actually only inflame the emotional Putin.

Not only has Russia become accustomed to Putin's heart taking second place to his head, so have we.

What is playing out in Crimea and, potentially, in eastern Ukraine, is thus not just proof of Russian hegemonic ambition in post-Soviet Eurasia. It is also an expression of a genuine and serious change that is taking place at the core of Russian politics.

Until now, Putin was a bare-knuckled and often confrontational geopolitical player, but -- even invading Georgia -- he retained a clear sense of just how far he could go. Indeed, this was his genius, to know when to play the game and when to break the rules.

But Putin today is increasingly a caricature of Putin in his first two terms. He is listening to fewer dissenting voices, allowing less informed discussion of policy options, deliberately narrowing his circle of counselors. Perhaps feeling the chill touch of political, if not physical mortality, he appears not just unwilling but unable to seem to be backing down from a fight, more concerned with short-term bravado than long-term implications.

Is this a passing phase? Probably not. Put aside the old clichés about Putin the chessplayer: We may have to get used to dealing with Putin the barroom brawler.

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