ISSN 2330-717X

Putin’s Ukraine Strategy: Will It Be Decisive? – OpEd


By Kartik Bommakanti


After considerable global speculation and official Russian denial, the Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The invasion comes against the backdrop of two key developments that occurred eight years earlier—the Russian occupation of Crimea in Southeast Ukraine and the subsequent seizure of territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, which are predominantly populated with Russian-speaking people and were declared independent Republics by President Putin on 21 February 2022, just before the current invasion.

Putin seized these areas on the grounds that Moscow was liberating the local Russian population from the clutches of the regime in Kyiv. An insurgency has raged in the region since 2014 claiming 15,000 lives. In fact, it is being used as a rationale for the larger invasion that is underway today.

Following months of preparation, Russia amassed significant forces numbering 190,000 troops along key points on Russia’s border with Ukraine. On 24 February, the first phase of the full-scale invasion started with coordinated artillery bombardment, air, sea, and ground-based missile strikes targeting Ukrainian air defences, air bases, and command and control nodes. The Russians have attacked along four axes. These include Kharkiv, which is Ukraine’s second largest city located close to the Russian border in the Northeast; the second pathway of attack being pursued against the Ukrainian capital Kyiv is from Belarus; the third is from the Donbas region; and finally the fourth point of attack is from Crimea and its naval base at Sevastopol, which has been under Russian occupation since 2014.

It is believed heavy casualties have been suffered by both sides, althoughthere is no clarity on precise numbers. Moscow’s primary objective is the elimination of the Zelensky-led regime, the installation of a puppet pro-Russian dispensation, and the complete demilitarisation of Ukraine. This will involve the comprehensive destruction of all pockets of resistance and open source evidence suggests Russia has only used a fraction of its military strength so far. Considerably greater force could be brought to bear, overwhelming the Ukranian defences.

However, there are several uncertainties and challenges confronting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The challenge facing the Russian military is that it is trying to subdue a country of 44 million people, a sizable number of whom are intensely hostile and a landmass that is only second to Russia in Europe. Beyond the expanse of geography and a motivated adversary, Ukraine’s high level of urbanisation is conducive for urban warfare. Street fighting across Ukrainian cities between Russian ground forces and Ukrainian soldiers and militias will potentially embroil Russian troops in a quagmire. Further, if Ukrainian government forces can establish defensive interior lines, they could suck Russia into a prolonged and open-ended war.


Reinforcing this possibility are Ukraine’s borders with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’ (NATO)’s eastern members namely Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia that can serve as a base of training and cross-border operations sustained through the infiltration of Ukrainian resistance fighters to conduct guerilla warfare. Indeed, NATO will in all probability resort to financing, arming, and fueling a low-level insurgency against Russian force deployments, bleeding the Russian military presence.

The latter scenario will only play out in all likelihood over the coming weeks, months, and  possibly years, indicating the daunting difficulties facing the Russian invasion. Conversely, Russia is already infiltrating Ukrainian cities by disguising its soldiers as locals to identify and eliminate regular Ukrainian forces and resistance fighters. However, only the passage of time will tell how successful Russia’s military strategy is likely to be.

Thus, notwithstanding gains made by the Russian military as of this writing such as the capture of Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the complete annexation of the Donbas region, Russian advances to the Dnepr River, the capture of the coastal city of Odessa and the advance and potential capture of the Ukrainian capital—Kyiv, Ukrainian resistance is stiff and a foreboding for things to come. This uncertainty could render the conflict indecisive, leaving Russia incapable of terminating the conflict on its own terms.

Assuming Putin has anticipated the possibility of Russia being drawn into a protracted guerilla war, he very likely will completely destroy major Ukrainian cities and bifurcate Ukraine into two halves between a western and eastern wing with the latter becoming a buffer zone for Russia. But even in the event of such a scenario crystallising, the problems facing the Russian military are unlikely to abate, because there would still be a large part of the country, most likely in the West, serving as fertile terrain for the emergence and consolidation of an insurgency amply exploited by the NATO against any dispensation in Kyiv installed by the Kremlin.

While the Russian invasion force of 190,000 troops will likely suffice, the post-invasion occupation force will need to be considerably larger, leaving Moscow with daunting challenges in suppressing an insurgency. Any pro-Russian regime in Kyiv is unlikely to have public support. Consequently, abetting greater military resistance to the Russian military presence and its Ukrainian proxies; recent military experience testifies to this fact. Take the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was successful, but the number of troops to occupy the country was insufficient.

No amount of military planning survives first contact, because the enemy always has a say in the final outcome in any war. Thus, while Russia’s seizure of Luhansk and Donetsk and the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 were decisive, in that they were pulled off with clinical efficiency because they constituted limited objectives—the same cannot be said definitively for the present Russian military mission against the whole of Ukraine. Finally, while Russian forces are far superior to their Ukrainian counterpart—a motivated and reasonably resourceful adversary can defeat even the mightiest as was evident in several cases such as the recent US defeat at the hands of the Taliban, the Soviet Union’s defeat by the Afghan Mujahideen, and the American defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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