It is immediately apparent from even a cursory glance that the situation in Ukraine has, in that eternally cheesy 1980s-era phrase, gone into the ‘Danger Zone”. Unlike the Tony Scott movie from which that phrase was borne, however, Ukraine’s trajectory does not seem so predetermined towards success. In addition, it’s not a situation in which the Ukrainian Air Force and its Mavericks will be able to dogfight out of – for the first time in the 21st century, the spectre of conflict looms large over Europe in an scarcely believable turn of events. Since the beginning of the political crisis in Kiev, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has contested the legitimacy of the pro-EU protesters, calling their protests ‘pogroms’ and labeling them ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’. As a result of these protestors’ deposition of former President Yanukovich, Putin deployed approximately 20,000 Russian troops onto the autonomous Ukrainian province of Crimea, sealing off all air, rail and road traffic (Crimea is an island) under the pretext of protecting Russian citizens and ethnic minorities from the Ukrainian government, most of which are concentrated in the east of the country. The mobilization and deployment of Russian troops in Crimea, the northern and eastern borders of Ukraine, and the issuance of an ultimatum to the Ukrainian government is a drastic, but vaguely logical response given the Russian characterization of the new pro-Western, Ukrainian regime.The Ukrainian regime, for its part has stated that it will defend Crimea and the eastern regions, which include the cities of Kharkov & Donetsk. The new Ukrainian administration has also ordered a full mobilization of its armed forces, and has not shown any willingness to back down.
The Political Stakes
The new Ukrainian administration has near-existential stakes (if reports of Russian deployment on Ukraine’s northern border are to be believed), and has been backed into a corner by Putin’s administration. Putin’s stakes are lower, but from a domestic perspective, it will be hugely embarrassing for him if he backs down; though the stakes are not as immediately existential from the outside as they are for Yatseniuk’s administration. As a result of the high levels of commitment of the two sides, a serious conflagration seems to be in the works. What will not occur as a result of this crisis will be an intervention by NATO and “WWIII”. However, while the strongest efforts are being made to bring Putin to the negotiating table, military action by Russia would be a fairly uncontroversial outcome were it to occur; the question is regarding what military options Putin possesses.
Roughly speaking, there are two broad strategic military options for Russia: Low-risk options and high-risk options. Low-risk options for Putin involve limited objectives, given the action he has already taken. For example, the lowest-risk option Putin has currently is to do nothing more than annex Crimea. Russia has already sealed it off from the rest of Ukraine and being a majority-Russian province anyway, Russia is currently delivering a fait accompli to Ukraine over the control of the province. Another low-risk option Putin has would be to move his forces quickly into majority-Russian cities close to the eastern border, such as Kharkov, Donetsk, and Luhansk’a. The distances involved are relatively short, and civilian resistance is expected to be low. In addition, from a military standpoint, it would be very difficult given Ukraine’s numerical inferiority to put up a sufficient defense in the short-term.
High-risk strategic military options are essentially any possible military scenarios except those mentioned above. Given the current Russian deployments, that leaves two likely high-risk options. The first, (and this is one which is unlikely, but possible) would be for the Russian military to drive on Kiev itself. This is a risky venture for several reasons: 1. Kiev is not a pro-Russian city or land – it will be strongly defended. 2. Once the Russians cross the border (in Chernihiv Oblast) they will immediately reveal their aim to be Kiev, permitting a Ukrainian counter-concentration. The second option would be to invade and break off the pro-Russian eastern portion of Ukraine through capturing the border cities specified in the low-risk scenario and pushing westward until a line had been drawn North to South roughly from Kharkov to the Black Sea. This option is risky because the sheer amount of territory being taken is simply massive and the large population means that blowback from ethnic Ukrainian minorities in this area is not only likely but probable. The two options could be combined in this case, but that would indicate a full-scale war, an operation which would meet with severe responses from the rest of the world.
This final note leads into the final point, which is that while I have classified some of Putin’s military options as low-risk, that classification is contingent on all the elements involved in this equation performing as expected. Putin may find that Ukrainian forces on Crimea do not surrender as expected and in fact fight to the death, bleeding the strength of Russian forces there. Putin may find that the drive to Kiev and through the East goes remarkably well, but that the Ukrainian people start a guerrilla war which eventually pushes the Russian forces back to Russia. In the long-term, predicting the responses of Putin’s foes will not be easy, but given the current level of commitment shown by Yatseniuk’s administration, one would expect Russian luck to hold only so far against Ukrainian determination.