President Vladimir Putin is keeping the West guessing: Will he opt for a full-scale invasion or a more limited operation or simply keep Russian forces in place to maintain pressure on Kyiv and the West? Russia has a variety of options if Putin decides to launch an attack, depending on what Moscow wants to achieve, the price it is willing to pay and how the West responds.

Any offensive would most likely feature bombing raids, missile strikes and cyberattacks that could devastate Ukraine's military infrastructure, disrupt communications and pin down ground troops.

Short of a full-blown invasion and occupation of all of eastern Ukraine, Russia could choose to take more limited actions that could increase its leverage over Kyiv and test Western resolve and trans-Atlantic unity. Before Russia launches an offensive, it would most likely accuse Ukraine of a provocation, giving Putin an alleged rationale for action.

Option 1: Cut off Ukraine’s Army

Most of Ukraine's combat forces are deployed along a "contact line" in the eastern Donbass region, where they are facing off against separatists backed by Moscow. If the Kremlin rapidly moved armored units to the west of the front line, it could cut off and trap much of Ukraine's ground troops without having to occupy major cities. If Russian troops moved fast enough to outflank Ukraine's ground forces, they could capture prisoners and seize weapons and equipment. It would be a potentially enormous blow to Ukrainian military capability.

Option 2: Blockade Ukraine’s ports 

Moscow has expanded its naval power near Ukraine's coast, including amphibious forces and naval infantry. The sea is Ukraine's weakest spot. The Russians can do whatever they want in the Black Sea. Russian naval ships now dominate the Sea of Azov, a small body of water between Ukraine and Russia, where Ukraine's modest navy is badly outgunned. Moscow increasingly restricts the movement of Ukrainian-bound vessels in the area, and Russia could blockade the southeastern port cities of Berdyansk and Mariupol, choking off an important shipping channel.

In the Black Sea, west of occupied Crimea, Russian warships could cut off the Ukrainian port cities of Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherso, which are crucial lifelines to global markets. Such a move is well within Russia's naval capabilities, and it could bring Ukraine's economy to its knees. A Russian naval operation would be likely to include the seizure of a tiny island in the Black Sea known as Snake Island, or Zmiyiniy Ostriv. Ukraine controls Snake Island, enabling Kyiv to claim territorial waters that extend 12 nautical miles from the island and helping to safeguard shipping lanes to the country's Black Sea ports.

Option 3: Seize southern canal, landbridge

In addition to strangling Ukraine's commercial ports, Russia could launch other operations in the south to consolidate its occupation of Crimea. Russian forces could move to secure a canal that Kyiv shut down in 2014. The closing of the canal has created a chronic water supply problem on the Russian-held peninsula. Moscow could also try to forge a land bridge between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, possibly linking up with territory held by pro-Russian separatists. The idea of building that land bridge and seizing that water supply area would be very much on the table.

Option 4: Secure or expand separatist-held area

Putin could order Russian troops to enter separatist-held areas in the east in a mostly symbolic show of force. Western governments and Ukrainian officials say Russian forces and Russian-armed proxies are already on the ground. By rolling into separatist-controlled areas in an explicit way, Russia could keep tensions with Kyiv high without having to fire a shot. In addition, Russia could seek to extend the separatist-controlled area, possibly by seizing communication points or power plants that would make the region more viable as a separate quasi-state. The most likely military scenario is going to be a series of rolling operations that Russia  can stop at any point along the way based on how the West reacts.

Seizing a smaller area or strategic location, such as Snake Island in the Black Sea, the water canal to Crimea or areas near separatist-held territory, and then pausing would lower the risk of casualties and make it more difficult for the West to respond. Moscow could try to gamble that limited action would fracture NATO's unity, as some European governments might be reluctant to impose severe penalties in that case. Without a sharp response, Russia might then press ahead with more operations.

Option 5: Seize eastern half of Ukraine

In the worst-case scenario, Russia would launch an air and ground campaign across Ukraine to seize the entire Donbass region east of the Dnieper River. A massive invasion and occupation across Ukraine  is less likely, and it's not clear that Russia has sufficient forces to hold that much territory.

If Russia were to opt for a larger operation, it could decide to avoid a long-term occupation of cities and simply pull back after having inflicted a devastating strike to Ukraine's army. Russia could seize much of the east and demand a new political arrangement from Kyiv or simply annex the area

HOW WOULD THE WEST RESPOND (Source: Center for International and Strategy Studies (Philip G. Wasielewski and Seth G. Jones)

The United States and other NATO countries have made it clear they will not deploy their forces to Ukraine to repel a Russian invasion. The U.S. and its European partners would support Ukrainian resistance through a combination of diplomatic, military, intelligence, and other means.

  • Implement severe economic and financial sanctions against Russia, including cutting Russian banks off from the global electronic payment messaging system known as SWIFT.
  • Enact a Twenty-First Century Lend-Lease Act to provide Ukraine with war materiel at no cost. Priority items would include air defense, anti-tank, and anti-ship systems; electronic warfare and cyber defense systems; small arms and artillery ammunition; vehicle and aircraft spare parts; petroleum, oil, and lubricants; rations; medical support; and other needs of a military involved in sustained combat. This aid could occur through overt means with the help of U.S. military forces, including special operations, or it could be a covert action authorized by the U.S. president and led by the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Provide intelligence to allow Ukraine to disrupt Russian lines of communication and supply, as well as warning of airborne and amphibious attacks and locations of all major units.
  • Offer humanitarian support to help Ukraine deal with refugees and internally displaced persons. This assistance may also need to be extended to NATO allies on Ukraine’s borders for refugees fleeing westward.
  • Provide economic support, including energy, to Ukraine and NATO allies due to the expected disruption of Russian gas flows to Europe.
  • Conduct public diplomacy and media broadcasts to Ukraine and globally, including in Russia, to portray accurately what is happening.
  • Apply diplomatic pressure on Belarus to deny Russia access to its territory to attack Ukraine. This is critically important because Russian use of Belarus’ rail and road networks would threaten a strategic turning movement of Ukraine’s northern flank.
  • Coordinate with nongovernmental organizations and the International Criminal Court to document all war crimes inflicted on the Ukrainian people and to demand redress once the war is over.

The United States and NATO should be prepared to offer long-term support to Ukraine’s resistance no matter what form it ends up taking. There has already been public debate about unconventional warfare support to Ukraine should part or all of Ukraine be occupied. However, this option must be approached with a clear understanding of what is possible to achieve—and what might not be possible. Russia has historically proven adept at destroying armed resistance movements, and given enough time, it can do so again. Its methods against a Ukrainian resistance will be swift, direct, and brutal. Any sanctuary that the resistance uses, whether it is in rump Ukrainian or NATO territory, could be subject to Russian overt or covert attack. Therefore, it would require the protection of substantial conventional forces to deter Russian actions in NATO territory. Furthermore, whatever portion of Ukraine’s border Russia may occupy could quickly resemble the Iron Curtain of the twentieth century, featuring heavy fortifications. The Berlin Wall was a heavily-guarded concrete barrier, which included anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, barbed wire, a bed of nails, and other defenses. It will be hard to establish supply lines for a resistance across such an obstacle from any sanctuary.

While the Russians have been adept at anti-resistance operations, they are not adept at extinguishing nationalism. Any support to occupied Ukraine should also include means to maintain Ukrainian’s national identity, history, and language among its citizens. While armed resistance would hearken to the 1980s support provided to the Afghan mujahedin, this type of support to preserve the Ukrainian nation would be more in keeping with the help provided to Polish Solidarity during its struggles for freedom.

In addition, Ukraine could potentially prevent Russia from seizing and holding all or most of its territory with U.S. and other international aid. For example, Ukraine could keep most of its maneuver forces back far enough from initial Russian breakthroughs so that they are not encircled. As Russian forces advance west, Ukraine should gain intelligence to determine Russia’s main thrusts, conduct deep strikes against its supply lines to force them into an operational pause, and once they are stopped, envelop and counterattack them. Cities should hold out as long as possible. In the case of Kharkiv, railroads and bridges inside the city should be utterly destroyed prior to capitulation to further degrade Russian lines of communication. If the Russian military approaches the Dnepr River, its multiple dams could be opened and low-lying areas flooded. Airborne and amphibious assaults should be isolated immediately. Ukraine’s goal should be to prevent Russia from making any significant advances before the onset of the Rasputitsa, or thaw.

Once mechanized movement is ground to a halt by mud and supply problems, airborne and amphibious pockets can be eliminated, and Ukraine will have had enough time to mobilize and deploy its approximately 900,000-man reserve force. Hopefully, international aid will also begin arriving in the form of weapons systems to prevent Russia from achieving air superiority over Ukraine and allowing it to continue to strike deep into the Russian army’s rear to attrit reinforcements and supply lines. As weeks turn into months, international economic and financial sanctions should begin to take effect. The Kremlin would then be faced with a long war, on the battlefield and off it, with little end in sight.

If Russia were to invade Ukraine, the United States and other European states would need to rush soldiers and materiel to NATO’s eastern flank—such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland—in case the Russians threatened to advance westward. Russia might also try to instigate a crisis in one or more of the Balkan states to split American and European attention and resources.


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