What Putin’s Options In Ukraine Really Look Like

What a rollercoaster ride the last couple of months have been in regards to Russia’s mass mobilization of its military, effectively encircling Ukraine on three sides. While a continuous churn of cable news pundits claim to know what will happen next, the truth is that very few people, if any, actually do. In fact, it’s possible just one man does, and that person is notorious for engineering complex scenarios where options rule the day, not rigid preconceived outcomes. In other words, maybe even Vladimir Putin doesn’t know just yet what comes next.

Editor’s note: This piece was written yesterday, before Russia claimed it was withdrawing a portion of its forces from the Ukrainian border, the veracity of which you can read about in our recent reporting here. Upon review, we didn’t see how this news changed the relevancy of this piece in any substantive manner so we ran it in full.

On one hand, it seems Russia is certainly prepared to thrust into Ukraine and to do so in a major manner. Well over half of its battalion tactical groups, the country’s primary ground combat formations, are deployed for whatever this Ukraine operation is, many coming from thousands of miles away to take part in it. Air and sea forces have also been methodically shuffled into place, like pieces on a grand chessboard. For some, especially those in Ukraine, this whole ordeal must feel like being tied to train tracks with a steam locomotive chugging close and closer. But we still don’t know if the train will suddenly veer off on a switch track at the last second. 

President Putin of Russia., Russian government

While it certainly seems like Russia will move forward with some sort of military operation, it’s very possible that Putin will pull his forces right up to the line, pause for maximum intimidation, and then order them to withdraw. He could point to reactionary NATO deployments to Eastern Europe and declare “I told you so, NATO are wolves on our doorsteps,” and claim he is unilaterally choosing peace over war… for now. He could also simultaneously claim that his concerns are now being listened to and are an issue for diplomacy. For domestic consumption alone, this would probably be seen as a bigger win than most in the West could probably comprehend.

Of course, just like in the case of last year’s ‘withdrawal’ of Russian forces following massive military exercises near Ukraine’s borders — in retrospect a quaint affair compared to this iteration — any pull-back this time will be far from a complete one. Even more materiel and infrastructure will be left behind, kept in situ for what will likely be another round of this bizarre spectacle to play out a year from now. Just the experience of deploying Russia’s forces on such a grand scale and bringing them right to the precipice of war is extremely valuable to the Kremlin. With another year of fine-tuning, Moscow’s designs will be that much more potent.

Still, if this ends up being the case, it will have resulted from an amazing amount of treasure being spent for what equated to a dry run and a grand intimidation play. It’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the economic risk assumed from an actual war — both in terms of direct costs and sanctions. So maybe the calculus just didn’t play out as intended and the risk of prolonged war and occupation in Ukraine simply isn’t the right choice for the Kremlin at this time.

On the other hand, as noted earlier, it sure seems like war is imminent, but that is clearly by design regardless of Moscow’s true intentions and final actions. If this is indeed the case, what would such a war actually look like? Once again, few people on this planet can answer that question with extreme confidence as, unsurprisingly, there are options.

Russia has long been capable of attacking Ukraine en-masse from the north, east, and south, especially in the eastern half of the country. But Russia’s massing of forces in the south of Belarus, under the banner of large-scale cooperative military drills, puts its forces on Kyiv’s doorstep. The Belarusian border is just 55 miles north of the Ukrainian capital. Tens of thousands of Russian troops are nearby and equipped with a full spectrum of warfighting capabilities. This leaves Ukraine also vulnerable to Russian attacks from across its northern flank, not just in the east.

But having military capabilities in place and actually using them are two very different things. It’s entirely possible that Putin could choose to execute a shallow invasion of Ukraine, focusing on the eastern Donbas region that is already contested and where much support for Russia lies. In fact, Ukraine already refers to Russian-backed forces there as an occupying power. While such a move would still be highly troubling, it would not be an event anywhere near the same magnitude as a three-prong invasion of over half the country. Instead, this would be a more limited objective, one that is better assured and without the same level of risk. 

The general Donbos region., RGloucester/wikicommons

Above all else, it checks a number of boxes for Moscow and it allows large numbers of regular Russian military forces to gain a major foothold in Ukraine, which, you guessed it, leaves many options open for future offensives, even incremental ones over time. Above all else, the presence of large numbers of regular Russian forces in this region would further erode Ukraine’s sovereignty. Think of it as the long game.

On the other hand, a full-scale invasion — say one aimed at capturing all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River — using all the forces Russia has mustered would be an entirely different affair. While the Russian military remains a fairly blunt hammer — a legacy of its Soviet-era heyday — it is still an incredibly heavy one. The amount of artillery alone that Russian forces can bring to bear is absolutely frightening and poses an incredible danger. A force of 130,000 troops is nothing to slouch at either, although the quality of those forces and their gear is inconsistent.

At the same time, Russia has made targeted inroads at modernizing elements of its military and some of those capabilities are remarkably potent. Both Russia’s ‘blunt hammer’ and these upgraded capabilities will be put on display for the world to see in a major invasion operation. In other words, if Russia is going to do this, they are going to use it as a deadly serious display to the world as to their capabilities and strength. And, of course, Russia will also leverage such an operation to showcase its weapons on the global marketplace, just as it has done in Syria.

In other words, a full-on assault into Ukraine will be Russia’s version of ‘shock and awe.’ Therefore it will serve a secondary strategic purpose beyond the seizure of Ukrainian territory.

A Russian Navy corvette firing a Kalibr land attack cruise missile., Russian Navy

If a broad invasion is executed, expect Russia to start it off with pointed attacks on key Ukrainian command and control facilities, as well as air defense and communication nodes. Iskander-M tactical ballistic missiles — terrifying weapons — will rain down on critical hardened targets. Cruise missiles will strike softer ones, including air defense sites. Sabotage and commando raids by special operations forces already inserted into the country will secure or destroy other critical facilities and assets. Operatives loyal to the Russian government will be activated to cause major disruptions from within Ukraine’s governing apparatus and society. A massive wave of cyberattacks, including the activation of cyberweapons that already lie in wait within Ukraine’s networks, will be deployed. Communications, financial, and utility sectors within the country are unlikely to be spared from a major cyber offensive. 

Basically, stabbing out the eyes and ears of Ukraine’s military forces and crippling their interface with their government, in effect severing their decision cycle, will be Russia’s first objective.

Russia will also do whatever it has to in an attempt to rapidly achieve air supremacy over Ukraine, neutering the country’s limited airpower before it is even able to be put to use by cratering runways and striking non-dispersed aircraft while they are still on the ground.

These early elements of a campaign would not be limited to the geographical region that Russia intends to seize. In other words, these target sets and effects would extend throughout the country.

Traditional airpower will then roll in as airborne forces descend into objective areas in Ukraine aboard helicopters and possibly via airdrop. Russia’s mighty artillery will also play a key part in a rapid thrust from multiple vectors. Russian armor will flood across the border under its protective cover.

I could go on here, but the point being is this has the prospect of being an offensive the likes of which we have not seen from the post-Soviet-era Russian military. It will be very violent and extremely disorienting.

Su-34 Fullback strike derivatives of the Flanker family of fighters are among Russia’s most potent aerial assets., Russian Air Force

Once again, this is all predicated on if such a plan actually gets executed or has even been part of Russia’s intentions from the start. Russia may vastly out-match Ukraine militarily, and a blitz across its borders to seize territory has a largely assured outcome, although it won’t be without casualties. But the real issue is what happens next? What does this adventure look like not just once Russia has entered Ukraine en masse, but especially once it achieved its initial military objectives and looks to larger political ones, such as sustaining an occupation and even executing a political and governance reformation across the territory it seizes?

This is where all the weapons that have poured into Ukraine from its allies in recent years, months, and especially weeks, really come into play. Ukraine is now sitting on thousands of advanced anti-tank guided weapons of various types. Some, like Javelin, are very advanced and versatile. Javelin can even be used against low-flying helicopters, for instance. Others are far simpler and even easier to deploy in certain circumstances, especially in an ambush or close-range engagement. Even shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles have now flowed into the country, including U.S.-made FIM-92 Stingers. For Russia’s large helicopter force, and even its fixed-wing close air support tactical jets, this poses a problem.

