I’m going to be accused of scaremongering (again), but frankly, after keeping my opinions to myself for quite some time, I simply can’t do it anymore. So here goes: in my opinion, a full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia will occur before the Parliamentary election scheduled for October 26. This invasion will include at least 2 land-based components: a push northeastward from Crimea, and simultaneously from the Donbas westward; it could also be accompanied by a push towards Kharkiv from the north. Furthermore, together with a land war, Russian air power will be used against Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk, and possibly against other major Ukrainian cities. This is my opinion, and my prediction. I desperately hope I’m wrong, but just in case, I’ll be taking my family away from Kyiv on or about October 20-21 – just for a few days…
Here’s my logic:
1) Putin needs to establish a land link between the Russian Federation and Crimea before the onset of winter. If he chooses not to create such a link, the population of Crimea will surely starve and freeze; this will cause Putin major problems at home in the spring, when hiding the humanitarian catastrophe of an isolated Crimean winter from the Russian people will become impossible.
2) Occupying territory in Ukraine without the use of air power is now impossible. Ukrainian troops stationed in the Donbas have dug in very deeply in Mariupol, in Berdiansk, and in Melitopol (cities that need to be taken to establish even a minimal land bridge between Russia’s Rostov oblast and Crimea). Furthermore, massive reinforcements can be inserted into the theatre of operations quickly via Dnipropetrovsk if logistical lines between this city and the Donbas remain uncut. This cannot be done without air strikes.
3) Once air power is used, all pretense as to the supposed non-involvement of Russia in military action in Ukraine (as if anyone still believed the Kremlin’s official line) will be lost. When aircraft cross borders, their trajectories are tracked by radar and satellites. One can argue (although few believe it) that up until now, separatist rebels in the Donbas have been firing from captured artillery and driving captured tanks (although where the source of the shells and rockets that they are firing is more difficult to explain), but no one is going to believe a story about separatist rebels flying MIG-29’s or Backfire bombers from Russia into Ukraine.
4) Once Putin makes the decision to overtly engage Ukraine’s army and volunteer battalions, limiting his own use of air power makes no tactical sense. Whereas a covert war must of necessity by limited in scope, in an overt war, neutralizing enemy logistics and command and control structures becomes a major priority. In Ukraine’s case these are located in Dnipropetrovsk (the main logistical support base for the Ukrainian forces in the Donbas), and in Kyiv – the capital.
5) During the past few days, Putin has expressly denied his intent to disrupt the election in Ukraine on Oct 26, claiming that a free and fair vote is in Russia’s interests, and that he cares deeply about the “brotherly Ukrainian people”. Simultaneously, the Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders has been intensifying – both in Rostov and Voronezh oblasts, and in Russian-occupied Crimea. Whenever Putin has expressed positive feelings towards Ukraine publicly during the past months, Ukrainians (with good reason) become intensely nervous…
6) Opinion polls show that the two pro-Russian political forces running in the current election (Serhiy Tihipko’s “Strong Ukraine” and the “Opposition Bloc” headed by former energy minister Yuriy Boyko) may not gain enough support to cross the 5% barrier required to be represented among the 225 MP’s elected by proportional representation. Although some pro-Russian MP’s are sure to be elected in first-past-the-post constituency races, it is likely that without a PR-elected core, it will be difficult for these “majoritarian” deputies to create a cohesive faction in the next parliament. In such a scenario, Putin’s voice in Ukraine’s domestic politics (i.e. his pro-Gazprom, anti-EU, anti-NATO lobby) will be effectively silenced. Such a scenario is unlikely to be attractive to the Kremlin.
7) According to Ukraine’s constitution, if a state of war is declared in the country, all elections are cancelled. Furthermore, until such time as a new Parliament is elected, all existing MP’s (including, in the current case, those who largely support Putin’s anti-EU/anti-NATO policy for Ukraine) remain in office. Although it is unlikely that aerial bombardment of Ukraine by Russia will provoke a military reaction from the EU and/or NATO, the Ukrainian government will have no choice but to declare a state of war, and therefore to cancel the Oct 26 vote.
8) The US administration has made it eminently clear that NATO will not fight for Ukraine. At this point sanctions are the maximum penalty that the West is prepared to impose on Putin for his aggression. However, although officially denied, it is likely that the US and/or other NATO countries have already begun to clandestinely supply Ukraine with some military equipment. Indeed non-lethal aid is quite openly being supplied. The longer Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is delayed, the greater the risk that this aid will be delivered and training will be provided in its use. Furthermore, Ukraine’s military has been taking full advantage of the relative diminution in hostilities during September to regroup and reorganize. The longer Putin delays his inevitable invasion, the better trained and organized the Ukrainian forces will become. With time on the Ukrainian side, and no deterrence from the West, the time for striking down the “fascist regime in Kyiv” is now!
9) The war with ISIS/ISIL in the Middle East has begun, and US forces are fully engaged; China is preoccupied by protests in Hong Kong; the US public is preoccupied with ebola, and the US elite is in the final stages of the mid-term election cycle; the European Council Presidency and the EU Foreign Policy Commissioner posts are both in transition; NATO has a brand new Secretary General (as of Oct 1). Clearly with all of this ongoing, coalescing a cohesive international response to a Russian invasion that occurs during the third week of October will be difficult. This may spell ‘opportunity’ for Mr. Putin.
10) Protests in Russia against the war in Ukraine have already begun, and will only intensify during the coming months, unless a crackdown in Russia (under the pretext of war) occurs. Again, time is not on Putin’s side – the longer he waits, the more he loses domestically. In this context we can also mention the ongoing devaluation of the ruble, the continuous decline in oil prices, and the fact that Russia’s best troops (special forces, paratroopers, etc.) have already been on full battle-ready alert for over 6 months (and cannot be kept in this condition for much longer). If an invasion is to happen, it must happen soon.
For all of the above reasons I am not optimistic about the coming weeks. Putin does not command sufficient forces to occupy any more Ukrainian territory than he has already grabbed – particularly given the increasingly hostile population that he would be forced to passify as his forces move westward. However, as demonstrated by the severe devastation that Russian forces have caused in the eastern Donbas since April, the Kremlin’s strategy may not involve occupation – simple destruction will suffice. For this purpose, air strikes on Ukraine’s major cities are ideal. I sincerely hope I’m wrong in this prediction… But just in case I’m right, we will be evacuating our family from Kyiv during the days immediately preceding the Oct 26 Parliamentary election.
God help us!
Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD