By Paul Goble
Given what Moscow says are its goals in Ukraine, Ilya Kramnik says, it is unlikely to try to occupy that country or try to install its agent in power in Kyiv. Instead, “the most probable scenario of a war” will involve an aggressive air campaign” where Russia will play the role NATO did in Yugoslavia.
“The key goal of such an operation,” the Moscow military analyst says, “would be to deprive Kyiv of the chance to affect” what could then occur in the regions which Moscow wants to see have much greater autonomy than they do now including the ability to interact directly with the Russian Federation (profile.ru/politika/item/128415-tuman-vojny).
Of course, he acknowledges, “to predict the course and end of military operations should Russia and Ukraine really enter into a direct armed conflict is thankless in principle and completely senseless if the person making the prediction doesn’t know what the goals are: of both sides, something Kramnik says he “doesn’t pretend” to have.
Nonetheless, “we certainly can,” he says, “based on the declarations of Russian officials offer what Moscow’s goals will be. The Russian leadership will remain true to its officially declared priority,” the maintenance of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine within the borders Russia currently recognizes, “that is, without Crimea and Sevastopol.”
“At the same time, one can reasonably presuppose,” he says, “that Moscow will seek to ensure the reform of the Ukrainian state structure,” and relations between Kyiv and the regions in particular. Moscow wants to see “the political weight” of the latter to increase, “including the definition of ethnic and language policies and also external economic ties.”
Given that, it is clear the strategy in any such conflict Moscow “must not adopt.” A drive to occupy Ukraine and install a new ruler in Kyiv “has no sense: this would not solve any of the long-term terms” Moscow has set for itself in that country. Instead, it needs to adopt a strategy designed to block Kyiv from using force in the regions.
There is a model for such a strategy: NATO’s air campaign against Belgrade in Yugoslavia. In Ukraine, of course, “Russia would play the role of NATO,” Kramnik says. It would seek to limit Kyiv’s ability to move forces to counter political actions in the regions and to do so primarily via air power.
“Such an approach,” the Moscow analyst says,, “is completely real considering the composition and military capacity of the air forces of the Russian Federation and the high probability that they would deprive Kyiv” of the chance to impose its will on the regions and thus “force it to reach an agreement with the regions.”
Ukrainian forces would not be able to counter such an approach effectively, he says, especially after two or three days of the start of such an operation. It simply wouldn’t have the resources to respond. Russia could destroy Ukrainian air bases and then turn its attention to military units that Kyiv might try to dispatch to the regions.
If Moscow did need to use ground forces, Kramnik says, it could make use of the ones which already exist in the Donbass rather than having to bring new forces in. “The fate of Ukraine in case of the successful realization of this strategy is quite cloudy – having been deprived of the instruments of force, Kyiv would sharply lose its political weight.
Indeed, for a future Ukraine, preservation “even in the form of a confederation would be an enormous success.” If some regions revolted against the central government, Moscow would certainly move to make sure that Kyiv couldn’t respond militarily against them and that might lead some of them to go their own ways.
Any plan has to include “reserve variants” in case things change. If Ukraine did get aid from the West and especially Western forces, “the Russian military leadership would have to despite its lack of a desire to do so introduce forces onto the territory of Ukraine,” first of all in “historic Novorossiya” and then in Kharkiv, Zaporzh and Dniprpetrovsk oblasts.
That would be necessary, Kramnik says, to “guarantee the right of the population of these oblasts to independently decide on their future like this was done in Crimea and Sevastopol in February-March 2014.” Talking about other alternatives involves too many unknowns to be useful, he suggests.