Over and over I have heard military pundits talk as if these weapons have the ability to repulse Russia’s thrust into Ukraine, as if they will somehow neuter a full-on assault by the Russian war machine. This is a laughable proposition. Absolutely they could make a Russian advance more costly and could even slow it in limited situations, but that is not really their purpose. They are there to make a long-term conflict in Ukraine extremely costly for the Kremlin. 

The UK delivered hundreds of NLAW anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, one of a number of portable anti-tank weapon types that have been sent in large quantities to Ukraine., UK MOD

Yes, they are for a Ukrainian insurgency against Russian forces occupying Ukrainian territory in the days, weeks, and months after the initial assault. They are a deterrent, representing something akin to the ‘ghost of Russia’s invasion future’ if they move to seize large swathes of the country. 

The specter of Afghanistan still looms large in Russian society. That brutal decade-long war was a major factor in the eventual crumbling of the Soviet Union. Putin is known to be an adept student of this exact period of Russian history and it continues to drive his world view. In that war, advanced missiles and other weaponry, as well as training, furnished by the United States, had a major impact on Moscow’s ability to achieve its objectives without constant losses of men and materiel. Of course, this all happened on the Cold War battleground of Afghanistan. What will a long-term engagement in Ukraine look like for Russia with NATO member states backing the opposing force? One could argue pretty horrific. How would what could become an incredibly costly and outright open-ended war in Ukraine play domestically in Russia on top of potentially crippling sanctions and ostracization from much of the world community?

If anything else, you can look at America’s own experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq as evidence that these types of occupying operations have a very low chance of long-term success and come at an extremely high cost. Putin, regardless of what you think of him, is no dummy. He is widely regarded as a brilliant strategist. How could he walk into the same trap his own country’s history reads so cautionary of, not to mention that of his enemies’ in more recent times?

A Mujahadeen fighter shoulders a U.S.-supplied FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS in Afghanistan., Public Domain
Wreckage of a Soviet Mi-8 helicopter shot down by Mujahideen. ,  Photo by TASS via Getty Images

Oh, and a Ukrainian insurgency is not just some academic game of ‘what if?’ The groundwork for such a contingency has been laid domestically and internationally. It has the potential to become a modern proxy war the likes of which we have never seen in the post-Cold War era. This would be in addition to Ukrainian regular forces that would face off along some sort of a front line after Russia’s assault has ended.

So, really, this is a big part of what all the donated missiles and ammunition are about — not to gallantly repel the Russian Army as it crosses the border, but to make the price of an ongoing Russian military operation in Ukraine absolutely too unbearable to stomach.

With all this in mind, Putin telling his forces to pack up while declaring “I told you so” in terms of all this being ‘just an exercise,’ while simultaneously accusing NATO of being the belligerent, overreacting threat he has repeatedly claimed it to be, sure seems like a far less risky and more rewarding play. Making a grab for more concessions through protracted attention-getting diplomatic engagements would likely be a part of such a move. I mean, there’s always next year, right? 

Ukrainians attend an open military training for civilians range as part of the “Don’t panic! Get ready!” which is carried out by veterans of the Azov battalion on a training range in Kyiv amid the threat of Russian invasion. , Photo by Sergei Chuzavkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Of course, the ‘shallow invasion’ or ‘invasion lite’ option may split the difference. Russia has the Crimea model and the Syrian model to work from for a formal military incursion into the far east Donbas region of Ukraine. In some ways, this would be fortifying what they already have, making it official really, and leaving many options open. It is simply a different game tree, one that is far less risky.

In the end, one really has to question the basic strategy behind a full-on invasion and seizure of roughly half of Ukraine. Just because you can take something doesn’t mean it is a good idea and history has taught us with brutal clarity that what comes after you have done so is the real challenge.

Is that something Putin’s Russia really wants to own right now?

I guess we are about to find out, one way or another.

Author’s Note: Article updated with supporting imagery and embedded maps.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.