Should Moscow invade Ukraine, Kyiv stands a good chance of inflicting a strategic defeat on the Russian armed forces and emerging territorially intact. That’s the conclusion of retired United States Army Colonel with more than thirty years of experience as a combat arms officer, strategic analyst, and regional area specialist (Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East) Gilberto Villahermosa in an interview with Radio Liberty
In the opinion of Villahermosa, a Russian invasion of Ukraine will be under the control of the Russian Western Command – one of four Strategic Commands created in 2008 as part of the reform of the post-Soviet Russian armed forces. At the time, Moscow created the Western Command, responsible for all military operations against NATO; the Eastern Command, for operations against China and the Far East; the Southern Command, for operations against the Caucasus and Central Asia, and the Central Command, as a strategic reserve for the Russian Armed Forces.
A significant portion of the special operations forces are, in fact, already being used to sow instability in the eastern Ukraine as well as to conduct reconnaissance of strategic targets in the region. It is these forces, “the little green men”, that were at the forefront of the invasion and annexation of the Crimea. And it is these forces that will be in the lead for the invasion of the eastern Ukraine.
According to Villahermosa, these Russian forces are insufficient to launch more than one major offensive operation aimed at seizing all of the eastern Ukraine. In 1956 it took 17 Soviet divisions and some 300,000 troops to pacify a restless Hungary yearning for freedom and democracy. In 1968 it took almost as many divisions and 200,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers to subdue Czechoslovakia. In both instances, the United States and NATO turned a blind eye.
According to the Russian expert, the 40,000 to 80,000 Russian troops said to be massing on Ukraine’s borders are insufficient for seizing the entire eastern Ukraine, let alone any of the five major cities in the region with a population of more than a million inhabitants. This means Russia has to seize the region a bite at a time. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine will thus be a phased operation with high readiness forces (airborne, special operations, naval infantry, and one or two select brigades) taking the initiative and then being replaced by lower readiness forces once their objectives have been achieved.
[quote]The American colonel believes that during the next phase Russian forces will move against Kharkiv and Mariupol, while its unconventional forces move against Odesa. [/quote]
Special Operations Forces will play an important role in the coming war. They will be tasked with seizing the airport in Odesa as well as key buildings and communications centers. This will entail the use of at least one full brigade. They will be followed by Russian Airborne Forces, which will be flown in once the major airports have been seized and which will entail at least a full division. At the same time, Villahermosa believes that it is extremely likely that an amphibious operation in Odesa aimed at landing a full Russian naval infantry brigade will also take place.
Having now carved a corridor to the Crimea and placed its armed forces to the south and east of the Ukrainian army, Moscow will stop to consolidate its gains and warn Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels against retaliation or any other “provocative actions” which might threaten the peace. The proximity of Russian forces near Moldova will further serve to intimidate that country into acquiescence with Moscow. In the meantime, the highly elite special operations and airborne forces will be withdrawn and replaced with lower readiness conventional forces brought in by air and sea.
[quote]Once Russia’s gains have been consolidated, Putin will move against the remainder of the eastern Ukraine with major conventional drives against Kyiv in the north and Dnipro [formerly Dnipropetrovsk – Ed.] in the south with a combined-armed corps headquarters in command of each operation. [/quote] Again, Russian special operators and paratroopers will be at the forefront. Their mission will be to seize and hold key strategic objective pending the arrival of armor and mechanized brigades and regiments. This will place the Russian army on the Dnieper River.
[quote]Like his Soviet forefathers, Putin is counting on no involvement by the US or NATO. Furthermore, he is convinced that the Ukrainian government will be sufficiently cowed by Moscow’s legions and newfound military prowess to not fight back.[/quote] And he probably also expects that Washington and Brussels will convince Kyiv not to fight, just as Paris and London convinced Prague to submit to the Nazis in 1938 in order to avoid a large conflict and further instability in Europe. Putin probably also fully expects the support of the Russian population in the eastern Ukraine, along with significant elements of the Ukrainian armed forces and police.
According to Villahermosa, Putin seeks to return a large number of ethnic Russians back into the motherland.
“With a population of 140 million Russia today still faces a demographic catastrophe. Its population is dwindling at the rate of some two million a year. The annexation of the eastern Ukraine will bring from 15 to as many as 20 million ethnic Russians and fellow Orthodox Christians back into the fold and stem the tide, at least temporarily, of demographic decline,” believes Villahermosa.
Moscow will also benefit from Ukraine’s vast wheat fields, enough for Russia to both feed its masses and to become a major exporter of grain if it so chooses. Furthermore, the colonel calculates, that “Moscow will win full control of the natural gas and oil pipelines that run to Europe. More importantly, Putin will have created a stable buffer zone between NATO and a “Russia fully under his control.”
However, Villahermosa points out that Putin’s plans will entail great risks.
[quote]The first risk is whether the current state of the Russian armed forces will allow them to succeed in their mission.[/quote]
“Moscow will be launching the invasion of a sizeable country with an army totaling less than 800,000 men in its active ranks, supported by another 700,000 reservists. The Ground Forces, responsible for seizing and holding Ukraine’s major cities, number less than 300,000 men and three-quarters its ranks are one-year draftees. The Army is undermanned, underequipped, under-resourced and not fully trained and is rife with incompetence, corruption, and brutality. It lacks UAVs, modern sniper rifles, night sights, secure radios, GPS, and even modern body armor in large numbers and has no counter-IED capability,” notes Villahermosa.
The American military expert reminds us that the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2005 revealed a broad range of deficiencies at all levels of the Russian armed forces to include inept leadership at the senior level and a lack of a professional NCO corps at the troop level. Neither has been corrected to date. “At the same time, while the special operations, airborne, and naval marines will no doubt perform well, the performance of the remainder of the armed forces remains a question mark,” comments the American analyst.
[quote]The next risk is if the Ukrainian Army and the Ukrainian people fight back – something they failed to do in Crimea.[/quote] According to Villahermosa, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have grown to 250,000 active duty personnel organized into four major commands – North, West, South, and East. Currently some 60,000 of these are involved in military active military operations.
“Operational Command East controls forces for the war in the Donbas. These four commands have thirteen mechanized brigades, two armor brigades, two mountain warfare brigades, five airmobile brigades and seven rocket and artillery brigades subordinated to them. Some fifty percent of Ukrainian troops are contract (professional) soldiers – a figure two-and-a-half higher than in the Russian armed forces. Another 700,000 reservists bring the total combat potential of Ukraine to almost a million men and women,” points out the American colonel.
At the same time, Villahermosa points out that the Ukrainian government has purged pro-Russian elements from its government, armed and security forces; mobilized and trained new soldiers; and repaired and fielded thousands of pieces of military equipment in preparation for the upcoming conflict – including more than 500 tanks. However, sympathy for Russia still runs deep among the Ukrainian security and intelligence services, as well as a large sector of the population. This is Kyiv’s greatest liability.
[quote]“While it is extremely unlikely that either the United States or NATO will intervene on Ukraine’s behalf in the event of a large-scale Russian invasion, Kyiv has and will continue to benefit from relations with America and Europe. [/quote] “The United States and NATO are assisting the Ukrainian armed forces with training teams as well as with military technology of all types. The approval of lethal technology for Ukraine appears imminent in the United States. More importantly is the intelligence support Ukraine is probably receiving from the West. Kyiv will receive advance notice of a Russian invasion, including an order of battle of Russian forces and their dispositions, prior to any action by Moscow. During combat operations, Ukraine will be notified of ground, air, and naval movements by Russian armed forces and their intended targets. This intelligence-advantage will give Kyiv an upper hand in any conflict with Russia,” expects Villahermosa.
[quote]The military analyst believes that a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine will trigger a security dilemma for many Eastern European countries, especially Poland and Romania, prompting them to send “volunteers” to fight alongside Ukraine. [/quote] We should also not be surprised if Georgian, Moldova, and Baltic “volunteers” fight alongside Ukrainian troops. Depending on the duration of the conflict, we may even see Belarusian troops joining in support of Ukraine.
“Time is working for Kyiv and against Moscow. Everyday a Russian invasion doesn’t happen is another day of mobilizing, training, and equipping for Ukrainian armed forces; another day for Kyiv to reach out to NATO and its Eastern European partners; another day to come together as a nation and as an army to ensure the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” concludes the American expert.
But Villahermosa also warns: “Kyiv can only win if the Ukrainian people unite with their armed forces to fight for their territorial sovereignty. If this happens, Kyiv won’t need the US or NATO. If it doesn’t – nothing can save it.” He notes that a Russo-Ukrainian War will be long, tough, and destructive for both sides and that Ukraine must persevere if is to defeat and repel a Russian invasion.
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