Russia Couldn’t Occupy Ukraine if It Wanted to

The Russian military has too much experience to think a full-scale invasion is a good idea.

By , a lecturer in German and European Studies at King's College London.
Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country's Donetsk region march in Kiev on November 15, 2018 prior to the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment.
Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country's Donetsk region march in Kiev on November 15, 2018 prior to the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment.
Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country's Donetsk region march in Kiev on November 15, 2018 prior to the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Many analysts in the United States and Europe are convinced that an invasion of Ukraine is now the most likely outcome of Russian troop movements near the border. Some have gone further in concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to impose a Russian military occupation on all or part of Ukraine. They believe the Russian military will try to establish a new social order in Ukraine, replacing the government under President Volodymyr Zelensky with a puppet administration.

There is little doubt that the build-up of what are now around 80 battalion tactical groups, which include tanks, artillery, and around 130,000 troops, represents a profound threat to Ukraine. The apparent presence of airborne military units and amphibious assets indicate how multifaceted any military onslaught could become. Perhaps most worrying are the movements of Rosgvardiya detachments, or Russian National Guard troops, who would be responsible for providing security on territory behind the frontlines, managing prisoners of war and securing logistics. These are all potential signals that a comprehensive plan for occupation may be in place.

Yet any discussion of potential Russian action toward Ukraine needs to take into account the resources available to the Russian state, and the history of previous Russian, Soviet, and other great-power military occupations. And here the picture becomes less clear cut than a lot of speculation over the potential occupation of Ukraine acknowledges.

Many analysts in the United States and Europe are convinced that an invasion of Ukraine is now the most likely outcome of Russian troop movements near the border. Some have gone further in concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to impose a Russian military occupation on all or part of Ukraine. They believe the Russian military will try to establish a new social order in Ukraine, replacing the government under President Volodymyr Zelensky with a puppet administration.

There is little doubt that the build-up of what are now around 80 battalion tactical groups, which include tanks, artillery, and around 130,000 troops, represents a profound threat to Ukraine. The apparent presence of airborne military units and amphibious assets indicate how multifaceted any military onslaught could become. Perhaps most worrying are the movements of Rosgvardiya detachments, or Russian National Guard troops, who would be responsible for providing security on territory behind the frontlines, managing prisoners of war and securing logistics. These are all potential signals that a comprehensive plan for occupation may be in place.

Yet any discussion of potential Russian action toward Ukraine needs to take into account the resources available to the Russian state, and the history of previous Russian, Soviet, and other great-power military occupations. And here the picture becomes less clear cut than a lot of speculation over the potential occupation of Ukraine acknowledges.

A vast move to seize and hold large cities, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Odessa, would require enough troops to destroy the Ukrainian army, crush a potential insurgency and back up any permanent security force that can be recruited from local collaborators or hired from outside Ukraine. Kyiv alone has a population of 3 million in a dense urban landscape, while Kharkiv has 1.5 million and Odessa has 1 million. Smaller cities east of the Dnieper River, such as Dnipro or Zaporizhya, have populations in the hundreds of thousands. If Crimea and the parts of the Donbas region occupied by Russia are removed, the population of Ukraine as a whole is still officially 41 million, though recent estimates by the national statistical service that take mass migration into account now place it at 37 million.

The level of manpower that previous occupations at this scale required provide a hint of the challenges Russia would face when occupying all or a large part of Ukraine. The occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which faced no armed resistance, was initiated by a move of nearly 250,000 Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops that in weeks was bolstered to nearly 500,000 in order to hold down a population of 14 million. From 1999 to 2003, during the second Chechen War, the Russian army surged over 90,000 troops into a territory with a population of less than 1 million to brutally suppress an armed insurgency.

During the same period, the United States launched its 2003 invasion of Iraq, a country with a population of 26 million with around 190,000 U.S. and allied forces as well as 60,000 Kurdish Peshmerga auxiliaries in support. Analysts concerned that this force would be too small to stabilize Iraq were proven right as swift victory over Saddam Hussein’s regime on the battlefield slid into multiple insurgencies that shattered U.S. control. For all the strengthening of the Russian military in the past decade and differences in context between these examples, the precedents they set make it more difficult to see how 130,000 Russian troops currently on Ukrainian borders could sustain a stable occupation regime unless their numbers were substantially increased further.

Whatever potential political gains can be achieved by the Russian state in an occupation of Ukraine need to be balanced by consideration of the pressure it would put on the Russian military to hold down large regions while having to fund their economic reconstruction in the long term. The price that Ukrainian society would pay for even moderate resistance in such a scenario, never mind a full insurgency as in Syria, would be brutal in ways that many in the United States or European Union pondering these options should consider more carefully. With such a substantial number of war veterans who are hostile to Russia, at least in some areas of each region in Ukraine, however, a degree of resistance is still a distinct possibility.

