Despite changes in the rhetoric of the West, despite talk of “significant steps” and “desire for peace,” there are no expectations of a quick halt to Russia’s aggression. Moreover, this is not the position of hawks who are against concessions to resolve the conflict but the reality on the ground. So far there hasn’t even been a whisper about Russian troops being withdrawn, and certainly no sustained ceasefire.
After all, Russia has failed to reach its strategic objective, which is to return Ukraine to its “sphere of influence.” What’s more, Russia is not interested in a win-win solution but only in preserving and promoting its own interests, in contrast to civilized countries. More than that, the maneuvers going on near the Ukrainian-Russian border suggest that Russia’s politico-military leadership has several plans for reaching its goal – including a military one.
How prepared is Ukraine for such a turn of events? There’s no question that its military has grown far stronger in the last five years of fighting. The Armed Forces have been able to carry out at least part of the planned reforms and has increased the battle-readiness of its army. Supplies have been improved, and slowly those at the front are receiving newer weaponry and equipment, and their combat training is much stronger.
In 2018 alone, some 30 brigade-level, 1,300 command-and-staff, 300 battalion-level, and 14 tactical pilot trainings were held. Another 200 staff trainings were also held with different departments under the defense administration. Tanks keep treading, artillery keeps firing, and airplanes keep flying. According to Defense Ministry date, this is 20% more than in 2017, let alone pre-war years, when most exercises took place on paper and equipment never left its parking lot. There aren’t any figures for 2019 yet, but they are unlikely to be smaller. This level of intensity has both positive and negative aspects. Alongside this better level of training is widespread fatigue among the service personnel with the sluggish pace and an accumulation of unresolved familial and social issues that have led to resignations and a shortage of personnel in Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
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The AFU are steadily mastering new training methods and instruments: training centers are now offering contemporary simulators for military equipment, JTACS systems, and MILES and Lasertag tools for imitating battle actions, the civilian versions of which are very familiar to those who hang out at big game centers. This makes it possible not only to offer training that is as close as possible to real battlefield conditions while saving on resources, and to increase the interoperability of Ukraine’s forces with NATO partners. The majority of the Alliance’s international exercises such as Saber Junction and Rapid Trident that Ukraine participates in use these same systems.
One of the main differences in recent years is the active involvement of reservists in military exercises, not just to run around with machine-guns, but also to do so at the highest operations level. For instance, reservists were included in the recent Kozatska Volia2019 [Kozak Will] command-and-staff training. What this does is permits reservists to maintain the skills they gained in their years of service or during the ATO/JFO, the Anti-Terrorist Operation or the Joint Forces Operation, as of April 30, 2018.
As this is a new development, there are many kinks to still be worked out in organizing the exercises. First of all, the Armed Forces of Ukraine have no working mechanisms for influencing potential reservists and, more importantly, on that individual’s employer. Many simply cannot afford to be absent from their jobs for a few weeks, although this is compensated for by the government. And unlike mobilized individuals, there is no liability for refusing to attend. This has resulted in many former military personnel being unable to participate in musters, while the reserve boards have to fill the ranks, so quality suffers. Moreover, changes to regulations governing service in the reserves still have not been approved, although the changes would make it more attractive for former servicemen and women, who will receive higher pay, and their employers, who will get tax breaks.
Knowledge transfers all over
For now, Ukrainians are transferring their military experience to their partners in the Alliance and are raising the level of interoperability, just as our neighbors are doing. For instance, one of the main objectives of the exercises that the Russian Armed Forces have been holding with the Belarusians is to share military experience that the RF has gained in the Donbas and Syria and to unify the use of the two countries’ forces. Not long ago, joint exercises involving the Russian and Belarusian forces called Union Shield 2019 took place at a base outside the town of Mulino, which is in Nyzhniy Gorod Oblast of Russia. Their scenarios involved the allied forces liberating a city taken over by terrorists and launch a counterattack. So far, so typical. This kind of program is part of almost all western and Russian exercises. However, there were a number of clues that gave a pretty good idea what Moscow was preparing for.
Firstly, Belarusian forces were subordinated to Russian command. For instance, Tank Army № 1 was in charge of the Belarusian mechanized brigade. Belarus’s air fore covered Russia’s infantry and tanks, while the drones of the Belarusian Armed Forces provided target information to Russian artillery. Incidentally, the Belarusians showed up for the first time with their recently upgraded T-72B3 tanks, which are the standard in the Russian army. All this was controlled with the assistance of Russia’s Strelets [Sagittarius, the Shooter] intelligence, command and communications complex. The Belarusians are in the process of developing an automated system for approving decisions. for Strelets. The command of both countries announced that they were agreeing certain legislative issues during the exercises, so that future regulations regarding the use of the two countries’ armed forces will be the same.
Secondly, the forces and technology involved weren’t entirely the same as those used in a classic anti-terrorist operation. For instance, Russia’s Smerch [Twister] and Uragan [Hurricane], both large caliber rocket launchers, TOC-1A, a heavy flamethrower system, artillery, tanks, and fighter, transport and drone aircraft were very much in use, as were electronic warfare systems and Special Ops Forces. After the town was liberated, the army launched a full-scale attack with air and artillery assaults, tank attacks and so on. Moreover, they practiced overcoming water obstacles with their equipment in sections that had not been prepared by army engineers. In short, under the guise of their official defensive-sounding name, the allies were really training to quickly move forces from one country to another and jointly launch an assault.
Assessing Russia’s options
Where this assault will be aimed is anybody’s guess, but in August various Russian Telegram accounts tried to disseminate fake news about Ukraine’s preparations for a provocation in the border areas adjacent to Belarus. Supposedly Kyiv was gathering radicals with combat experience and secretly preparing them for sabotage. Whether this could provide a casus bellifor Russia in the spirit of the Nazi Konserve [Canned goods] operation during the Gliwice incident in 1939 is a rhetorical question for a country that basically needs no reason to go to war against its neighbors. But this kind of “coerced peace” cannot be excluded, in the same way as in the 2008 incident when Belarus cities were under attack from “radical terrorists.”
Still, Belarus is not the only possible bridgehead for a Russian assault. The Russian AF have been practicing other possible assault options. This includes air and sea attacks in the south from occupied Crimea, as well as classic assaults by mechanized brigades in the northeast, and the duo of DNR/LNR and RF forces, basically part of Russia’s forces in the Southern Military District. In this situation, Ukraine could expect several days of assaults from aircraft and missiles, and after the anti-aircraft defense system was destroyed, together with the main command and control systems, the land operation would begin.
The main directions for Moscow’s attacks will be in line with the military-industrial assets that Russia needs to properly develop its own army while under sanctions. The R&D facilities in Kharkiv and Dnipro, defense plants in Kherson and Mykolayiv, access to the Northern Crimean Canal, and access to the Black Sea via Odesa are just a partial list of the “trophies” Russia is looking to gain. Clearly, this will repeat the Novorossiya project, which included Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolayiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, and Kherson Oblasts. This is the best-case scenario. This means Ukraine should expect an assault from occupied Donbas and Crimea, and Kharkiv Oblast simultaneously with a blocking of Ukrainian forces in the Azov and Black Seas.
Assessing Ukraine’s options
Everything that Ukraine’s commanders have calculated cannot be presented in this paper. Moreover, objective analysis shows that in its current state, Ukraine’s Armed Forces would not hold out more than three or four weeks, although Russia’s forces will suffer serious casualties. Compared to its overall potential, however, these losses won’t be critical enough to prevent it from achieving its strategic objectives, albeit within a longer timeframe. For now, Ukraine’s anti-aircraft defense system is unlikely to withstand a major air assault, let alone fend off a massive attack, especially when we’re talking about new high-tech distance weapons such as the Kinzhal [Dagger] or Caliber missile launchers. These facts need to be faced squarely.
