Could Russia Defeat a Ukrainian Insurgency?

The 40,000 Russian troops along the Ukrainian border are not enough for an extended campaign

Could Russia Defeat a Ukrainian Insurgency? Could Russia Defeat a Ukrainian Insurgency?
Could Russia Defeat a Ukrainian Insurgency? The 40,000 Russian troops along the Ukrainian border are not enough for an extended campaign There’s no doubt... Could Russia Defeat a Ukrainian Insurgency?

Could Russia Defeat a Ukrainian Insurgency?

The 40,000 Russian troops along the Ukrainian border are not enough for an extended campaign

There’s no doubt the Russian military has the means to invade mainland Ukraine. But whether it can hold conquered territory is another question—especially if Kiev puts up a fight.

That’s the conclusion of the Swedish Defense Research Agency, Stockholm’s government-funded military think tank.

The agency—known as FOI—doesn’t doubt that Russia can invade. But it does question whether Moscow has the ability to secure territory in mainland Ukraine, given the potential size of the area Russia would need to secure—and absent the natural defensive barriers of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March.

Unlike Crimea, eastern Ukraine would be hard for an occupying force to defend. Russian troops could find it difficult to prevent insurgents from infiltrating their lines.

This should be reassuring to the new government in Kiev, which came to power following violent protests in February—the same protests that Moscow cited as justification for its invasion of Crimea, an historically Russian region.

In recent weeks, pro-Russian armed groups have seized government buildings in several Ukrainian cities and have killed at least one Ukrainian security officer. Now Kiev is organizing a force to retake these cities.

What happens next is hard to say. There are real worries the Kremlin is instigating the violence as justification for another invasion. But a further attack on Ukraine could prove to be a strategic mistake for Russia, given the probability of a drawn-out fight.

The Kremlin risks being bogged down in an Iraq-style insurgency with no clear way out, forcing Russia to commit even more troops while undercutting its security commitments elsewhere.

By the district

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen claimed that 40,000 Russian troops are massing close to the Ukrainian border. Satellite images seemed to confirm the build-up of hundreds of armored vehicles and artillery pieces supported by helicopters and Su-27, Su-24 and MiG-31 fighter jets.

That’s an alarming force … on paper. But FOI took a different approach in its report. Instead of just looking at the raw numbers of troops Russia has at its disposal, the researchers analyzed specific military units that could take part in an extended campaign.

There’s a simple enough reason for this way of thinking. Different units have different roles, responsibilities and capabilities. Some are dedicated to defending Russian territory far away from the Ukrainian border and would likely not take part in an invasion—at least not at first. A unit-by-unit review gives a more accurate picture of the Kremlin’s capabilities.

First, the Kremlin organizes its forces in four huge military districts, each responsible for defending hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory. There are typically two field armies in each district, with each army made up of several divisions.

The Southern District oversees Russian units in the Caucasus, where Moscow is trying to suppress a low-boil Islamic insurgency. The Western District is responsible for defending western and northwestern Russia, including St. Petersburg and Moscow. The Central District protects a wide swath of territory from the Kazakh border deep into Siberia.

Russia’s armies and possible invasion zones. Swedish Defense Research Agency/Ministry of Defense illustration

Each district has two armies each, for a total of six armies with varying capabilities. In the Southern District, there are the 49th and 58th Armies. The Western district includes the 20th and 6th Armies. In the Central District, the 41st and 2nd Armies.

According to the FOI, if Russia decides to expand its invasion beyond Crimea, it would need at least two or three armies “first to push into territory but probably also over time to secure that [which was] taken.”

The most likely forces for this job are the 2nd and 20th Armies. Unlike the Southern District armies, these are neither committed to reinforcing Crimea, nor are they fighting insurgents in the Caucasus.

The 2nd is a particularly good candidate. It’s capable of fielding multiple motorized infantry brigades. These are good for offensive operations.

The 2nd Army also took part in recent exercises along the Ukrainian border—meaning it should be in a high state of readiness. Its sister army in the Central District, the 41st Army, is based too far to the east.

The 20th Army, on the other hand, is normally located near Moscow and includes two tank brigades and two motorized infantry brigades. It’s “the strongest ground-force unit” in the district, FOI states. The 6th Army would likely stay close to the big Russian cities to protect them from either a foreign attack or uprising.

All told, this means Russia has “seven to nine maneuver brigades” ready to invade within 10 days of the Kremlin giving the order. That’s roughly 40,000 troops, or the same amount Rasmussen estimated were in positions across the Ukrainian border.

“The sizable force would nevertheless hardly be enough for securing land communications to Transnistri a— by holding on to all of Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast — let alone holding to eastern Ukraine in the face of Ukrainian armed resistance,” FOI concludes.


Russia perceives NATO expansion into Ukraine as an existential threat to its homeland.

But Moscow also sees threats from every direction, and a costly occupation of eastern Ukraine would most likely leave Russia more exposed to insurgents in the Caucasus, instability in Central Asia and the Chinese.

The risks could be dramatic. The “Russian concept of nuclear de-escalation—i.e., using a few tactical nuclear devices to deter an adversary from further escalation, is especially worrying in this context,” FOI warns.

But another possibility is that Russian president Vladimir Putin will forgo an all-out invasion, instead relying on a combination of covert and semi-covert methods to destabilize eastern Ukraine. This includes sending special forces—or Spetsnaz—to train and equip separatists.

There are allegations the Kremlin is already doing this in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian irregular units occupying government offices have camouflage uniforms, AK-type rifles and equipment strapped to their bodies. But some appear old and overweight.

This is in contrast to the fit “green men”—Russian soldiers—who led the invasion of Crimea. Police, including the disbanded Berkut special cops, as well as defecting Ukrainian soldiers could comprise many of these pro-Moscow forces in eastern Ukraine.

On the other hand, some of these gunmen are probably Russian volunteers who crossed the border with the help of instructions available on the Internet. These men may be operating independently but with tacit Kremlin approval.

At least one was filmed addressing police in the city of Horlivka on Monday. He referred to himself as a Russian army lieutenant colonel.

Their presence—and the absence of an open Russian offensive—may be a reflection of Kiev’s apparent willingness to use force in eastern Ukraine. It’s a signal to Putin that a direct attack might cost more than it’s worth.

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