Sunday 27th February, Russia’s invasion and assessment. *** Updated as at 1400 hrs to add comment ref Nuclear threat***
By Philip Ingram MBE
Another day has passed where Russia has failed to achieve its main effort, the decapitation of the leadership in Ukraine. Open-source reporting indicates that Russia has still not achieved air superiority and given their on-paper air force strength it is important to ask why?
Better progress has been made along Russia’s secondary axis along the coast of the Sea of Azov from Crimea towards Mariupol trying to create a Russian controlled land bridge between the disputed Donbas region and Crimea, and therefore a land route into Russia itself.
There has been much talk of the Russian capture of Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv in the East of the country. I have even seen commentary from a senior former military commentator that Putin could have switched his main effort to the East. However further reports of the Ukrainians having recaptured it and Russian forces surrendering, add to the ‘fog of war.’
One thing you don’t do lightly in a military operation like this is switch your main effort – doing that has many of your supporting elements geographically misplaced and could give an opportunity for your opposition to seize the advantage as you redeploy them. A switch of main effort would also symbolise that your original mission has failed and would indicate that the whole mission is in jeopardy.
I don’t think Russia has taken that decision at the moment but certainly has the secondary objective of securing the whole of Eastern Ukraine and would use that as the bargaining position for peace talks should their objective of toppling the Ukrainian Government and capturing Kyiv, fail.
Pictures of Russian vehicles running out of fuel, casualties being abandoned where they fall suggest an undisciplined force with command-and-control issues and likely logistic issues. In this type of conflict, it is your logistics that could lose you the war! I must question how many Russian commanders will actually have been properly tested in the complex logistic operations needed to fight over such a wide area with such numbers of forces? I doubt it has happened.
The reports of Chechen units being brought into the battle, with one allegedly destroyed and unconfirmed reports of elements of the Belarus military being readied would suggest at this early stage that the Russians are coming unstuck. You don’t bring in reserve elements unless your main force has been fixed and you don’t bring in strategic reserve elements, which the Belarusian military would be, unless you are in real danger of losing any momentum and your tactical and operational reserves have already been fixed.
What I assess is more likely in the coming days is that Russia will use increasingly violent tactics in an attempt to surround and secure Kyiv. Possibly bombarding the city trying to break the will of the people and attempt to force the leadership to surrender in order to stop civilian casualties. This of course is contrary to the Geneva conventions and protocols and would indicate a desperate Putin.
All of this points to thinks not going well for Russia at the tactical and operational levels. Therefore I assess we are entering one of the most dangerous few days of the conflict. Putin’s forces need to try and wrestle the initiative back. They will have to throw all their resources at doing that. The pressure from Moscow for good news will be immense. The potential for extremes of violence aimed at the civilian population of Kyiv in the coming days is increasing, however, if Ukraine can blunt Russia’s moves for another few days it is distinctly possible that Putin could switch his main effort to just capturing an increasing part of East Ukraine before suing for peace.
Time and more information will tell.
*** Additional Comment as at 27 1400 Z Feb 22***
President Putin has ordered his nuclear forces to a “special” level of alert. We shouldn’t be immediately concerned at this as he hinted at the beginning of the invasion that there would be consequences for “whoever tries to hinder us,” and given the increasing pressure the international community is putting on Russia economically, increasing isolation at sea and in the air and the increased supply of weapons to Ukraine from 27 countries he likely feel his only option is to flash his big stick, ie his nuclear forces.
He is trying to gain advantage in the information sphere. His statement is also an indication that operations on the ground are not going as well as he would like and that the support the West is giving Ukraine and the amazing resolve shown by Ukrainian forces and defenders is having a very real impact on the Russian invaders.
Russia’s nuclear capability has been a very high priority for western intelligence for many years so any real changes in their status will likely be closely watched. This is an attempt at deterrence by Putin, not a statement he has any immediate intention to use nuclear weapons. However, you have to remember that if you threaten something, it is only credible if you are prepared to use them.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former British Army Intelligence Colonel and NATO planner., he is available for comment.
The Russian attack, an assessment as at 26th February 2022
By Philip Ingram MBE
With Ukraine firmly under attack by Russia in the Air, from the Sea and by Land forces it is an opportune moment to take a proverbial step back and analyse what seems to be happening with the Russian campaign, attacking Ukraine.
What is clear is the Russian Main Effort, the capture or destruction of Ukraine’s political and military leadership, decapitating Ukraine, in order to install a leadership more sympathetic to Russia’s (Putin’s) goals. Putin and Lavrov have effectively said this. Militarily this would be achieved by attacking and capturing Kyiv.
So, in military terms what is a main effort? The main effort is defined in the Army Doctrine Publication Land Operations as: “the concentration of forces or means in a particular area and at a particular time to enable a commander to bring about a decision.”
That in simple terms means it is what the military commander should concentrate his best resources and primary focus with all other activity designed to support that main effort. In Ukraine, the attack on Kyiv is clearly the Russian military commander’s main effort and the other activity is supporting effort aimed at dividing Ukraine’s defence forces by giving them multiple areas to focus on.
To have achieved their main effort the Russians should have rapidly secured air superiority by destroying Ukraine’s radars, air force and air defence assets. This would have given Russia the ability to manoeuvre freely on the ground and using airmobile and airborne assets whilst restricting Ukraine’s ability to manoeuvre defence forces to counter Russia’s attacks. It is clear Russia tried to do this, but it is equally clear it hasn’t been successful.
Once air superiority had been achieved, I would have expected rapid Air Mobile and Airborne operations to capture and hold key terrain, those areas that would give the attacking Russians an advantage, so bridges, airfields, power plants and for another blog, the information sphere. It is clear with the Russian Special Forces air mobile attack on Antonov Airport, 20 miles north of Kyiv, they tried to do this. If they had been successful, they would have been reinforced rapidly with other airborne and airmobile troops so they could break out, fix Ukrainian defenders and join up with advancing armoured forces. They have failed to do this.
Simultaneously Russian Armoured formations would be expected to deploy rapidly towards Kyiv with the main axis of advance likely following the M-01 highway from the Russian Border to the Northeast of Kyiv, bypassing but surrounding the city of Chernihiv to fix defenders in place whilst continuing to move the main body of the ground offensive to Kyiv as rapidly as possible.
A secondary axis to Kyiv would likely be from the Northwest of Kyiv following the M-07 highway. Artillery, rockets, ground attack aircraft and attack helicopters would provide cover for the armoured forces to advance as rapidly as possible by neutralising any defences before that got there. This clearly hasn’t happened.
The one question that hangs over all of what seems to be happening, from open-source reporting only, is; where is the expected overwhelming force by air and land that was expected looking at Russia’s on paper capability and superiority over the Ukrainian defenders?
The longer the Ukrainian’s can slow, stop, defeat, disrupt the advancing Russian forces the more frustrated their commanders will become. This is called creating friction, that friction makes what should be simple, more difficult and the difficult impossible and increase the potential for the ‘fog of war’ to further cloud Russian command and control decision making. I can just imagine the language Putin will be using to his military commanders.
However, what must be remembered and is clear in the Land Operations publication, is human dynamics lie at the heart of all conflict.” The human dynamics of a frustrated attacking force made up of personnel hundreds and thousands of kilometres from home who have been deployed for months already and don’t know the real reason why they are there, will be very different from the human dynamics of the defenders fighting for national survival and the safety and security of their families.
The loss of 2 IL-76 aircraft, likely carrying some of Russia’s elite airborne forces will not just have led to another mission to capture key terrain to failure but will impact heavily on that human factor.
It is because of this that Russia has only days to achieve its main effort because the first troops are the best equipped, best trained and most motivated, you never lead with your second best. Only a small percentage of the on-paper strength of the Russian military will be those troops, the more poorly trained and equipped will be there to hold ground after the fight has been won, not to become embroiled in a protracted campaign.
A very early assessment would be the Ukrainian defenders have the Russian attacking forces on the back foot the coming days are vital as if Russia is defeated in its main effort (which must happen) then Putin’s days are numbered. It is clear that secondary effort is a land bridge along the sea of Azov coastline connecting the Donbas region to Crimea but securing only that may not be enough to keep Putin in power.
We can expect Russia to become more aggressive around Kyiv with further attempts at Airborne and Airmobile troop insertions and increasing indirect fire and missile attacks to try and attack the morale of the defenders of Kyiv and the population. This next 48 hours is critical to both sides.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO planner. He is available for comment.
A possible Russian Op Plan for a further limited incursion into Ukraine – a potential war plan. *** Updated at 21 1845 Z Feb 22***
This is based on opensource information only and there remains an outside possibility that President Putin will slowly withdraw forces and say he never intended to invade anyway.
At approximately 0400 local 2X Feb first echelons of Russian forces will move into the Donetsk region of Ukraine from the East. Simultaneously elements will attack N from Crimea and landings on the Sea of Asov coast will begin.
The Russian intention will be to advance rapidly to a line along the River Dnipro, consolidating an additional land bridge to Crimea, annexing Eastern Ukraine in order to set the conditions sue for peace ensuring international sanctions are not levied against Russia or key Russian individuals.
Elements from Belarus and Russia will likely feint a move on Kiev.
Airborne/Airmobile operations could attempt to capture crossings on the Dnipro River.
Operations will likely be preceded with massive cyber-attacks aimed at power, military C2, communications and media.
Suppression of enemy air defences, (SEAD) across the whole country will likely be on immediate standby if not launched as a precursor, if launched as a precursor then the feints towards Kiev are more likely to become real axis of advance.
A significant false flag incident will occur 6+ hours before H Hour after a period of time with numerous small incidents, building in frequency and damage. Odessa will be threatened, primarily from the sea but also from the small Russian forces in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) to further fix Ukrainian defences.
The End State could likely be further elements of East Ukraine under Russian control, with a then negotiated settlement back to Donetsk + where the + is an additional artillery buffer zone or demilitarized zone, withdrawal to this point would be conditional on no sanctions against Russia or key Russian individuals – Russia wins, world goes Phew!
Indicators and Warnings:
- 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 Donbas and or/Russia ✓
- Increased Belarus activity on Polish border with refugees ✕
- Ukraine Cyber-attack ✓
- Global Cyber-attack ✕
- Russian Black Sea fleet deployed ✓
- Elms Russian Med Fleet deployed ✓
- Elms Russian Northern Fleet Deployed ✓
- Increasing condemnation of Ukraine from the Kremlin ✓
- Senior Russian Officials avoiding international travel ✓
- ‘Manufactured’ terrorist activity both against Ethnic Russians but also inside Russia itself – bombs in Moscow / Airliner Shot Down? ✕
Further thinking and Indicators will be added below:
Additional thinking as at 21 Feb 1845 Z
The Russian Embassy in London tweeted that “President #Putin informed President @EmmanuelMacron and Federal Chancellor @OlafScholz of his intention to sign the decree to recognise #Donetsk and #Lugansk People’s Republics.” This plays into the playbook Putin is trying to follow which I describe as the Kosovo Playbook. He is recognising the breakaway regions to Gove legitimacy to their calls for Russian military to come in to stop the various crisis that he has manufactured. What is worrying is he will probably want a spectacular to act as the trigger and that means innocent lives will be lost. He will feel he can turn a Kosovo excuse back on the West and say I am only doing what you did so done sanction me! (Remember the Russians joined the NATO operation, they arrived in Pristina 24 hrs earlier than NATO forces but that is because they were working to an Operation Plan that had been stolen by Russia Intelligence from NATO, except it was an old version and timings had slipped by 24 Hrs (The author helped write that plan!))
Russia and Ukraine – we all sit and wait
by Philip INGRAM MBE
One thing about some Western Press coverage of the potential escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is that everyone is searching for an immediate headline and therefore examining every little statement to report an opinion and try and suggest our analysis and therefore politicians must be wrong.
