How Russia can attack Ukraine and how Kiev can resist

Whatever the framework, the talks between Russia and the West have failed. Moscow considers its situation vis-à-vis NATO, which for Russia would be a "question of life and death"as an "intolerable". The acme was recently reached when Vladimir Putin himself alleged that the situation in eastern Ukraine “looks like genocide”, the Kremlin saying it is ready to react by means “military-technical”.

The signal could not be clearer: after Crimea and Donbass, Moscow is openly threatening to create a third breach in Ukraine's territorial sovereignty. And beyond Ukraine, Russia is targeting Europe, NATO and the international order. Is Russia bluffing or is further armed conflict to be feared in Ukraine? What are Kiev's chances of standing up to its powerful neighbour?

Non-military actions

In Ukraine as elsewhere, disinformation has been massively deployed by some Russian-speaking media in order to undermine stability, modernized version ofagitprop Soviet. Nevertheless, the country's exposure to Russian propaganda has been significantly diminished by eight years of war. And Kyiv has taken advanced steps in prohibiting several pro-Russian media on its territory.

The Security Service of Ukraine also revealed that several thousand cyberattacks have been carried out from occupied Crimea since 2014. In mid-January, a major new operation provoked a worried reaction from Kyiv. The message posted on the sites of many Ukrainian institutions, which called on Ukrainians to "to be afraid and expect the worst" claimed to come from Poland - one of Ukraine's strongest supporters - but Kiev indicated that Russia was actually responsible for the attack.

In the context of European energy security debates, Moscow is also playing on gas supply, defending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which is supposed to supply Germany directly, via the Baltic Sea. By doing so, the Kremlin could stop its energy supply to Ukraine, already dispossessed of its Donbass coal, while depriving it of the equivalent of 4% of its GDP transit rights.

Disinformation, cyberattacks and energy weapons can destabilize the Ukrainian government by targeting its population. But the Kremlin can hardly claim these actions vis-à-vis Russian society, especially to counter a supposed genocide. Through its diplomatic intransigence and its repeated military threats, the Kremlin has placed itself in an inextricable position, where the use of force appears to be the only way to remain credible.

Military scenarios

Moscow can count on the mobilization of substantial military capabilities in order to penetrate deep into Ukrainian territory. However, it is unlikely that Russia will be able to invade the whole of Ukraine let alone hold it, as it would face fierce armed resistance. A limited military offensive could, however, come from several directions.

East. Russia could easily launch a massive operation from the east, where it supports the Donbass militias. Most of his forces are located on this side. However, the cities which Moscow could seize, Kharkov and Dnipro, are rather populated and not very inclined to be let occupy by a foreign force. There are many "empty" spaces in the east where Russia could advance, but they are of less strategic interest.

South. Appointed Prichernomory (Territories of the Black Sea), it is undoubtedly the most interesting space for Russia. An intervention could cut Ukraine off from its seafront and connect Russian forces, from Donbass to Transnistria, a de facto region of Moldova busy by Russia, west of Ukraine. Moscow could count on troops from the East and those who are prepositioned in Crimea. Analysts indicate that the coastal defense to the west of the peninsula is weak. However, Russia should imperatively occupy the southern cities of Mariupol, in the east, and Odessa, in the west. Here too, the population would probably resist a Russian occupation.

North part. Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, is only one hundred kilometers from the border with Belarus. In a de facto protectorate situation, Alexander Lukashenko, the autocrat who clings to power thanks to the support of Moscow, recently declared that his country “will not stand aside if war breaks out”. This week, Russia has sent new troops to Belarus, on the border with Ukraine.

West. Perhaps the most surprising direction from which a new invasion of Ukraine could come. Indeed, the United States has reported that the Kremlin was trying to mount a manipulation that would legitimize such an operation, and a theater of provocation would be Transnistria, this Moldavian region where Moscow maintain troops since the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Is Ukraine ready to resist?

For eight years, Kiev has strengthened its capabilities. While Ukraine is still clearly in an asymmetrical relationship with Russia, the government's efforts have increased its ability to fight. However, military sources estimate that the regular army will be able to defend the territory, which would be unable to hold out longer without the help of Westerners. These are engaged to support Ukraine in the event of an attack, but this would most likely translate into material support and not direct military intervention.

Some areas suffer from certain weakness, such as anti-aircraft defence, but the latest developments have prompted Ukraine to increase its defense capabilities: it has acquired turkish drones, as well as recent anti-tank missiles supplied by the USA and UK, or produced by theUkraine itself.

In support of regular troops, the National Guard, a kind of gendarmerie, is an additional asset. Indeed, reinforced by significant investments and advanced equipment, it could secure Ukrainian territory in the rear, in the event of infiltration by paratroopers or special forces.

Another type of units, "territorial defense battalions", established by the National Resistance Law entry into force on 1er January 2022, mesh the whole territory. In these army-trained civilian units, citizens learn how to conduct guerrilla tactics with their own weapons against foreign forces. These battalions pose a serious challenge to any occupation.

Finally, the Ukrainian population itself, deeply mobilized in defense of the nation since the capture of Crimea and the war in the Donbass, has demonstrated great resilience. A military expert in Kiev defines this concept not as passivity but, on the contrary, as proactive behavior. According to a survey of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology published in December, 58% of Ukrainian men and almost 13% of Ukrainian women say they are ready to take up arms to defend the country against a Russian invasion, and respectively 17% and 25% more ready to resist in other ways. From material support to troops to direct action, Ukrainian society, traditionally autonomous from its own government, is a serious asset for waging a war of resistance.

Julien Theron, Lecturer, Conflict and Security Studies, Sciences Po

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / ​Anastasiia Rodion

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