The Battle for Lviv

I invaded Ukraine, and it ended in stalemate. Maybe someone should tell Putin.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Back in 2007, when I heard that a game designer named Brant Guillory was making a wargame, called "Orange Crush," that played out a NATO-Russia conflict in the Ukraine, I thought he was crazy. Russia invading Ukraine? NATO fighting Russia in Ukraine? Yeah, right.

Forgive me if I wait until summer to eat my words. Humble pie tastes better with fresh tomatoes.

Orange Crush imagines a scenario which seemed unlikely then, but today seems eerily familiar: A bitterly-contested election lead Ukraine to erupt in political violence. The country’s president orders the military to halt the fighting, but two army brigades revolt, asking Russia to intervene. Moscow obliges, sending in "peacekeepers" that advance on Kiev, but the fleeing Ukrainian government begs from assistance from NATO, which dispatches a force from Poland. NATO troops run into Russian forces racing to the border to head them off. War ensues.

Spooky, right? With Russian troops occupying Crimea, President Barack Obama warning Vladimir Putin of "costs" to come, and the army of the Kremlin busy sablya-rattling just across the Ukrainian-Russian border, now seemed an opportune time to give Orange Crush a spin, to see what insights it might yield about how a real NATO-Russia clash would play out.

Orange Crush portrays a fight between armies that are shadows of their Cold War selves. This is war on the cheap: No herds of armor thundering across the Fulda Gap, no gigantic armies sweeping across the north German plain. The battlefield is a slice of western Ukraine near the Polish border. The ragtag NATO force that Guillory envisions consists of a single British mechanized brigade supported by Special Air Service commandos, Canadian light infantry, Polish motorized infantry and helicopters, and Danish combat engineers. This isn’t the British Army of the Rhine here; it’s the odds and ends of whatever is left in the post-Cold War NATO armory. (Guillory assumed in 2007 that U.S. troops would be busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that NATO forces entering Ukraine would be whatever the alliance could scrape together on the spot.)

However, the Russian intervention force in Orange Crush isn’t the mighty Group of Soviet Forces Germany, either. In Guillory’s game, Russia only musters up a single mechanized division backed by artillery and helicopters. (Here, he’s not far off: Ukraine’s claim of 16,000 Russian troops in Crimea is only the equivalent of a division or two.) There are also Ukrainian troops fighting on both sides, a hodgepodge of heavily armed mechanized units, light infantry, and guerrillas. Each battalion is rated for attack, defense and movement capabilities; each has advantages and disadvantages (for example, armor rules the plains, while foot infantry loves forests and cities). The game also tries to simulate some of the challenges of command and control: for example, both sides can use special strategies that include Spin Cycle (world media attention slows down your opponent) and Local Appropriation (the tactful word for looting).

I fine-tuned Guillory’s game a bit to try to more effectively game out the current situation, with me playing the dual roles of both NATO and Russia. In my version, NATO troops have entered Ukraine from Poland, to protect a Ukrainian government that has fled west, to Lviv, where they’ve set up the rump state of "Free Ukraine." Kremlin forces, already in the country, are trying to bar more NATO troops from entering; those Western troops that are already there — a brigade from the British 1st Armored Division, supported by Danish, Canadian, and Polish contingents — are charged with stopping the Russians. If 10 Russian battalions can reach the Polish-Ukraine border by the end of the second day of fighting, Russia wins; if not, NATO is the victor. Here’s how it all played out. (Hint: it doesn’t go well for either side.)

The scenario begins with NATO troops just arriving at their staging point at the Polish city of Przemysl, about 50 miles west of Lviv. The British commander of the force, Brigadier Rupert Popham-Noob, decides to quickly roll down the highway and link up with Free Ukrainian forces setting up defensive positions — the "Orange Line" — between Brody and Kozova, about 60 miles east of Lviv and 300 miles west of Kiev. This will create a deep buffer zone between Lviv and Russian-occupied Ukraine, and also enable the defenders to take advantage of the wooded terrain around Kozova. 

That doesn’t mean Popham-Noob is happy about his position — far from it. In fact, he curses his political leaders for putting him into this crazy situation. A brigade-sized NATO force is too small for such a large battlefield. The Free Ukraine forces are more sizable, but can only a muster a few heavy mechanized battalions. Coordinating Western troops and a Ukrainian Army that’s still largely Soviet in equipment and outlook makes unified operations problematic. The core of his battle group is three well-armed British tank and mechanized infantry battalions that can slug it out with Russian armor, but most of his force consists of light infantry or lightly mechanized troops. He splits his command, with the British contingent as a backstop to Free Ukrainian armor defending the more open terrain to the north of the Orange Line near Brody, while the lighter troops are sent south to support Ukrainian infantry in the forests around Kozova.

General Noobovich, commanding the Russian force, is also fuming. His superiors have ordered him to reach and seal off the Ukrainian-Polish border at all costs. The longer the border remains open, the greater the risk that NATO will dispatch more troops into Ukraine. But with most of the Russian Army subduing Ukraine, Noobovich has only been given a reinforced motorized rifle division, supported by several former Ukrainian Army battalions that have defected, as well as some pro-Moscow irregular bands of marginal utility. Despite the tight deadline, he only slightly outnumbers the defenders, though he is stronger in armor and artillery. Noobovich opts to use the Ukrainian irregulars and a Russian motorized rifle brigade to pin the defenders in the south, while he masses his armor for an attack in the north that will open the highway to Lviv.

As the assault begins in the north, the Russians discover that the Ukrainians are not the weak Georgian forces they bulldozed in 2008. In fact, some mechanized units are almost as strong as their Russian counterparts. With the aid of artillery and helicopters, the Russians manage to dislodge two Free Ukrainian battalions and breach the Orange Line. But a nicely timed counterattack by British armor stabilizes the front. In the south, a Russo-Ukrainian attack fizzles against Canadian light infantry entrenched in woods.

The Russians fail to break through in the north, but they have pushed the defenders back sufficiently to uncover the flank of the southern Orange Line. Popham-Noob does not want to give up good defensive terrain, but he withdraws the NATO-Free Ukrainian forces 10 miles closer to Lviv, creating a fan-shaped defensive line in front of the city. His British and Ukrainian armor has done well, but it has taken losses, and no replacements are forthcoming.

As Day Two of the conflict begins, both sides are worried. NATO can’t seem to stop the Russian advance, but Russia can’t break through NATO defenses. Noobovich briefly considers trying to bypass Lviv and thrust toward the border. But forests and mountains west of Lviv make that difficult, and leaving enemy forces on his flank will leave his supply lines exposed. He shifts his offensive to the south, seeking a clean penetration near the town of Peremyshlyany. But again, a British armored counterattack stymies a breakthrough.

At this point, the game ends. Technically, Russia lost because it did not seal the border. But overall, it was a draw. Russia was not going to seal the Ukrainian-Polish border or eliminate Free Ukraine without bringing in substantial reinforcements and paying the consequent political and economic price. On the other hand, if the conflict were continue, NATO would have had to deploy far more of the alliance’s forces, something neither Western European public opinion nor treasuries would swallow. The only solution would be a major U.S. military commitment, but only at the risk of escalating tensions to nuclear levels.

This, of course, was an arbitrary scenario. One can adjust it to fit whatever situation a strategist envisions (for example, giving Russia more time to reach the border could have resulted in a different outcome). Considering that — in real life — much of Ukraine’s military equipment is unserviceable, and Kiev worries about the loyalty of ethnic Russian soldiers in its army, the game’s decision to give Ukrainian battalions the same combat capabilities as their Russian counterparts certainly could be called unrealistic. At the same time, given its poor performance during the 2008 Georgian War, the Russian military, too, might not fare so well against NATO on the battlefield. But on the other hand, could recent defense cuts have hurt Britain’s ability to send a ground force into Eastern Europe?

Either way, should NATO and Russia come to blows over Ukraine, I suspect Orange Crush would capture at least some of the nature of the conflict. Despite the immense resources of NATO members and Russia, any conflict between the two would probably be a small war with highly-limited objectives, waged by relatively small numbers of troops, with neither side willing to commit more to the fight. Commanders like Popham-Noob and Noobovich might grumble — but considering how close the world came to catastrophe during the Cold War, that’s probably a good thing.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1

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