Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


The recent breakdown of the ceasefire in Donbass, and escalation in fighting along the line of control, has been followed by what has become a somewhat traditional war of words between Moscow and Kiev, with each side blaming the other.

Anyway, Russia's military buildup near Ukraine is an intimidation tactic: Russia's military posturing appears to be primarily coercive and demonstrative in nature. Nevertheless, should Ukraine try to invade Donbass, Russia will surely react: it is to be seen if Russia will limit its operations to seize and retain Donbass or it will invade Ukraine.

A Russian military intervention in Ukraine could reduce its military options in other strategic directions. Russian one million-strong army may face military-strategic overstretch should the Kremlin decide to launch extended combat operations in Ukraine.

Russia expects a large-scale military intervention in Ukraine to be challenged by armed resistance. This could be both in the form of regular Ukrainian armed forces units and irregular military forces using partisan warfare methods. Anyway, NATO or another significant third party force intervention is not likely to be anticipated in the near term by Moscow.

Russia’s military options in Ukraine

According to Russia, eastward enlargement of NATO is a military danger. Given this view, NATO bases in eastern Ukraine would be an existential threat to Russia. Russia’s armed forces are nominally impressive in size, but are spread thinly over the country’s enormous territory (17 million square kilometers). Apart from NATO expansion to Russia’s west, instability looms in the Caucasus and Central Asia to the south.

Although the armed forces are geographically dispersed, Russia can concentrate forces for offensive operations to seize and hold territory but only in one strategic direction at a time. For an area the size of eastern Ukraine, the forces Russia can muster for an offensive operation are enough for it to take the whole territory but will Russian available forces successfully control such a large territory (Ukraine is larger than France) in the face of Ukrainian armed resistance?

Holding on to territory would also entail Russia taking economic responsibility for the population and securing law and order. Russia would have the option of deploying occupation forces but that would mean Russia would be unable to use them elsewhere, for example, in the North Caucasus.

Reserves could be called up to man brigades that have equipment in store. Finally, forces from more remote parts such as the Russian Far East, the Kola Peninsula or Kaliningrad could be deployed. All these options would be time-consuming and cumbersome, and involve military-strategic risk taking.

Russia's military capabilities

Official figures suggest Russia’s military expenditures constitute roughly 4% of its gross domestic product (GDP). However, the extent of defense spending is greater if assessed on the basis of purchasing power parity rather than market exchange rates.

Russian forces are organized into five military districts (MDs) and operational/joint strategic commands (OSKs). Russia also has created a Moscow-based central command center, the National Defense Management Center. 

Over the last decade, Russia has significantly improved its ground forces. Recruiting professional soldiers has increased, along with upgrading heavy artillery, missile artillery, and electronic warfare units. Additional priorities have included reconnaissance, communication, and the creation of permanently ready units at full staffing levels. Ground forces emphasize mobility and are increasingly capable of conducting short but complex, high-tempo operations.

Russian ground forces are organized into 11 combined arms armies, one tank army, and four army corps. Russia’s most advanced capabilities are in the Western Military District, and the Southern Military District appears to have the most competent units.

How about Ukraine?

Russia has about four times as many soldiers as Ukraine, twice as many tanks, and more than six times as many combat aircraft. The huge imbalance in forces reflects the defense budgets of the two countries. Russia spends about $65 billion on its armed forces annually, Ukraine $1.6 billion.

The Ukrainian Army has two glues to keep it together. One is the heightened sense of national identity an invasion by any foreign force helps create. The other is the strong sense of identity of the Ukrainian army itself.
The Ukrainian military has evolved quite a long way from its Soviet roots. It has got quite a strong esprit de corps, quite a strong culture of service to the state.

Although on paper these two forces are imbalanced in terms of capabilities, if it came to a full-scale Russian military operation in Ukraine, this would be on the territory of Ukrainians and they would fight. There would probably be a fairly bloody struggle which would not be acceptable to the Russians, and this would be likely followed by a period of partisan or guerrilla-type warfare which, of course, the defending forces would be able to conduct on their own territory.
In any case, Ukraine is not well prepared to cope with an attack by Russia. Thanks to the legacy of the Soviet Union, its military bases remain configured to support a ground war against a western invader, not an eastern one.

Consequences of a total war

A total war between Ukraine and Russia would result in a Russian victory. Russia might decide to take the chance of leaving some of its flanks exposed and concentrate its armed forces on a total war with the Ukraine army and defeat it. There is precedence for this since the WW2 when Stalin moved 50 divisions from east Siberia to Moscow and left the Siberian flank exposed to a plausible Japanese invasion.

While the NATO alliance will lack the means or will to join a total war between Russia and Ukraine, Russia has greater staying power in a prolonged conventional conflict as its economic resources and the political stability are greater than those of Ukraine. However, a total war with direct Russian Army involvement and large scale invasion of Ukraine in style similar to that of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is no easy endeavor.

