How a Russian Invasion of Eastern Ukraine Might Unfold

Russian forces took de facto control of the Crimean Peninsula without firing a shot—but will Putin stop there?

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

Russian soldiers near the Ukrainian military base in Bakhchysaray, Ukraine, March 3, 2014.

Judging by reports of Russian troops pouring into the Crimean Peninsula, stories of tense standoffs, sweeping proclamations and alleged deadlines for surrender, the crisis in Crimea is flirting dangerously close to a full scale war. As of Monday evening, there wasn’t a single report of shots fired, but in the history of warfare, past restraint has been a terrible predictor of future action. “War never breaks out wholly unexpectedly, nor can it be spread instantaneously,” famed military theorist Cal von Clausewitz wrote in the early 19th century. “Yet…as soon as preparations for a war begin,” he continued, “the world of reality takes over from the world of abstract thought.”

The reality is grim. It is clear that Russia sees the crisis differently than much of the rest of the world. “The narrative about this in Russia is about protection of the ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking population,” says Olga Oliker, senior international policy analyst for the Rand Corporation. “It is about stabilizing a country in chaos. It is about a country where, from the Russian perspective, a legally elected president has been deposed by a mob.”

Under those pretenses, Russian troops set about occupying Crimea and now no one knows what will happen next. “If [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is going to occupy a chunk of Ukraine, Crimea would be easier than eastern Ukraine,” Oliker says. The peninsula is self-contained and strategically vital, and the population is predominantly pro-Russian, making it a natural place to halt military operations and press for political gains. But Putin may press further into Ukraine. “If Russia were to actually push further into the country – into central and west Ukraine – it would face a very, very ugly occupation very quickly,” Oliker says. “Over time, an occupation of east Ukraine would also turn ugly.”

Retired U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, now the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, wrote a piece in Foreign Policy arguing that NATO needs to develop plans to react to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and support the ill-prepared Ukrainian military. “Like a chess player leaning forward, [Putin’s] moves are sweeping the board,” Stavridis writes.

Based on the early reports, it’s difficult to detail the composition of Russian forces in Crimea. When troops first appeared, sealing off roads and taking vital airports, they wore uniforms without insignia, but they were well-equipped and quickly swept across the countryside. Ukraine’s envoy at the U.N. claimed on Monday that there were 16,000 Russian troops deployed in Crimea. Over the weekend, Russia conducted military drills near the Ukrainian border with a reported 150,000 troops. According to Russian media, the exercises involved more than 90 aircraft, 120 helicopters, 880 tanks and 80 naval vessels. Mechanized infantry and highly-trained paratroopers conducted maneuvers. “Exercises only show you so much, and they’re almost always reported on afterwards as a tremendous success,” Oliker says. Even taken skeptically, the reports indicate that Russia has enough troops and firepower to easily invade eastern Ukraine.

If Russia continues the invasion, troops will most likely surround Ukrainian garrisons and demand the Ukrainians disarm. Then, there are two likely scenarios. The first is that one side or the other starts shooting, precipitating a full scale war. By most accounts, when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the Georgian military made the first move, but the Russians were primed for a provocation.

A similar episode is possible in Ukraine, but Russian troops will be moving to occupy pro-Russian towns and cities near the border. Any airstrikes or use of artillery is unlikely, unless Russian troops meet stiff resistance. Even if they were able to invade Russia-friendly eastern Ukraine without much fighting, the move would exacerbate an already tense situation. “If [Putin] tries to move against the towns and cities along the border in eastern Ukraine, which are all heavily Russian, then we are qualitatively in an entirely new crisis,” says Thomas Nichols, professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.

Russian’s next move depends on Putin’s broader political goals. If he intends to annex Crimea permanently, he could stay put, or push his forces far enough to establish a de facto annexation of the peninsula. Exclaves are nothing new to Moscow and it retains a form of de facto suzerainty over the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But if Putin intends to dominate the status quo in Ukraine, he could push further into the country. Nichols argues that the U.S., its European allies and NATO have done little to deter Putin’s actions. “Why should he stop?” Nichols asks. “What’s the West policy been so far? ‘Stop, or we’ll say stop again.'”

12 comments
LittleJohn
LittleJohn

Gog and Magog in modern times. If Russia does invade and occupy the Ukraine they will not stop there. Which in return will have global repercussions. Its actually a very scary scenario. 

randydavis387
randydavis387

If the US can invade Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan why not Russia? is there a double standard? 

JohnMadison11
JohnMadison11

Why do some ppl think the military option is "off the table" for US, EU or NATO? We would kick Putin's crazy butt.

We have better weapons systems than the Russians and vastly more people. My Grandpa was brave enough to fight in WWII to stop one crazy leader from taking over other countries in Europe... I understand if some of my fellow Americans are too scared but I would fight if we were called upon for the same reasons my Grandpa did and I mean that honestly.

BobMiller
BobMiller

@randydavis387  Umm 3,000 dead citizens in a terrorist attack occur in Russia or against any of its interests in the past? Bad analogy Randy, very bad.


CezaryZbikowski
CezaryZbikowski

@JohnMadison11  You are young and stupid and dont know what you are talking about. EU will only put another scratch on the tiger ....and JewSA? Cant even support own problems....and your stupid president is taking about economical sanctions against Russia!!! Does he think it is Cuba? You couldnt even destroy Cuba in 50 years with sunctions.....WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFE!!!!!!!


Read more: What a Russian Invasion of Eastern Ukraine Would Look Like | TIME.com http://world.time.com/2014/03/03/how-a-russian-invasion-of-eastern-ukraine-might-unfold/#ixzz2uyEeeQi7

jonjacob
jonjacob

@JohnMadison11  You have no understanding of what fighting Russia would mean. It's cold war-esque in the implications of what could happen. The stakes are too great. It would put a stop to all of this proxy war stuff we have been fighting with Russia for some time and call for all out war. Nothing good can come of it.


edit: a war will not happen unless putin has lost sanity and wants the world to burn. An invasion of the Ukraine will not happen. Crimea will be annexed and Putin will look victorious with all of his posturing.

coreywindom
coreywindom

@BobMiller @randydavis387 The US had no intention of going to the middle east to take it over and put American flags up...Russia invaded Ukraine to take crimea from them

coreywindom
coreywindom

@CezaryZbikowski @JohnMadison11 you are an idiot....and you have absolutely no idea what the hell you are talking about ....lol...are you Russian? I hope so..... and for the record. Russia was defeated when they tried to invade Afghanistan back in the late 80s, early 90s ....Our military invaded Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan at the exact same time and we captured their capital cities. Part of our military did something Russias entire military could not do....The cold war is over and USSR is gone. Russia is not the military juggernaught that they used to be. They are a shadow of them former selves.the y are a joke..Russians should be happy that we are using restraint and attempting to fix this with sanctions because the other option.....Russia does not want the other opti

BobMiller
BobMiller

@CezaryZbikowski @JohnMadison11  It is called diplomacy and when the United Nations has Russia and China as permanent Security Council members with them on this body. The Obama Administration has to slow play this Russian act of aggression. If Putin's government acts out order to elicit world outrage then the United States can take more of a leadership role. I think what is so alarming is how Putin just hosted the Olympics as a showcase for the new Russia. But instead it still is the old Cold War ways of the Russian Bear. The International Olympic Committee has to do a better job in their selection process of nations. Maybe even now only hosting the games in a permanent location to stop the lavish spending on facilities by host nations.  

coreywindom
coreywindom

@PrabuddhaGhosh @BobMiller@CezaryZbikowski@JohnMadison11 ..your people..lets blame everything on the US.... we did not have anything to do with what happened in Ukraine and we only got involved because Russia got involved...instead of wasting your time writing pointless posts you so go and actually look at what is going on in them world....and you with your logic you are saying that the USA is powerful enough to convince the entire UN to turn ignore it when the US break internation law.....if we were that powerful we would not have needed to fund a coup

PrabuddhaGhosh
PrabuddhaGhosh

@BobMiller @CezaryZbikowski @JohnMadison11  What is disgusting is that the EU thought this would be a good time to fund a coup as Putin is hosting the Olympics and can't afford to be tough. Well he proved them wrong. he doesn't have good options because the West is playing rough and loose with the law by recognizing coup leaders who got their vote by pointing guns at legislators (And even then they di not get 3/4th majority needed to impeach an elected President). If this had happened in some African country the Security Council would have condemned it and sent in peacekeeping forces. Russia knows the UN will not act as it is a coup funded by the US so they have sent in their own peacekeepers to restore the legitimate government.