What would a Russian invasion of Ukraine look like?

Russian armoured personnel carrier in Sevastopol

A Russian army officer waves on an armored personnel carrier in Sevastopol, Ukraine. Photo via The Guardian.

With the pro-Russian Yanukovych administration now out of power in Ukraine, the Russian government has begun making threatening noises, putting forces near Ukraine on alert and starting military exercises. The New York Times reports:

The Russian military put scores of units on alert at 2 p.m. local time for an exercise that was scheduled to last until March 3, the minister of defense, Sergei K. Shoigu, announced, according to news agencies. Mr. Shoigu’s statement cited the need to test the readiness of the armed forces to respond to a “crisis situation,” including a terrorist attack involving biological or chemical weapons….

Russia’s Western Military District — one of four across the country — stretches along the border of northeastern Ukraine and includes the 6th and 20th Armies, with tens of thousands of soldiers. The exercise will also involve the 2nd Army in the Central Military District, as well as airborne, aerospace and military transport commands.

I should add that it is far from certain that Russia will engage in such an action. An attack on Ukraine risks serious damage to already-bad Western-Russian relations and even possible military confrontation with the West. Russia also has significant economic leverage over Ukraine, much of which it has not yet exercised. But Putin’s Russia has no issue engaging in such interventions (having happily invaded Georgia in 2008) when it believes they is in Russia’s national interest. Russia could engage militarily with Ukraine, especially if the Russians think they may lose their strategically critical Sevastopol Naval Base. The anti-Russian opposition previously opposed the extension of the Russian naval presence in Ukraine.

Russian Ministers of Parliament have made contradictory statements in recent days about defending Russian citizens from “extremists” in Ukraine, but also denying that they intended to get involved :

Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Wednesday, before Shoigu’s announcement, that intervention was out of the question.

On the other hand:

Russian officials have warned that Ukraine’s political upheaval represents a threat to its citizens in Ukraine, many of whom live in Crimea. Moscow says it went to war with Georgia in 2008 to protect its passport-holders there.

“If the lives and health of our compatriots are in danger . . . we won’t stay to one side,” Leonid Slutsky, who leads Russia’s parliamentary committee on ties with ex-Soviet states, said yesterday in Simferopol.

Seizing Control of Crimea

The easiest way Russia could maintain access to the Sevastopol Naval Base would be by seizing control of Crimea from the rest of Ukraine. Crimea is already a autonomous region within Ukraine, and was originally part of Russia before being given to Ukraine during the 1950s. A majority of Crimeans are ethically Russians. After expelling Ukrainian forces from Crimea, Russia could set the region up either as a nominally “independent” country (like South Ossetia in 2008) or simply reabsorb it into Russia. Such a move could easily be precipitated by a Ukrainian attempt to move  military reinforcements onto the peninsula, resulting in a swift Russian counterattack and seizure of Crimea.

Crimea’s location in Southeastern Ukraine.

Russia has already begun taking action to prepare for this possibility, and many ethnic Russians in Crimea are already clamoring for the region to return to Russia. The mayor of Sevastapol, previously installed by Kiev, was resigned after a protest rally and has been replaced by a Russian citizen. The head of the Sevastapol police has said he will not carry out “criminal orders” issued by Kiev, which presumably would include the outstanding arrest warrant for former President Victor Yanukovych. Ministers from the Russian Parliament visiting Ukraine have said that Crimeans could claim Russian citizenship – something that many Crimeans already have. The Ukranian central government appears to have little direct control over events on the ground.

If Russia decides to seize control of Crimea, there may be no dramatic TV images of tanks rolling across borders. That’s because Russia already has 25,000 troops stationed at its naval base in Crimea. If Putin’s government moves to seize control of Crimea, these troops may simply set up checkpoints in Sevastapol and defensive positions on the two highways that connect the Crimean Peninsula with the rest of Ukraine. If needed, reinforcements could be moved in through Crimea’s eastern border with Russia, and the Russian Black Seat Fleet could seize control of the Sea of Azov.

Any opposition would probably be light. Although the headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy are in Sevastopol, the loyalty of those forces to the government in Kiev is unknown. In recent years, the Ukrainian Navy has suffered a number of embarrassing breakdowns, and accidents leading the government to begin a massive overhaul in 2012. Even if the Ukranian Navy engaged the Russian Black Sea Fleet at full strength, it  consists only of cutters and a few corvettes, leaving it seriously outnumbered. Whoever commanded the Ukrainian fleet in such a situation would probably be best off trying to withdraw most of his ships to friendlier waters near the Ukrainian mainland.

On land, the Ukrainian Army has no units stationed in Crimea, and would have to send troops from the 6th Army Corps in eastern Ukraine south to attack Russian forces in Crimea. Given the chaos and general lack of governance in Kiev, the readiness status of these troops is unknown. The Ukrainian Marines are based in Feodosila on the eastern part of the Crimean Peninsula, but have a strength of only one battalion. By contrast, the Russian Black Sea fleet hosted in Sevastapol contains the 382nd Independent Naval Infantry Battalion plus another missile artillery brigade and coastal infantry brigade. If these forces were insufficient to defeat the Ukrainian marines and secure the highways that connect Crimea to Ukraine, the bridge on the easternmost highway could potentially be destroyed by a naval or air operation, making the peninsula even more defensible.

The biggest problem for a Russian force attempting to seize Crimea would probably be the region’s ethnic Tatar and Ukrainian minorities, which comprise 12 and 25% of the region’s population, respectively. The Tatars in particular are well organized (they have their own parliament), loyal to Ukraine, and have already begun protests against recent moves toward independence the ethnic Russian majority.

Crimean Tatars loyal to Kyiv and chanting “allahu akbar” clashed with a group of Russian-Ukrainians who shouted their support for Moscow. A group of Tatars pushed their way past riot police and into the Crimean parliament where they succeeded in stopping debate on a motion to secede from Ukraine.

Even if the Tatars are unable to impede a seizure of the peninsula by Russian forces, Russian annexation of Crimea could easily trigger a lengthy Chechnya-style insurgency, something I can’t imagine the Russian government wants to repeat. This issue could potentially be mitigated by setting up Crimea as a Russian client state rather than annexing it outright, which may be more acceptable to the Tatars.

Avoiding Conflict

The best option for avoiding an outright military clash in Ukraine is probably for the Maidan government in Kiev to preempt Russian intervention, and declare that it will allow the Russian majority in Crimea to declare outright independence. This keeps the ethnic Russian majority in the region happy, and allows the Russians to maintain their strategic warm-water naval base on the Black Sea. The Ukrainian central government currently has limited (if any) control over the region, and an attempt to seize control of it by force could easily result in a Russian military response. Whether or not the new Ukrainian government would support such a solution remains to be seen, but given the balance of military power and the fact that NATO/US forces are unwilling to start a shooting war with Russian forces, it may have little choice in the matter.

Update: I discuss ways the situation could potentially escalate here.

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