The Russian invading forces would need to traverse urbanised zones or natural obstacles that provide only two or three points at which forces could be introduced. Moreover, the encroaching muddy season [rasputitsa] is currently inhospitable to large-scale operations. Second, such an operation requires hundreds of tanks and a large tail of diesel tankers, difficult to conceal. Photo-reconnaissance of columns of forces heading from Rostov to Ukraine are consistent with localised operations, but not deep penetrations across the demarcation line. Third, for all its shortcomings, Ukraine’s army is not the army of 2015, and it would offer resistance.

The largest country on earth with the second largest nuclear weapons stockpile could defeat a country the size of Madagascar and a population similar to Argentina’s. But, as already stressed, Russia cannot commit all its military forces to a war with Ukraine because of multiple military threats from many directions whereas Ukraine can commit all its forces to a war with Russia.

If the Russian Army gains control over significant portion of Ukraine and battles for major cities outside Donbass erupts and if images of mass casualties and atrocities are circulated on social media then NATO leaders may take action. At first, non-military measures are likely. For example, economic sanctions could be put in place.

Russia could be sanctioned through the banking system by cutting Russia off from the SWIFT system which would severely damage the Russian economy. Then, although full scale NATO retaliatory attack on Russia is unlikely, NATO could provide up to date intelligence, advanced artillery detection radars, anti-aircraft defence systems and munitions to Ukraine. Also, the Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine Joint Brigade of 4,000 could be deployed in West Ukraine as deterrent.

China, Central Asia and the Arctic

The current spirit of co-operation between Russia and China is also inspired by a need to counter the threat of US expansion towards Russia’s western borders. China and Russia are currently in a difficult relationship with the United States following the imposition of duties on China and sanctions on Russia. For the first time the two great powers are considered "revisionists, strategic competitors and rivals" in the 2017 and 2018 US Strategy Papers Series.

It is worth mentioning that in two separate events Russia and China have publicly heralded a new age of diplomacy between the two countries: with the Vostok 2018 Exercise and the Joint Sea 2019 Exercise, Russia and China signaled to the West that they are working closer together to counterbalance the US “imperialism”.

In particular, Vostok 2018, a massive Russian-Chinese military exercise, involved more than 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes and several warships, while Joint Sea 2019 involved numerous submarines, ships, airplanes, helicopters and marines from both countries.

As for Central Asia, Russia’s continued troubles with terrorists and revolutionaries in the Region, especially the North Caucasus, forces the Russian Army to deploy 25 brigades there and additional 27 brigades on its southern flank.

Meanwhile, the development and discoveries of oil and resources in the Arctic demands the formation of specialized brigades for its defence. Satellites images show huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic where Russia is amassing unprecedented military might and testing its newest weapons in a region freshly ice-free due to the climate emergency, in a bid to secure its northern coast and open up a key shipping route from Asia to Europe.

Moscow will influence the Northern Sea Route, a shipping lane between Norway and Alaska, along Russia's northern coast and the North Atlantic, halving the time to reach Europe from Asia via the Suez Canal.

Putin's likely way ahead

President Vladimir Putin is adhering to a global grand strategy, which aims to achieve the following goals: 1. Reclaim and secure Russia’s influence over former Soviet nations 2. Regain worldwide recognition as a “great power” 3. Portray itself as a reliable actor, a key regional power broker, and a successful mediator in order to gain economic, military, and political influence over nations worldwide.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to find its place in the global community. In particular, Russia seeks to regain its influence over former Soviet states, which it claims are in its rightful “sphere of influence”. This underpins the Kremlin’s belief that it must contain and constrain US influence and activities in Europe and elsewhere across the globe. 

Russia utilizes a variety of gray zone tactics around the globe. These include the use of paramilitary forces and other proxies, interference in political processes, economic and energy exploitation (particularly in Africa), espionage, and media and propaganda manipulation. Putin is also adept at blending military and civilian elements for maximum impact. The specific tactics of hybrid warfare that Russia uses vary by region.

In Europe, for example, Russia has utilized propaganda, an increasing dependence on external energy resources, and political manipulation to achieve its primary goals . In contrast, in the Middle East and Africa - important sources of minerals and other natural resources from a Russian perspective - Russia has primarily utilized economic exploitation tools.

Russia’s energy priorities extend worldwide, and European nations in particular have become dependent on Russia for access to these resources. Russia has military, geostrategic, cultural, and political interests and objectives all over the world.


Despite a notable increase in rhetorical support for Ukraine, the west is unlikely to offer military backing should the situation rapidly deteriorate. No international military support was offered when Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine has not since become a member of NATO. This would leave Kiev to fend for itself and inevitably incur tremendous costs as a result.

The Ukraine crisis has resulted in the first land grab in Europe since 1945 and a civil war in the Donbass; it has seriously damaged West Russia relations; and has perhaps put an end to a European post-Cold War order based on pooled sovereignty, multilevel governance, rule of law-based multilateral interactions and a continuous focus on dialogue and process. Europe’s nascent political-security outline is likelier to be more in line with the wider world order, which is strongly shaped by power politics and interstate competition and conflict, and in which multilateralism is entirely state-determined and interest-driven.