Yet in Syria, the Russian military could rely on Wagner mercenaries or Iranian-backed militias to do the dying for it. In Ukraine it would be professional Russian soldiers and even conscripts that would have to shoulder the burden until a local proxy force can emerge. As the Soviets discovered in Afghanistan, and the Americans in Vietnam and Iraq, a commitment that is leapt into quickly can drag out into a struggle to sustain stable outcomes however many tactical victories are won along the way. And Russia in 2022 does not have the military or economic power the United States still has or the Soviet Union once had.

Of course, it is important not to dismiss such worst-case scenarios out of hand. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, great powers have regularly shown a propensity for promising quick results before discovering that realities on the ground did not match their geopolitical fantasies. The article written by Putin last year on relations between Russia and Ukraine indicates a level of wishful thinking that has crossed into delusional realms.

Yet for all this presidential blogging, the intellectual skill and operational realism of the Russian military should not be discounted. From the disastrous lurch of Boris Yeltsin and Pavel Grachev into Grozny in 1994, the chaotic campaign in Georgia in 2008, and the shrewd balancing of risks with careful application of resources in Syria after 2015, Russian generals have spent entire careers dealing with these dilemmas. It is an open question whether a Russian officer corps with such depth of experience is so drawn to delusions of imperial grandeur that it has not looked at less risky options to drag Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence.

Worryingly, there are a range of other possible pathways the Russian generals could consider. Purely in military terms, a campaign to destroy the Ukrainian military as well as the foundations of its arms industry would remove a security challenge from along Russian borders as the Ukrainian government would then face years of work to rebuild defense capacity even with NATO support. While the political gains of an operation with entirely military goals would be more questionable, the instability it would generate would severely hamper Ukrainian efforts to build a strong state.

Another approach short of full occupation of all or most of Ukraine could also be a drawn-out effort to destabilize the Ukrainian state, culminating in military attacks to force Zelensky to accept Moscow’s interpretation of the Minsk Protocol signed between both states in 2015 through Franco-German mediation. The Russian military build-up and possible attack could provide one of several means to break the scope that Ukrainian society has to prevent reintegration of occupied Donbas into the Ukrainian state on Moscow’s terms. Over the long term, such a structure designed to embed a constitutional veto for Moscow’s proxies in Donbas is unlikely to be sustainable, but it would mark a major success over the next few years for Putin that would linger until his successor faces the eventual fallout.

Each of these scenarios involving a large-scale military campaign, along with more localized military operations down to limited political or economic destabilization, would still have a devastating effect on Ukrainian society. Any military move will inevitably cause enormous damage to infrastructure as well as tragic civilian casualties. Destabilization operations short of war would weaken already vulnerable institutions safeguarding the rule of law, while escalation could push greater support toward extreme nationalist movements hostile to democracy. The Ukrainian economy is already experiencing such a level of systemic stress that Zelensky has asked U.S. counterparts to ratchet down their warnings of imminent conflict.

At the moment, the Western alliance system only has clarity when it comes to the sheer scale of the Russian military build-up and the level of damage it can do to Ukraine in the initial phase of a military invasion. That in and of itself is enough to merit the level of effort now being undertaken by NATO members to provide assistance to Ukraine and find the right balance between deterrence and diplomacy to prevent Putin from taking destabilizing actions that could also rebound on Russia itself. Rather than getting distracted by specific speculative timelines, Western efforts need to focus on information that is concerning enough and stay disciplined for the weeks or months it might take until a pathway to deescalation is found.

In the process, such efforts can generate opportunities for NATO members to also learn more about Russian military weaknesses. As Putin puts all his cards on his table, Western analysts and scholars can work out which ones he does not have in his deck. The shift of so many assets from the Eastern Military District already seems to be stripping the Russian defense capacity in its Eastern regions to a bare minimum.

Such an unprecedented build-up can provide information about the limits of Russian power, especially when it comes to establishing the point at which Moscow can no longer sustain such a surge without disruptive political and economic consequences for the Putin regime. If Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union manage to get through this crisis intact, this information could help Western policymakers develop a more calibrated policy mix that balances pressure with positive incentives to prod the Russian state into backing away from this cycle of escalation.

The challenge Russia represents is not intractable for Ukraine or its friends in the United States and Europe. While the crisis facing this partnership is now entering an acute stage, with enormous risks to the stability and security of Ukraine, the finite nature of Russian power might open up enough space for a deescalation pathway to be found. Though assessing the worst of worst-case scenarios is crucial for military planning, on the political level focusing too much on their supposed inevitability can engender a sense of fatalism rather than the mobilization and coordination needed to prevent them from unfolding. Perhaps such greater awareness of Western strengths can over time even open up the space for Russia after Putin to join Ukraine, the EU and UK as a partner in a shared European home.

Alexander Clarkson is a lecturer in German and European Studies at King's College London.

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