At the same time, leaving the air aside, it can safely be said that Ukraine’s land forces are not that far behind Russia’s infantry. Here it will be more important for the defense systems to be ready and the size and type of forces. Yet another significant aspect will be a functioning system of territorial defense across Ukraine. Right now, calling it effective would be a real stretch, given the organizational issues that come up during musters and a level of material provision that does not meet the evident threats.
How likely is it that a resistance movement will emerge in Ukraine if those six oblasts are occupied? How long will these partisans be able to carry out sabotage, how long will ammunition and other supplies last? What kind of action plan is there should a big part of the combat-ready army be overwhelmed trying do stop the enemy? What will Ukraine declare at that point: capitulation or mobilization?
How much will Ukrainians themselves be motivated to fight while they are actively bombarded both informationally and psychologically? So far, Russia has limited its use of kinetic warfare to the occupied parts of the Donbas, ORDiLO, but for its propaganda, there are basically no obstacles for all intents and purposes that prevent it from covering all of Ukraine. And this component of its hybrid war Russia has never stopped for a minute, regardless of who was running the country. This was confirmed by a recent psy-ops against the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Ukraine itself: fake news and a fake blog from someone purporting to be the commander of a US contingent at the Yavoriv training base. The fakery was about a huge quantity of military equipment being moved to the Ukrainian border based on photographs of the movement of units of Russia’s 150thmotorized division that actually took place during the Center 2019 exercises. Another fake was about a Polish soldier supposedly killing his Ukrainian colleague during the Rapid Trident 2019 international exercises. The pressure of Russian propaganda never lets up.
Evidence of confusion among the country’s leadership is also not reassuring. When issues that are important to Ukrainian society are either ignored for a long time or are mentioned in several different contexts on one and the same day, as happened with Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko’s response to the furor over the Steinmeier formula. Or when a series of news items appears, initially about the withdrawal of troops and then about the move being canceled or delayed. This has an extremely demoralizing impact, not only on military command, but on the rank-and-file as well, and offers a great opportunity for Russia to manipulate.
Gird thy loins
What can Ukraine do, given all this? Firstly, admit that there is a problem without espousing blind faith that somehow, right now, we’ll be able to strike a deal “meeting halfway.”
Secondly, keep developing Ukraine’s own Armed Forces. There is much for Ukraine to be proud of in terms of innovative developments in it defense industry, such as the Neptune and Vilkha [Alder] missile systems. So far, however, these are just samples that can be tested or paraded – that’s about it. The manufacture of highly precise distance deterrence weapons and the necessary quantities of ammunition to go with. Events in 2014 showed that effective use of even such relatively outdated missiles as the Tochka-U could seriously hinder the progress of the enemy. The availability and prospects of attack drones that Ukraine bought from Turkey and now plans to co-produce them is also very effective. However, these drones need intense preparation for their calculations to operate to maximum capacity. All this is a major drag on the budget, and so, if Ukrainians want to have a modern and highly effective army, the country needs to continue with reforms in the economy.
The third front is diplomacy, which cannot be forgotten, despite recent events. Otherwise, Ukraine might find itself missing even the “deep concern” from its western partners, never mind lethal weapons, next time its neighbor decides to attack. Of course, there is the return of Russia to PACE, Moscow’s aggressive efforts around MH17, and its pressure on European capitals, especially France and Germany, and the scandal over investigating Hunter Biden in Ukraine. All this means simply that Ukraine has to double down on its diplomatic efforts. Interestingly, there are quite a few countries in the Middle East and Africa who could become helpful to Ukraine but relations with them are being developed on a residual basis. Certainly, they won’t be sending Ukraine Abrams tanks, but they can affect economic development.
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Active engagement of international investors is no less important than purely political considerations. Of course, on their own, IKEA or Starbucks will not win the war, but the reality is that nobody will get very concerned about a country in which they have not invested. This means that the presence of international projects in Ukraine could have a certain preventive effect, because the West will want to protect its assets. In this case, money is more important than values, no matter how that sounds.
None of these steps will be easy to undertake, given what is going on domestically in Ukraine and the international situation. However, no one ever said that winning a war against a strong opponent was simple. Vis pacem – para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj