Watching the debacle that was the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the huge amounts of equipment abandoned, destroyed, or falling into Taliban hands as the Afghan security forces melted away, with the political ramifications that spread across the US and UK in particular with the mad scramble, and failure to get all of the locals who had helped the coalition out of the country, it is likely President Putin smiled. Russia had its own debacle in Afghanistan, but it left in a more orderly fashion. Vladimir knew the West was a shadow of its previous self.
At the time of the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan the then Vladimir Putin of the KGB was finishing his career as an intelligence officer, destroying files in Dresden in the former East Germany. As the wall came down, he moved to be an advisor on international affairs to the Mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak, where, by his own admission, he resigned from the KGB in 1991 not wanting anything to do with the post-Soviet regime’s intelligence machinery, his destination was politics.
However, his foundation, the belief at the core of his soul, was the USSR, and a USSR as a world leading global power. He has never lost that belief and has resented everything that has diluted the reality around it. When it comes to Ukraine, for over 10 years before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin ran a long media campaign aimed at suggesting that Russians and Ukrainian’s were one people but painting them in the eyes of ethnic Russians as “little Russians” and mobilised strong anti-Ukrainian sentiment in the run up to the Annexation. He hasn’t stopped since.
However, what this says is that Putin has a long-term plan, measured in decades not months and his actions into Crimea, support for separatists in the Donbas region, cyber-attacks, possibly assassinations and military deployments to the Ukrainian borders over the years culminating in the current deployment, clearly display his long game approach to achieving his objective; Ukraine being absorbed back to mother Russia.
What is different about this deployment is its scale, not just combat troops but combat support (artillery, engineers) and logistics. It is on a scale not seen before. In addition, it is no accident that Putin is having joint military exercise with Belarus, deploying Naval capability into the Baltic, Atlantic, Mediterranean, having joint exercises with China and Iran in the Indian Ocean, all at the same time. The Russian military has not been tested like this since the old USSR days, something Putin will be proud to have achieved but also concerned about the message at home.
So why doesn’t Putin just invade and take Ukraine immediately?
There are several issues around this simple question, the first is size. Ukraine is the second largest country by land mass in Europe at some 603,628 Sq Km and has a population of approximately 55 million people. That is a huge area to invade and a huge number of people to subjugate; it is not a simple military operation even for a country with the size of military forces Russia has on paper. Even if he had enough land based military capability to take and hold Ukraine, he would very quickly become fixed and be able to concentrate on nothing else.
The second reason is the potential international reaction. Putin does care about the international consequences, especially if it will hit him and his supporters in the pocket too hard. Economic sanctions he can handle, even though the Russian economy is in turmoil, note how he is courting and getting increased Chinese support! Are we seeing or is there already a coalition of the leaders for life?
However, if it came to the point where his personal assets overseas or those of the oligarchs supporting him (keeping him in power) were badly affected then he would be concerned. Politically he needs to keep the oligarchs onside and able to keep their lucrative businesses, otherwise support to keep Putin in power would disappear rapidly from those with the power to remove him.
Remember the attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury with Novichok? That was to send a message to some errant oligarchs more than it was to assassinate Skripal. Exactly 14 days before the last Presidential election, Putin wanted a greater percentage of the vote and at least one oligarch could have disrupted that. After a smear of Novichok in Salisbury, there was no dissent.
Of note Russia has just changed its position on Crypto Currencies from banning them to regulating them, could this be a move to allow Putin and Oligarchs to protect some of their assets in decentralised currencies, less easy to subject to asset freezing? Regulation would continue to allow him and his political friends to maintain oversight of their use!
What is clear is that Putin is playing a game of 3D or 4D chess, every time he moves, he sits and watches what the global reaction is. He knows that he controls the timings to an extent. Troops deployed without purpose can become disillusioned, equipment deployed where it can’t be maintained properly becomes unreliable, funding large military deployments is expensive and the court of Russian public opinion, no matter how much it is controlled, will only stay silent for a finite period.
His military exercises with China and Iran in the South China Sea, 240 nautical miles off the coast of Ireland, sending landing ships through the Mediterranean, mobilising elements of all of his Naval Fleets are doing two things – the first is sending a message to the West, “you don’t know what I am up to,” and the second is splitting intelligence and diplomatic efforts. Intelligence assets monitoring a large number of events simultaneously means there is less of a concentration of them to monitor what actually happens when it does at Putin’s time and place of his choosing.