Two things must be recognised, in military operations there are long periods where little or nothing happens, you can have days of inactivity and there can be many causes. The weather isn’t right, politicians are still debating what to do, key capabilities have problems which must be fixed, final rest days prior to launch, consolidating in position before packing up and going home; any of these or other issues will deny todays or tomorrows sensational headline.
The second thing is that the military don’t decide when to go. If Russia further invades Ukraine, it is not a military decision, but a political one. Military forces are merely a political tool, used to reinforce diplomacy and then to clear up the mess when diplomacy fails. Military personnel are the same all over the world, the last thing they actually want to do is put their profession into action, as they know the horrors that come with it. The person who will decide if and when those horrors begin, is Vladimir Putin. He is highly unlikely to delegate the go / no go decision.
So, what is keeping him, what is he up to? The first thing that is occupying Putin is he is enjoying the ride. He is playing with the West; he is loving being centre stage with world leaders queuing up to visit him or speak to him on the phone. He is playing them, like a fisherman plays a prize salmon on the hook. The conference table games, where some meetings are from opposite ends of a huge table whilst others are side by side with just a coffee table between; the deliberately inflammatory or inaccurate remarks in joint press calls, trying to provoke, and more.
He is not just doing this for fun, every moment, nuance, statement during and after by world leaders will be examined by Putin’s team looking for sentiments he can use to create or enhance political cracks inside other countries or between countries. He has been playing Germany particularly well and the way he got Lavrov to deal with the British Foreign Secretary showed a real distain for the UK. He will also be judging what the international reaction is likely to be if he does further invade Ukraine.
One of the things he will have registered very quickly is the increased appetite for US and UK intelligence on Russian intent to be put into the public domain. As CNN reported earlier this month, “US officials alleged that Russia has been preparing to fabricate a pretext for an invasion” of Ukraine by creating “a very graphic propaganda video” that would depict a fake attack by Ukraine against Russia. The US’ disclosure of the alleged plot is the latest in a series of revelations designed to blunt the impact of any pretext Russia may use to invade Ukraine, and comes after US officials warned that Moscow could use a false flag operation to justify such an invasion.”
The Russian response, was to play the US intelligence machine by setting 16th February as the day the attack would be launched and when that was published in the press, ridicule it, which is exactly what happened with Russia’s ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov, denied suggestions that his country had plans to attack Ukraine and said that “wars in Europe rarely start on a Wednesday,” in a snipe at the intelligence relations. Why that snipe? Simply to sow distrust in reports being attributed to US and UK intelligence and it is probable that in the coming days we will hear references to the reliability of US and UK Intelligence in the run up to the Iraq war! He fed the headline machine.
However, whilst all of this is going on their standard Russian playbook is trundling on. More capability is being deployed into higher readiness formations and positions on the border with Ukraine, whilst Russian messaging is that their manoeuvres have finished, and units are returning to barracks. This is standard маскировка (maskirovka) which is all about ‘masking’ or deception and is central to all they do.
We have seen the first cyber-attacks into Ukraine, but relatively unsophisticated and at inconsequential targets. More worrying are the political moves started by Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the Russian State Duma, when he called for a discussion in the parliamentary body on recognising the independence of the Donbas region and its separation from Ukraine.
Any formal recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in Donbas could be used as an excuse by Putin to invade to protect the people from a humanitarian perspective. This is what I refer to as the Kosovo scenario, where Putin tries to mimic NATOs reasoning for going into Kosovo. He has referenced Kosovo more than once in the recent past.
An indicator of this coming to play are the claims we have heard over the past day or so regarding claims of genocide and the increase of shelling in the Donbas region, with suggestions of Ukrainian shelling contrary to the Minsk Protocol of 2015, designed to maintain the ceasefire. The genocide claims and what is being said around shelling is again маскировка (maskirovka), standard playbook stuff.
So, what does this mean? Well, the original analysis on potential attack dates were not before 20th February when the Winter Olympics finish, thereby not detracting from Chinas place on the world stage. Putin does not want to have President Xi lose face. The continued deployment of Russian military capability keeps that date as the earliest go date distinctly possible. There still needs to be a ramping up of маскировка (maskirovka), possible false flag incidents or one major incident and more cyber activity before Putin pushes the GO button.
He could of course, if he feels he can maintain the military readiness, de-escalate completely but he has backed himself into a corner. Can he trust the German Chancellor to keep his word if he did actually promise to stop Ukraine joining NATO, because he knows that if Ukraine does get into NATO then he had no hope of ever capturing and holding it, so now may be his only window to continue the process he started in 2014? Remember, Putin can think and act in very long timelines, salami slicing parts of Ukraine away.
I still believe Putin is looking for an excuse he can sell to the international community using another old ‘soviet’ tactic, враньё (vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed. He will be gauging if he can consolidate the Donbas region under Russian military control with possibly a bigger buffer and get away with that in the international community’s eyes. Threaten all, take a piece and hope the world goes “phew” is that all?
The lie is told purely to save face knowing they won’t be challenged, and we saw this when RT interviewed Colonels Chepiga and Mishkin after the Salisbury Novichok poisoning and they came out with their infamous spire height quote. Remember, he likes the Kosovo scenario.
President Putin is still sitting behind his grand desk in Moscow, with a very large glass of the best vodka on ice, stroking a white cat on his knee, knowing he has the world dancing to his tune, and he is loving it.
This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer and Colonel. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE
Intelligence the key to understanding Russia’s intentions.
By Philip Ingram MBE
Last week U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan said that the U.S. is not certain that Putin has made a final decision to invade Ukraine. But “it may well happen soon.” Ben Wallace the UK Secretary of State for Defence told The Sunday Times that “Russia invading Ukraine is “highly likely” and warned that the military presence on the border has now reached such a size that they could “launch an offensive at any time”.” Wallace has cancelled a planned long weekend holiday!
The question on everyone’s lips is how, how could we know what Russia is going to do? The only way to answer that question is through intelligence and the overriding caveat is that intelligence is not an exact science. However, there are certain indicators that would point more to an invasion than a bluff and it is these I will explore in more detail.
So how do we know what is going on at the moment? I examine the intelligence gathering effort in more detail in my blog here: https://greyharemedia.com/russia-and-ukraine-an-intelligence-goldmine/ However, there are a few things I want to pull out to set that background to this analysis. The first is how do we know there are over 100,000 troops with the right equipment to invade Ukraine?
The first thing is Open-Source Intelligence or OSINT. Russia has declared it is carrying out manoeuvres in Belarus, in training areas around the Ukrainian border, in the Black Sea so we have definitively from the Russian Government that they are doing something. Next, we have what is being posted on special media; videos of convoys, trains full of equipment, soldiers leaving their home bases and more.
What must be considered with anything from open source is it could be being posted deliberately to mislead. Sun Tzu the infamous Chinese 6th century general and philosopher said in his book the Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” The Russians have a doctrine called маскировка (maskirovka) which is all about ‘masking’ or deception and is central to all they do; they follow the philosophy laid down by Sun Tzu.
Analysis of the vehicle and aircraft types, badges on soldiers’ uniforms, vehicle registrations and symbols can identify units and therefore where they are coming form, geo-referencing the imagery and from that, by comparing with historical data, if this is usual activity. Alongside that, private social media posts by Russian military personnel will be looked at for indicators. Again, маскировка (maskirovka) must be considered.
This OSINT will be fused with imagery intelligence from satellites and Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) gathered from Satellites, Drones and Fixed Wing Aircraft flying along the borders, staring into Russia and Belarus with specialist radars. These radars can see anything in the open including equipment hidden in forests and or under camouflage nets and their numbers can be counted regularly to see and changes. It can also be used to identify what types of equipment there are and that in turn will indicate the unit or formation. The same radars can track convoys and trains moving in real time, distinguishing military equipment from civilian traffic. Other sensors can see if equipment has moved recently and how long ago often being able to identify where it has moved to.
What is key here is identifying what formations are where and what they are doing? So, if the deployment is being billed as just training on home territory, are all the formations and units participating in that training, what are the ones with the best levels of training and the best equipment’s doing as not every unit or formation is equal? What is happening to the unit and formations logistic tails as they move and train and do those logistic tails match what is a norm for practice manoeuvres or are they larger? (You would not use as much ammunition on manoeuvres as you would need for operations, or as many medical facilities, or as many spare parts for armoured vehicles, so are these natures pre dumped and if so, where?).
Next will be looking at supporting units and formations, communications networks, air defence, air support and artillery as well as Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The questions are what has been deployed to where and with what? For purely manoeuvres you do not need large numbers of live anti-aircraft missiles, or the artillery ammunition stocks you would need for offensive operations, or the same balance of ISR assets or the communications networks needed to control multi levels of ground offensive capabilities, and integrate it with air support, ISR feeds and logistic networks over the same geographical footprints.
Satellites, RC135, JSTARS and Global Hawk and other surveillance platforms will be hoovering up all of the information needed to work all of this out. Networks need to be tested, comms checked, radars positioned and tested, aircraft systems checked. No matter how good your comms plans are at suppressing emissions, you can never supress them all. Each emission is an indicator!
Air capability will play an important role, for manoeuvres you need a lot less than you would need for offensive operations and different types and certainly different weapons. Numbers and types will be critical. The first thing any Russian offensive operation would want to do is SEAD, suppression of enemy air defence (AD), i.e. destroy Ukraine’s ability to track and shoot down Russia’s aircraft so Ukrainian air assets could be targeted and then ground offensives begin.
SEAD would be carried out through a combination of Special Forces, Attack Helicopter, indirect fire usually from long range missiles and specialist SEAD aircraft as well as ground based and air based Electronic Warfare (jamming) capabilities. Where are the assets needed to do this and how ready are they and what are they equipped with?
These capabilities would need to ensure safe corridors to all Ukrainian air assets and ground formations were safely opened, so even if there were a geographically limited invasion of Ukraine, AD and air assets across the whole country would have to be targeted. It would be highly unusual for these assets to be grouped and deployed in sufficient numbers just for manoeuvres.
Alongside all of these physical indicators, communications will be being listened to, whether that is over military communications means or civilian means, the technology to intercept and often decode exists. This will give a clear understanding of the quality of military communications, readiness of units and formations and some will give indications of intent. However, communications can also be used for маскировка (maskirovka).
Adding another layer on top of this are the Human intelligence (HUMINT) assets, at the strategic level running agents into the decision-making organisations in Moscow, military command headquarters and elsewhere and at the more tactical level, people reporting what is going on on the ground. Good HUMINT assets can get a real understanding of thinking and intent but getting good HUMINT agents with the right access is a massive challenge.
What must be considered at all times is that lovely word маскировка (maskirovka) – it could all be a huge expensive bluff, we have to remember that during the Second World War in preparation for D Day the allies had Operation Fortitude where amongst other things they created a fake army with a real commander, fake tanks, fake aircraft, fake radio transmissions, and fake spies with fake plans delivered to the Germans in a novel way through Operation Mincemeat. We knew what the Germans were looking for and provided it to them. The Russians know what we are looking for. That is partially why the intelligence game is very complex.
However, the subtle military indicators, with the sophisticated collection capabilities we have today compared to what existed during WW2 will give a much clearer picture of readiness and intent. This is what our politicians are being briefed and for them to order citizen’s out of the country and for the Defence Secretary to cancel his personal holiday, the indications supplest an invasion is more likely than not.
I have examined the why and what the possible objectives could be in another blog here: https://greyharemedia.com/what-is-driving-putins-thinking-on-ukraine/. My conclusions today remain as they were when I wrote that. There are so many other possible indicators such as status and loading of Russian Naval vessels, the defensive posture of the Kaliningrad Oblast and around Russian Naval bases in Syria, the Northern, Baltic, and Pacific fleet bases, but to examine them all would be a book. We are seeing one of the most dangerous, complex political and military events in Europe since the Cold War or even before that.
Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and was a senior military planner, he is available for comment.
What is driving Putin’s thinking on Ukraine?
by Philip Ingram, MBE
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