What a ‘Minor’ Russian Incursion Into Ukraine May Look Like

Don’t expect Russian ground forces to try to hold territory.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Historical T-34 tanks move through Red Square.
Historical T-34 tanks move through Red Square.
Historical T-34 tanks move through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2021. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

It’s no secret: The Russian army is designed to be an offensive machine. Most of its forces are armored or mechanized, potentially leaving convoys vulnerable to the insurgent-like ambush tactics Ukraine is preparing to use.

And while U.S. President Joe Biden raised eyebrows this week when he suggested the U.S. response might be different if Russia only staged a “minor incursion” (the White House later clarified his remarks), experts believe the Kremlin, which does not conduct large-scale training to hold ground, may have little appetite to run right into the defense’s teeth to take and hold territory across a large swath of Ukraine.

“I do not anticipate a big red arrow that goes across Ukraine towards Kyiv,” said Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe. “That would be so many casualties and no guarantee of being successful.”

It’s no secret: The Russian army is designed to be an offensive machine. Most of its forces are armored or mechanized, potentially leaving convoys vulnerable to the insurgent-like ambush tactics Ukraine is preparing to use.

And while U.S. President Joe Biden raised eyebrows this week when he suggested the U.S. response might be different if Russia only staged a “minor incursion” (the White House later clarified his remarks), experts believe the Kremlin, which does not conduct large-scale training to hold ground, may have little appetite to run right into the defense’s teeth to take and hold territory across a large swath of Ukraine.

“I do not anticipate a big red arrow that goes across Ukraine towards Kyiv,” said Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe. “That would be so many casualties and no guarantee of being successful.”

Instead, with both the White House and Kyiv signaling this week that Russia could invade Ukraine at any point, Moscow’s spruced-up tanks and armored vehicles could be the tip of the spear for a series of pinpricks across Ukraine’s vast borders to destabilize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s anti-Kremlin government and damage European confidence in NATO.

Experts expect Russia will lean on its ability to rain fire from a distance, with heavy artillery and missiles like the Iskander, and only send in ground forces for mopping up operations, steering clear of Javelin anti-tank missiles that are expected to figure heavily into Ukraine’s defense.

“I don’t think an occupation is likely,” said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “I don’t think they’re going to go into cities. What if they just bypass Kharkiv and Poltava [in Ukraine]? What if they just destroy Ukrainian military units? They send in forces to destroy them, take [prisoners of war], and just leave the cities alone?”

Even though they’ve received less financial attention from the Kremlin than long-range fire, Russia’s armored divisions have experienced major reforms in recent years, slimming them down and making them more flexible as part of two rounds of defense reforms. The Kremlin has also tossed out old mechanized equipment and won’t be stuck cannibalizing tanks and armored vehicles, as Russia did during the Second Chechen War during the early 2000s. The return to smaller and more capable, brigade-sized units more than a decade ago has enabled weapons like the T-14 main battle tank to come into service.

But instead of cannibalizing human equipment, Russia has cannibalized human capital. To build a potential invasion force for Ukraine, Russia has pulled enlisted service members and contractors from all across the country, and it’s not clear how they’re planning to command all of the troops.

“It’s basically a patchwork quilt of all of these professionals,” said Dara Massicot, an expert in Russian military capabilities at the RAND Corporation. “That’s not a very efficient way to fight. They are coming from all over the place.”

The Kremlin has also put equipment in place to suggest it’s ready to conduct large-scale maneuver warfare, such as engineering equipment to pull stuck tanks out of the mud, which would be especially useful if Moscow launches an invasion before Ukraine’s snowpack hardens.

In anticipation, Russia has moved a sizable chunk of its ground forces into the field. According to satellite imagery captured this week and provided to Foreign Policy by Maxar Technologies, Russia staged large groups of tanks, artillery, and infantry units at the Pogonovo training area, which sits in Voronezh, Russia, near a railway junction that runs all the way to Siberia. At the other end of the country, in the Siberian town of Yelnya, Russia has put tanks, artillery, and support equipment in place, creating a massive vehicle park that could provide a reserve force for invaders, experts said. At Klimovo, Russia, less than 200 miles from Ukraine’s capital, the Kremlin has put in place armored personnel carriers and trucks, a possible follow-on force for expected missile salvos.

Although Russia has more eyeballs to help watch its back—such as human spotters, special forces, and drones—Russia does not do large-scale occupation training for its forces, experts said, and would struggle to fend off a Ukrainian insurgency. But the size and scope of its deployment have given the Russians a greater degree of flexibility, and the Kremlin is focused on keeping its troops out of harm’s reach by attacking Ukraine across a wide array of targets prepared by intelligence agencies, experts believe.

“Ukraine can’t just focus on one area,” Lee said.

This week, military experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank, assessed that Russia could struggle to move its ground forces forward with proper discipline, especially on harsh winter roads with poor visibility—raising the prospect of nightmarish traffic jams. And although Russia has spent months tending to a logistics network that can keep a ground force in the field, it hasn’t been tested in a large frontal assault.

“They’re clearly well exercised and equipped,” said one former senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment of Russian military capabilities. “But it remains to be seen how well they’d do in a frontal assault on well-prepared and determined defenses.” But the fate of the “Soviets in Afghanistan is worth pondering,” the official added.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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