Russia has begun construction on a 19-kilometer bridge aimed at bypassing mainland Ukraine that will connect Kerch, in annexed Crimea, to Russia. It’s expected to open in December 2018.
The connection is expected to cost the Russian budget some 283-349 billion rubles – $4.5 to $5.5 billion. The project comprises two parallel bridges, one for rail and the other for road transport. They follow a path across the Tusla Spit, in the middle of the Kerch Strait.
Infographics and Data – Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty
This Is What A Russian-Ukrainian War Would Look Like
Many pro-Russian sources put forth the idea that Ukraine would quickly fall in the face of a full-scale Russian invasion. A more objective analysis provides a far-less optimistic scenario.
Misconceptions On Prior Conflicts
Comparisons with the Georgian war ignore the fact that Russian troops didn’t try to occupy all of Georgia or fight their way to Tblisi. The comparison between the 2008 conflict & a hypothetical full-scale Ukrainian-Russian war is invalid.
Even so, Georgia’s military was an order of magnitude smaller than Ukraine’s, as is its landmass.
Russia’s Syrian engagement was on a much smaller scale than Russia’s Caucasus conflicts. Russia had limited aims, did not seek or accomplish destroying Syrian opposition groups, and any comparison to total war with Ukraine is grossly inadequate.
Difficulties In Ukraine
Ukraine is the largest country entirely contained within Europe. The last time the USSR (read: Russia) invaded a landmass of that size was in World War 2.
Though the east is typically flat, there are several features that would require substantial effort to overcome. One would be the Dniester river. Another, and much more of a challenge, would be the Dniepr. A large amount of the river is too wide to ford, leaving any invader attempting to cross with limited axis of attack.
In face of a full-scale assault, bridges would be a primary target for demolition by Ukrainian combat engineers. Though likely Russia would find some bridges to utilize, the Russian military would have to locate & secure bridges that can support 40+ ton armored vehicles.
Ukraine’s road network is, too put it lightly, sparse. There has been little growth in road infrastructure since the breakup of the USSR. Any attack would be hampered by this; while tracked vehicles wouldn’t be restricted to roads, fuel trucks & other support vehicles definitely would. Refugees fleeing the combat zone would provide an additional headache.
On top of that, any significant Russian armored attack would have to come from the east: a large buildup in Crimea would be easily detectable, ruining any chance of surprise; the tenuous connection the peninsula shares with the rest of Ukraine would restrict a large armored force to a thin corridor, increasing the risk of major traffic jams & a high target density. To otherwise reach Kiev in say, 8 hours, the Russian military would have to mount the fastest military offensive in history.
The Ukrainian People
Ukraine has a population of 45 million people. It is hard to believe Russia would be able to pacify a population of that size quickly & without a massive security presence.
Ukraine, as Russian media enjoys pointing out, has ultranationalists who presumably would not give up without a fight. Many of these ultra-nationalists now have military experience & while not heavily equipped, should have an ample chance to slow down a Russian advance & buy Ukraine time.
The Ukrainian military is certainly weaker than that of the Russian Federation’s, but it is not small nor is it incapable of resisting. With an active duty force of 250,000 & a reserve force of 700,000, Russia would face off against their largest opponent since World War 2. And less than half of Ukraine’s military is currently deployed.
Ukraine would not be entirely off-guard if Russian troops began crossing the length of its borders. For an example, Ukraine has been digging trenches on its border with Russia, and while not insurmountable still present a consideration for any military planner.
Ukraine is home to large cities an invader would be forced to capture or otherwise neutralize. Kharkiv, one of the first barriers Russia would likely face, has a population of 1.5 million. Kiev’s population is 2.8 million. Urban combat is naturally difficult & the Russian military’s track record in this type of warfare is poor. Grozny, a city of less than 300,000 people, proved this to be catastrophically true on several occasions. It is not feasible these cities would be captured without at least several brigades. Grozny required 10,000 soldiers to capture, and larger cities require a scaled effort. It is not guaranteed the Russian military could seize these large cities within a reasonable time frame. As well, the more fierce an urban assault, the more pictures of dead & wounded civilians to tarnish Russia’s cause.
When the Ukrainian military deployed to the east, the local population presented significant resistance. It is highly unlikely civilians wouldn’t do the same in the face of a Russian attack. Locals could be expected to barricade roads, make bridges unusable, & protest against Russian troops. A security force would be required to quell civil resistance, and any harsh methods to do so would gain Ukraine (even more) massive sympathy in the eyes of the world.
The Russian military cannot expect to face off against a 2014 foe. The Ukrainian military has vastly improved since then, in terms of ground equipment, experience, & doctrine.
Time, more than anything, would be on Ukraine’s side. The longer the country is able to delay defeat, the more likely it is to overcome it.
Problems Inside The Russian Military
While the Russian military is certainly better than it was in the disastrous days of the First Chechen War, it is by no means without obvious faults. Modernization is taking place, but this has yet to occur with a large percentage of Russian units. As well, the Russian military has been decreasing in size, including its officer corps. The RF’s ground forces are 58% the size of those in the mid-90s. This will, in the long run, benefit Russia’s army. In the short term, the results are more nebulous.
The 2008 war with Georgia revealed substantial problems still existed in the Russian military, particularly with communications between branches. As well, the Russian military assessed that professional troops were not trained noticeably better than conscripts, and as such airborne units & special forces bore the brunt of the fighting. Special forces, by definition, are available in less quantity than regular forces; their loss is more adverse as a result.
It is completely assured that Russian air assets would dominate the skies over Ukraine. But there are limitations to their power. The most obvious is the lack in quantity of guided bombs & missiles, restricting the ability to conduct precision strikes. As a side note, unguided bombings of urban areas would produce civilian casualties Ukraine would capitalize upon.
Russian special forces also would be limited in their deployment. Kiev, Lviv, & the rest of the west is out of the range of Russian transport helicopters. A paradrop is possible but presents its own risks. Transport aircraft are vulnerable; airborne forces typically are widely dispersed & must organize quickly or else the lightly armed attackers face being overwhelmed.
The attack on Georgia cost Russia 2.5 billion rubles a day. Russia must assess whether it has the funds to sustain a war, particularly one that risks being a long affair.
If the government were replaced with a friendly government, there is no guarantee a second Euromaiden wouldn’t overthrow. An occupation would be a costly burden to Russia. Russia must determine its exit strategy.
The world would respond to any attack on Ukraine, though to what extent is debatable. Sanctions are the least that could be expected, these more painful than the bearable sanctions in place today.
It is reasonable that NATO countries would provide substantial non-lethal support to Ukraine’s military, & maybe even lethal support.
While not probable, it must be considered Ukraine’s neighbors could interject themselves into the conflict. This scenario could work out in a number of ways, including a ‘peacekeeping’ force. Russia in no way wants to invoke Article V, and would have to consider the risks of militarily engaging NATO members.
NATO forces would likely position themselves on Russia’s borders, from the Baltics to Kalningrad, to the Black Sea & Russia’s Pacific coast. Russia would have to respond or risk jeopardizing its security.
It is not unfeasible that Russia could win a war with Ukraine, particularly a limited one. However, as the scale of a hypothetical assault grows, so do the risks. Current pro-Russian assessments are unreasonably optimistic, overestimating the capabilities of the Russian military & underestimating the difficulties it would face. They likely are propaganda sources, and any realist should be advised against putting faith into them.
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