Moscow has already sent troops to eastern Ukraine. But keeping eastern Ukraine might not be enough for Vladimir Putin. Here are possible Russian invasion scenarios.
With Moscow and Kiev on the edge of a major conflict after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his military into eastern Ukraine on Monday, many experts are debating how large a potential invasion of Ukraine might be.
For years, since the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, the world has continuously talked about Putin’s next move against Kiev and political leaders from Washington to Moscow, Paris and Berlin have negotiated possible solutions in different formats.
Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, blames the US and its Western partners for not “being serious for meaningful negotiations.”
Now everyone is focusing on what Russia’s next move will be.
“President Putin assembled sufficient Russian military forces to pursue a broad range of scenarios from simply having invaded Donbass overnight and not going any further and consolidating what he views as his political gains there to a full-scale invasion,” says Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat to Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic.
The mineral-rich Donbass region partly covers pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, which Putin recognised as independent states yesterday - whereas much of the region is controlled by Ukraine’s government.
Getting eastern Ukraine
Russia might just annex eastern Ukraine like it did to Crimea after a pro-Russian president was toppled by anti-Russian popular protests eight years ago. Since 2014, Donetsk and Luhansk are within the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and have been pro-Russian separatist enclaves, claiming to form their own republics.
Putin’s recognition of these two separatist regions as independent states signals that a possible annexation is on the way. In Crimea, pro-Russian political bodies on the peninsula declared independence from Ukraine and then, the region located in the Black Sea joined Russia after a disputed referendum.
But is that enough for Putin?
“It’s a limited operation [in regard to separatist regions],” Simons tells TRT World. He compares Russia’s move into eastern Ukraine to Moscow’s Georgia War in 2008, when Russia helped two breakaway states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, separate from the pro-West Caucasian state. Back in 2008, “it was not the whole of Georgia,” he says.
“To do nothing would be to have Russian security really threatened because Moscow has no leverage on Ukraine. Everything would be with those guys [Western alliance]. It’s very obvious that they [Russians] will have a very hostile border with the whole of Ukraine,” Simons says, referring to Kiev’s close connections with NATO.
“They have no desire to go into Ukraine,” despite the fact that US President Joe Biden has pushed them to do so, says the professor. “There is absolutely nothing there for them. It’s just going into a trap. Once you commit, how long can you commit for? Where do you stop?” he asks.
But Bryza sees a different political picture.
“It’s not clear whether or not he is going to move any further. It all depends on how firmly and how unitedly the Transatlantic community imposes penalties on Russia,” Bryza tells TRT World, referring to NATO’s response to Putin’s moves in Ukraine.
Germany’s announcement of suspending Nord Stream II pipeline project is a definite sign of the upcoming Western action against Russia, the former diplomat adds. But beyond the power of Western sanctions, Putin might also be satisfied with holding eastern Ukraine because the breakaway regions have significant reserves of coal, oil and also gas.
Their total loss will hit the Ukrainian economy. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe by landmass (not including Russia) and has the world’s seventh biggest coal reserves. The Donbass region, which contains two pro-Russian separatist entities, holds 92.4 percent of Ukrainian reserves.
Ukraine’s biggest gas and oil fields are located in Donetsk, a separatist region.
After losing the valuable Crimean Peninsula, which holds many tourist attractions, the loss of the mineral-rich Donbass region could destabilise the Ukrainian economy, leading to political instability - an outcome that would favour Russia.
Under serious pressure from Russia, Kiev could end up succumbing to the federalisation of Ukraine, incorporating eastern separatists regions into the country in line with Moscow's demands. Then, Moscow will have a voice in the Ukrainian parliament, which means influence on the country’s political path.
Cutting Ukrainian access to the Black Sea
Long before becoming a dominant state, centuries ago Russia was a landlocked country, which dreamt of reaching warm waters like the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. After several battles with the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire in the late 18th century invaded parts of the Black Sea coast including the Crimean Peninsula, achieving their ambitions.
But under the Soviet Union, during which there were several prominent Ukrainian-born communist leaders like Nikita Khruschev, who awarded Crimea to Kiev, the capital of the first Russian state in history, Ukraine gained back a lot of the Black Sea coast.
In his latest speech prior to the Russian move into eastern Ukraine, Putin lamented the fact that communist Bolshevik leaders created different republics like Ukraine in Soviet territory.
Some analysts think that Russia might also invade most of the crucial Ukrainian Black Sea regions, essentially cutting the pro-West state’s access to warm waters.
In this scenario, Russia might target Odessa, located on the Black Sea coast and Mariupol, a port city in the Sea of Azov, two of Ukraine’s crucial access points to warm waters. “If you get Mariupol and Odessa knocked out, Putin will create a situation that makes it very difficult for Ukraine to export or import any products,” says Bryza.
That will allow the Russians to “strangle the Ukrainian economy” he adds.
Russia has already deployed troops in the Crimean Peninsula and has military units in Transnistria, another pro-Moscow breakaway region from Moldova bordering southwest Ukraine.
As a result, by moving its troops simultaneously from Transnistria, Crimea and Donbass region, Putin can effectively cut Kiev’s access to the Black Sea, rendering the state virtually landlocked.
Many Western leaders and analysts think that Putin is planning a full scale invasion of Ukraine, a country the Russian leader has long thought does not deserve statehood. That thinking “suggests and intends to move further into Ukraine militarily,” says Bryza.
"I'm afraid all the evidence is that President Putin is indeed bent on a full-scale invasion of the Ukraine," said Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, today.
“Putin appeared to be setting the stage on Monday for an all-out invasion,” wrote David Ignatius, an American political analyst. Sonia Mycak, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for European Studies, also believes that the possibility of a full-scale invasion is “unfortunately very, very high”.
Prior to Monday’s recognition of eastern Ukrainian separatist regions as independent states, Russia already put an effective siege over Kiev from almost all sides; from Belarus, which is located north of Ukraine, to Transnistria, Crimea and the Donbass region. All these moves might indicate that Putin is thinking of a full-scale invasion, according to Bryza.
If Putin decides on a full-scale invasion, he could order his troops in all these locations over Ukraine in a manoeuvre known as a pincer movement or double envelopment in military language.
“Of course, a full-scale invasion could also include an attack and attempt to occupy Kiev and Lviv in the far west. So all the major Ukrainian cities could be under attack and could be occupied,” Bryza concludes.