When it comes to land-based deployments and his exercises in Belarus, it gives him the ability to outload and forward deploy the military capability he needs to take action into Ukraine but also place troops on boarders with NATO countries as a deterrent. The rationale is twofold – deterring NATO from physically getting involved and secondly splitting Ukrainian defences by suggesting potential multiple axis of invasion. However, no matter what numbers of troops and pieces of equipment are on paper, when analysing Russian capability, only a finite amount will be the newest, the best trained, the capabilities at proper combat readiness. The rest is there for show.
Diplomatically Putin’s manoeuvres are providing him invaluable insights to western thinking, possible reactions, weak points and options. He will continue to play the political and diplomatic game as long as he has options to manoeuvre in this area and gain and keep from his thinking’s perspective, the high ground. He has offered an olive branch to deescalate knowing the thorns on the branch make it unacceptable to the West who rejected it. However, from Putin’s messaging perspective aimed at his troops and his domestic audience, the West have been the aggressor. This is reinforced by pictures of the US and UK and others sending weapons to Ukraine and talking of military deployments to shore up NATO countries. All of this will be played by Putin as aggression. We just seem paralysed when it comes to confronting Putin in the information sphere, the Grey Zone!
Putin has found two major cracks in the EU, one he knew about, the inability of Ireland to influence the waters off its coast and how this provides a potential weak point on NATOs flank. However, the bigger weakness is Germany and her political stance not to send military support to Ukraine. From a longer-term perspective, Putin will see this as a huge victory proving the EU can and will never be one security entity and it easily manipulated and fractured economically.
What is missing currently are the final triggers and indicators of an invasion. They will likely start up to 2 weeks before troops move further into Ukrainian territory and will possibly involve false flag incidents in one or all of Russia, Belarus and the Donbas region and/or Crimea, followed by at least one in Ukraine itself, targeting the Russian speaking population. The possibility of a Russian target being subject to a false flag attack anywhere in the world, is very real. Around these there will be increasing cyber activity targeting NATO countries and political entities such as the EU. As these start and as they ramp up, we know an invasion is coming in days.
However, putting all the troop numbers and posturing to one side it is likely if Putin gives the green light to further invade Ukraine that it will be limited, probably just capturing Eastern Ukraine and up to parts of the Dinipro River, consolidating the Donbas region and another land bridge to Crimea. He will likely judge the International community would breathe a sigh of relief if he doesn’t attack all of Ukraine, but that is a dangerous assessment for him to make. However, he does have to do something and relatively quickly. Whatever that is his driving factor will be to maintain credibility domestically and internationally.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former colonel in British Military Intelligence and is available for comment
You don’t deploy over 100,000 troops for months in winter on the borders of another country which you have already annexed elements of in 2014, unless you intend to use them. Troops deployed into areas preparing for potential combat operations can sustain themselves for a certain amount of time and then boredom and lack of access to fixed facilities, becomes an issue. The worst ever type of deployment is an open ended one, the very type all the service personnel from Russia are experiencing as they sit within striking distance of the Ukrainian border.
So, what is likely to happen? That is anyone’s guess at this point, but there are certain factors that come to bear. Putin won’t want the full might of the international community to come to put pressure on his fragile economy, but he must be seen to do something for his domestic audience and for the massive deployment to seem ‘legitimate.’
He has sold the threat of NATO expansionism into Ukraine and Georgia to his domestic audience and whipped up a level of threat that NATO isn’t capable of, even if it were politically coherent.
The last few NATO deployments to the Balkans and Afghanistan have shown the very real difficulties NATO has in generating a sustainable, coherent military approach to operations with very real differences between EU members, the US and UK with the UK aligning itself more often with the US and France participating where it can see potential economic advantage.
However, Russia and Putin in particular, have a collective deep-down belief in NATO expansionism for the sole purpose of threatening Russia. Putin also hankers after the ‘good old days’ of the USSR and would love its re-birth (under his control of course).
Putin loves the ability to grandstand, he loves the feeling of power on the international stage, so will happily participate in any and all international ‘de-escalation,’ conferences and meetings. He has one advantage; he owns the information space like no other leader. He is a master of manipulation, disinformation and obfuscation so our participation will just serve not just to embolden him, but provide a stage for him to set the conditions to ‘prove’ to the Russian people and to others that he has tried everything, but it is the West that are being intransigent and not budging, it is others who are forcing Russia’s hands into having to protect itself.
This is the start, the foundation for action, the first Indicator and Warning ticked, and we must now watch for the language to become more accusative and aggressive. This will be the second indicator and warning of impending action. However, Putin knows that winning the war of words won’t be enough for the West to accept him marching into Ukraine or even part of Ukraine, so more has to happen.
He seems to like the NATO Kosovo scenario of going to protect an element of the local population, but to do that he needs to escalate the crisis to the international community before he can think of going, else he needs to de-escalate his preparations in the eyes of the Russian public. In his eyes it is justifiable to the international community as it is just doing what NATO did in Kosovo, so to achieve this he has things that need to happen.
Alongside increasing domestic and international rhetoric suggesting Western Interference and expansionist aims we will begin to see increasing rhetoric around ethnic Russians being targeted inside Ukraine. He will suggest an increase of Ukrainian state and foreign sponsored actions supressing the Russian speaking populations. This could involve terror type attacks, a public atrocity like a school bus or aircraft being hit in the Donbas region, it will likely involve a massive increase in anti-Russian rhetoric on social media, the only difference being, it will be Russia behind it.
At the same time Russia will likely expand their threats, more support to Assad in Syria, courting of other countries sympathetic to Russia, increased refugee activity on the EUs borders via Belarus and elsewhere. Russian conventional military activity, probing NATO airspace, threatening undersea cables, backing Iranian aggression in the Gulf, encouraging North Korea to ‘test’ more missiles with a sprinkling of cyber-attacks would all be used to distract western defence and split its focus.
The next step close to Putin deciding to attack Ukraine may possibly be terror type attacks by element of the state in Russia but blamed on Ukrainian separatists or sympathisers. This would be the trigger for action into Ukraine and in the run up to this we would likely see an increase in targeted messaging against Ukraine as well as more reports of ‘little green men’ popping up, Russia’s deniable contract mercenaries that played a leading part in the annexation of Crimea and of course blunt messaging accusing the west of interfering and aggression. At the same time, we could see the following:
Ukraine Cyber attack(s)
Global Cyber attack(s)
Russian Black Sea fleet deployed
Elements of the Russian Med Fleet deployed
Elements of the Russian Northern and Baltic Fleet Deployed
However, Putin is not daft and will calculate if he gets his messaging frenzy to a point where the world thinks that the whole of Ukraine will be invaded but he only carries out a limited land grab, then he could calculate that there would be an international sigh of relief and he could weather any additional sanctions or measures. His activities with NATO, the EU and the wider international community will be designed to gauge if he could get away with this.
If he does, his limited objectives could be annexing a large part of Eastern Ukraine where the majority Russian Speakers live. He is likely to calculate this as being just under the threshold of a very robust Western intervention as the last thing Putin could afford is a conflict with the West and he knows this, but emotionally he wants all of Ukraine.
Equally, he could easily de-escalate but indicators of that will be domestically focused rhetoric regarding meeting Russia’s objectives and capitulation by the West in some way. We live in interesting times and the robustness of our political leaders will likely be tested to their fullest extent in the coming weeks.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence who has studied Russian tactics from the Geopolitical to Tactical as part of his career. He remains available for comment.
As the crisis between Russia, Ukraine and the West continues to deepen and speculation over a potential conflict, and its scope, grows, what is clear is President Putin has given the West an unprecedented opportunity for intelligence gathering at so many different levels.
What has been noticeable on the many open-source aircraft monitoring platforms are the airborne intelligence gathering platforms that have been bracketing Ukraine, Russia and Belarus from Poland, the Baltics, inside Ukraine and from the Black Sea, hoovering up information from different sources and turning it into intelligence.
There hasn’t been an opportunity since the Cold War for the deployment of large formations of Russian Ground Troops, configured for a large-scale warfighting operation to be looked at and examined in so many different ways. So, what is likely to be going on and what will we know?
The first caveat is that I have to be more generic that I would like to but within the intelligence game there are only so many ways to gather information whether through the use of humans or through exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum. The actual capability of many if not all of the collection platforms being targeted at the Russian build up remain highly classified and my analysis is therefore speculative but from a position of knowledge having overseen many operations to monitor large formation deployments of Russian style formations.
There is a real alphabet soup of intelligence techniques that will be targeted against Russia, and each will be hoovering up vast amounts of information, processing it into a specific brand of intelligence that will then be fused together to provide all source intelligence thereby building a much better and clearer picture as to what is going on.
I do have to caveat that when a sensor picks something up it means it has happened, i.e. it is history and intelligence is all about looking at what has happened in order to predict what will happen. Predicating the future is never an exact science and if fraught with potential misinterpretations; especially when the opposition know what you are doing and are therefore actively trying to deceive you.
So, what are the aircraft doing and what can they see from so far away from the Russian border? Essentially, they are carrying out 3 types of intelligence gathering, SIGINT, ELINT and MASINT.
Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) will be listening to all of the broadcast communications between military units, formations, headquarters and bases, looking at the frequencies used, the networks that are operational and what is being said in the messages. This will have the ability to conform the order of battle, i.e., what formations with what kit are deployed and, as the units and formations practice their communications, it will give the intelligence specialists a lot of material to decrypt, confirm previous knowledge and prepare wider indicators and warnings for certain activities.
Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) will be monitoring all of the Radar and other emitters operating in support of Russian activity. It will be looking at what they use to find and track targets and what weapon systems could be used supported by the radars. It will also be looking at the control mechanisms for weapon systems. The very act of flying aircraft, and in the case of the HMS Queen Elizabeth deployment, sailing a warship along the Ukrainian Coast, will stimulate a lot of electronic activity. The ELINT Sensors will hoover all of that activity up and use it to make sense of what systems are being used, but also use it to understand how to disrupt those systems if needed.
Next comes MASINT – Measurement and Signature Intelligence, and this is where the operational and tactical magic happens when monitoring large ground-based formations. vehicles are effectively lumps of metal and they emit different heat and radar signatures to natural surroundings and even buildings. MASINT can be used to monitor what is where, what has moved and give indication on what could be happening. It takes a long time to prepare Armoured formations for operations and they must prepare for specific formations as they advance, all of this data can be picked up utilising a number of techniques when applied to MASINT sensors. This message the Russians will know well, as they have their own capabilities, nothing is hidden, no matter how many camouflage nets there are over it, the only real secret is how much can be seen and how far away?
As platforms are flying, they will be stimulating activity on the ground in response, stimulating reports being sent up chains of command, sent to military and political masters and these reports relate to activity we know about, because we will have caused it. These reports will be targeted by more strategic collection capabilities to identify how they are processed and sent and therefore identify potential vulnerabilities in the systems used to process them and the mechanisms of their transmission. This information is vital in allowing newer responses through cyber to be brought to bear if necessary.
It is the good old tactic espoused by General Rupert Smith during the first Gulf War, when he said, “If the pond is still, don’t be afraid to thrown in a pebble and watch how the waves promulgate.” This is exactly the same tactic used in June 2020 when HMS Defender sailed along the Crimean Coast and for the whole of the HMQ Queen Elizabeth task force deployment, watching those who were watching it, was invaluable.
Of course, the airborne assets will be complementing what the space-based assets are monitoring and being used to complete the picture from 2 other critical intelligence disciplines. The first being HUMINT, at a strategic level the national agencies of many countries will be trying to find out what is going on inside the Russian Political, military, and operational headquarters and working to get a handle on the wider intent of President Putin and the real capability of the military forces deployed.
It is almost certain Ukraine will have HUMINT assets targeting the Russian formations deployed close to its borders looking at the orders of battle and the levels of preparations. However, one of the most valuable resources is the huge amount of Open-Source material that is circulating on various social media platforms. There are hundreds of pictures and videos of Russian equipment being moved towards the borders, pictures of training and troops putting personal pictures onto social media. This Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is invaluable and colours in or targets much of the information and intelligence gathered from more classified sensors.
So, what is likely to happen? That is anyone’s guess at this point, but there are certain factors that come to bear. Putin won’t want the full might of the international community to come to put pressure on his fragile economy, but he must be seen to do something for his domestic audience and for the massive deployment to seem ‘legitimate.’ He seems to like the NATO Kosovo scenario of going to protect an element of the local population, but to do that he needs to escalate the crisis to the international community before he can think of going, else he needs to de-escalate his preparations in the eyes of the Russian public.
The sorts of potential indicators and warnings of a potential move could include:
Increasing domestic rhetoric suggesting Western Interference
Increased international rhetoric accusing the west of interference
Increasing Rhetoric around ethnic Russians being targeted
Rhetoric around Ukrainian incursion into Russia
Increased Belarus activity on Polish border with refugees
Ukraine Cyber attack
Global Cyber attack
Russian Black Sea fleet deployed
Elements of the Russian Med Fleet deployed
Elements of the Russian Northern Fleet Deployed
‘Manufactured’ terrorist activity both against Ethnic Russians but also inside Russia itself – bombs in Moscow / Airliner Shot Down?
However, if he does, he will have limited objectives the worst-case scenario could be annexing a large part of Eastern Ukraine where the majority Russian Speakers live. He is likely to calculate this as being just under the threshold of a very robust Western intervention as the last thing Putin could afford is a conflict with the West and he knows this, but emotionally he wants all of Ukraine. He could easily de-escalate but indicators of that will be domestically focused rhetoric regarding meeting Russias objectives and capitulation by the West in some way. We live in interesting times and the robustness of our political leaders will likely be tested to their fullest extent.
A potential Op Plan schematic for a limited Russian Invasion is:
As the situation develops, further blogs will drill into the detail of what we are seeing but the author can be contacted at any time and details are available on the Contact Us Page. Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence.