Russia’s Window of Opportunity in Ukraine

If Putin wants to make a grab for Ukraine's east and south, he'll need to move soon.


On March 21, President Vladimir Putin signed the final decree on the annexation of Crimea. Fireworks lit up the Moscow sky, and crowds around Russia celebrated the peninsula’s "reunification with the motherland."

According to pro-Kremlin pollsters, over 90 percent of Russians support "reunification with Crimea." The president’s approval rating has skyrocketed. Putin’s emotional 50-minute speech before signing the "Crimean reunification" treaty was repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations. Putin spoke, at times with palpable bitterness, about the injustices Russia has suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which, he said, had left his country weak and his compatriots a "divided people." The West, according to Putin, had overplayed its hand, pushing Russia too far by attempting to take over Ukraine under the guise of an association agreement with the EU. Now Moscow is pushing back by taking "our Crimea." Putin called for national unity in the face of Western sanctions and warned against internal subversion by an unnamed "fifth column of national traitors." At the same time Putin sounded a conciliatory note, promising that "we do not want to break up Ukraine."

Is Putin’s promise genuine? On March 4, Putin publicly promised [Rs.] not to "consider" annexing Crimea — and then proceeded to do exactly that. The Russian president may find it hard to stop there. The problem is that his brand-new province is deeply dependent on the Ukrainian mainland, which is the source of almost all of its electricity, water, and food. The peninsula’s railroads and highways lead north into Ukraine. The only link between Crimea and Russia is a ferry crossing from Kerch that connects the peninsula to Russian Taman in the North Caucasus. Russian officials have announced plans to build new power stations in Crimea and a grandiose bridge from Kerch to Taman. These projects will cost billions and require years to complete. Crimea, moreover, has a rapidly aging population of over 2 million. Sustaining Crimea and fully rebuilding its infrastructure to separate it from Ukraine could cost tens of billions of dollars over the next five years, straining [Rs.] the Russian budget. An isolated, Russian-controlled Crimea facing a hostile Ukrainian mainland hardly seems like the kind of scenario Putin envisaged.

Moscow has stated it will not recognize any government in Kiev or the results of any national elections in Ukraine until a new constitution is adopted. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has specified that this new constitution, which must be unanimously adopted by all regions of Ukraine, must transform the country into a loose "federative state," one in which Russian will be an official language along with Ukrainian and the regions will be allowed to conduct their own foreign and economic policies. The establishment of a new Ukrainian state along these lines would essentially change a belt of mostly Russian-speaking regions inside Ukraine, stretching from Moldova in the southwest to Voronezh in the northeast, into a de facto Russian protectorate (even though they would still remain part of a nonaligned Ukraine). Control of these areas would allow Russia to link up with the pro-Moscow Transdniester enclave in Moldova along Ukraine’s western border, where Russia still has a military garrison. The political and economic integration of large sections of a "federative Ukraine" could eventually lead to their joining the Russian Federation, like Crimea. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry rejected the Russian plan to impose a federal system on Ukraine, calling it "unacceptable."

The interim Ukrainian President Olexander Turchinov has announced that — rather than passively resisting, as Ukrainian forces did in Crimea — Kiev’s forces will "accept battle" if Russia makes any further encroachment on Ukrainian territory. On March 17, the parliament in Kiev voted to mobilize some 40,000 men to beef up the dilapidated Ukrainian military. A National Guard is being formed and some 20,000 volunteers have been called to join. The call-up of men and volunteers has been plagued by chaos and disorganization as the ill-experienced post-revolutionary government in Kiev struggles to cope with seemingly insurmountable political, economic, and social problems — in addition to the annexation of Crimea and threats of further aggression. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian army’s battle readiness has begun to rise [Rs]. Joint battalion-strength combat groups are being formed. Maintenance crews, including civilian specialists from the still vast Ukrainian defense industry, are struggling to get armor and other heavy equipment ready for operation. (The photo above shows Ukrainian armored personnel carriers heading through eastern Ukraine.)

Ukraine’s armed forces have at their disposal vast amounts of Soviet-style heavy weapons and staggering stocks of munitions: thousands of tanks, heavy guns, and rockets as well as hundreds of jets, helicopters, and antiaircraft missiles. Most of this hardware is in storage or otherwise out of order. Given enough time and effort, however, some of these armaments could be made usable again, and the Ukrainian military could be transformed into a formidable fighting force — especially if its leaders manage to somehow amalgamate the professional abilities of their small, largely demoralized regular force with motivated patriotic volunteers. Of course, the Ukrainian military badly lacks many essentials, like good boots, socks, field fatigues, body armor, Kevlar helmets, medical kits, communication equipment. Should they succeed in refurbishing some of their weapon systems, they should be able to achieve the status of a respectable, albeit non-modern, Soviet-style force. But the opposing Russian military can be described in the same terms: The government’s vastly increased spending on rearmament in recent years has so far changed little in this respect.

Russian forces have been concentrated for possible offensive action on the borders of Ukraine, in vast numbers and in a high state of readiness, according to U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In a series of military maneuvers on the Ukrainian border, Russian paratroopers (the VDV corps) and the air force have been preparing to spearhead a possible push deep into Ukraine. The lightly armed paratroops have  been training to take over "enemy airfields and airports as bridgeheads of an overall advance." Such a thrust would be closely followed by the tank and motorized army brigades that have been training and deploying [Rs.] along the Ukrainian border. The Russian Defense Ministry denies that it is preparing to invade Ukraine. It is likely that the Kremlin has yet to issue a final order approving an actual invasion.

If Putin decides to send in his troops, he has a narrow window in which to act. The winter of 2014 in Russia and Ukraine was relatively mild with little snow, while the spring is early and warm. The soil is drying rapidly, meaning that it will soon be possible to move heavy vehicles off of highways and into fields in southern areas of Ukraine close to the Black and Azov Seas. A key date is April 1, which marks the beginning of the Russia’s spring conscript call-up, when some 130,000 troops drafted a year earlier will have to be mustered out as replacements arrive. This would leave the Russian airborne troops, marines, and army brigades with many conscripts that have served half a year or not at all, drastically reducing battle readiness. The better-trained one-year conscripts can be kept in the ranks for a couple of months but no longer. Otherwise they’ll start demanding to be sent home, and morale will slip. As a result, Russia’s conventional military will regain reasonable battle-readiness only around August or September 2014, giving the Ukrainians ample time to get their act together.

Ukraine has scheduled a national presidential election for May 25 that may further legitimize the regime the Kremlin hates and wants to overthrow. The Kremlin may find it hard to resist the temptation to attack Ukraine and "liberate" the south and east while Russia is ready, the Ukrainian military weak, and the regime in Kiev unstable. Such a move could lead to more Western sanctions, but this risk maybe dwarfed by the vision of a major geostrategic victory seemingly at hand.

The window of opportunity for an invasion will open during the first weeks of April and close somewhere around the middle of May. During his long rule Vladimir Putin has generally shown himself to be a shrewd and cautious operator, but his actions during the Ukrainian crisis have been rash. So far his daring has paid off. This, unfortunately, is precisely what could trigger more bold moves down the road.

Pavel Felgenhauer is a  military analyst and journalist based in Moscow.