Given the utter rout of Russian Forces in Kharkiv Oblast which is now, apparently, spreading to northern Lukhansk Oblast the big question is what next. Phillips P. OBrien has an interesting map where he lays down what he thinks is probably defensible for Russia (below).
Basically it’s the original rump bits of Lukhansk and Donetsk Oblasts seized in 2014 plus the coastal strip south of the Dnipro. As he says in follow on tweets that may be optimistic but its probably as good as it gets. However that strip of land is only about 60 miles wide (based on my spit-balling with google maps) which means that most of it is already is HIMARS range, as we observe from the regular “smoking accidents” occurring in the vicinity of Tokmak and Melitopol. So, while it might be defensible, it is certainly still quite vulnerable to attack from Ukrainian artillery and, given the recent lack of successful air defense on Russia’s side, air strikes.
Hence I suspect that such a defensive line will not last too long if the Ukrainians decide to attack it seriously. But the Ukrainians might leave it there to absorb Russian resources while they do something else.
Now I admit that the map above is a joke but I consider an invasion of some parts of Russia to be quite feasible. Conventional wisdom says this is a bad idea because (as someone in OBrien’s twitter thread put it)
No, that would be super counterproductive. Ukraines underdog status is a crucial part of its PR strategy. Invading Russia makes them look like the aggressor and could give Putin cover for mobilization.
There are two or three assumptions here and I don’t consider them valid.
- PR. I think Ukraine can easily spin a local attack on the parts of Russia bordering Kharkiv Oblast as basically ensuring the safety of their citizens from bombardment. It would even be accurate, particularly given that Russia appears to be now deliberately attacking civilian infrastructure in Ukraine from bases in Belgorod Oblast
- PR part 2. A lot of the people who support Ukraine want them to fight back. Maybe the leaders of the world don’t want that, but the average bloke on the street that supports Ukraine (the NAFOs for example) wants them to not just liberate the rest of their country but also get some kind of revenge
- Mobilization. First it is a process that takes time. Even assuming that Russians of suitable age volunteer (as their equivalents in Ukraine mostly did) it takes months for them to be gathered together, trained (even basics of do what your officers tell you), and then deployed somewhere. In Ukraine’s case it seems to have taken 3-6 months and that was with a population that was extremely motivated to fight. I’m not at all clear that Russians are anything like as patriotic in large enough numbers and even if they are there may be a question of who trains them because AIUI some training regiments have been deployed to Ukraine already.
- Mobilization part 2. Then there’s the question of what you equip these new troops with. Given the utter crap antique hardware being seen in Ukraine, one suspects there aren’t several million sets of body armor, weapons etc. to issue to the troops and there aren’t many modern working vehicles for them to use either. As we have seen repeatedly, both here and in prior wars going all the way back to the first gulf war, old armor is essentially target practice for modern weapons.
- Mobilization part 3. Getting them and their kit to the front. That also takes time and logistics. It’s even more tricky if, for reasons of wishing to avoid a military coup, you decide to make your mobilized troops avoid passing too close to Moscow.
About the only strategic/geopolitical reasons I can see why Ukraine would not invade is fear of having its supply of Western weapons and munitions cut off or the fear that Russia would go nuclear. Presuming they are sure neither of those apply then invading Russia seems like a good way to destabilize the country and hopefully induce regime change and/or serious negotiations (or both).
Fundamentally, reasons to invade boil down to making sure that Russia decides not to invade or attack Ukraine ever again. And of course stopping any current attacks on Ukraine.
On the positive side invading Russia in the near future (as in after most of the mopping up of Kharkiv and Northern Lukhansk) would absolutely redouble the “skeer” concept
“Get ’em skeered and keep the skeer on ’em” – Lt. General Nathanial Bedford Forrest
Panic by ones enemies is a thing to treasure and exploit and an invasion of Russia would definitely do that because there are even fewer trained armed units inside Russia than there are (were) in Kharkiv Oblast. So it seems highly likely that in the short term at least a marauding force could wreak havoc with little opposition.
It also would make clear that invading a foreign country has consequences beyond the loss of those soldiers doing the invading. The key is to get the actual regime supporters and enforcers to feel actual pain. If, as would seem likely in an invasion, many Rosgvardia units are destroyed that’s going to severely impact the ability of Moscow to impose on the regions. If they just run away leaving everything behind that’s probably even worse in terms of regional security that them making a heroic stand and losing. Based on my observations of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, my bets would be on running away unless cornered like rats in a trap.
If, as would also seem plausible, the invasion locates FSB offices and ransacks them then the resulting dirty linen being aired would likely cause even more chaos. Just simply publishing a list of local FSB informers and their contact details would destabilize things. If the FSB office were taken over in a good enough state that access to central FSB data in Moscow were possible (perhaps by inducing some FSB officials to cooperate) then things would be several orders of magnitude worse. Consider that almost certainly the FSB have details on who took what bribes from whom in the upper levels of military etc. procurement. If the Ukrainians released those details with as much supporting evidence as they could find from FSB files then it could help induce lots of fimgerpointing regarding who was responsible for the Russian military’s screwed up state.
I’m sure there are other things that would also help destabilize the regime too but this gives an idea of the ways it would hurt. For that matter simply gaining control of the rail signalling infrastructure could be catastrophic in the short to medium term. If the Ukrainians were to hack the system so as to change signals and points on major rail lines they could cause major disruptions, particularly if they get a military supply train to collide with something else. And if they infected the signal network with malware they could potentially retain control for years.
It is also possible that a limited initial invasion could be presented as evidence of capability in negotiations. As in: “We invaded as far as we wanted and you couldn’t do anything about it. If you continue XXX then we’ll do it again and not stop”
So what would a sensible Ukrainian invasion of Russia plan look like?
First it would do the PR step 1. Attack every military base, rail marshaling yard and other critical infrastructure within 100km or so of the Ukrainian border. You’d start with Belgorod Oblast because it has been used to attack Kharkiv city and basically take out everything important there. Then you’d head clockwise around the Ukrainian border. The simplest would be to basically head east and take the M4 road down south*. In doing so you would, eventually, cut off the occupied bits of Ukraine from resupply and then, with plenty of warning (because this is going to take several weeks at best) attack Rostov on Don. The utter panic that would induce would likely lead to civil war in Russia but if for some reason Russia is still fighting you then have a choice – implement the “New Kherson Offensive plan” above and take out Krasnodar, Novorossiysk etc. and interdict Crimea or head back north of the Azov sea to take Mariupol etc.
Now the question is how long would it take Russia to respond. And what would they do? And what would the population do?
Let’s start with the latter. Even if the local population doesn’t believe the “Ukrainians=Nazis” Russian state propaganda, they are likely to have encountered Russian troops and it is highly likely that those encounters have generally been negative. So I would anticipate a lot of Russians deciding to flee because they will not believe that Ukrainian troops will not be raping, looting and so on. This in itself will cause chaos and will possibly induce a chain reaction of panic. If (when) the Russian authorities decide to stop that panic by ordering local Rosgvardia etc. units to shoot the panickers that’s going to disrupt things even more. If the Rosgvardia units do shoot then they will be hated by the people they shoot at and their friends and relations (and those F&Rs are likely to include people who know who the Rosgvardia people are so there’s a good chance of revenge killings). If they don’t shoot then they more or less have to revolt against the people giving the order. Neither option is good for Russia as it currently exists. The same applies to media blackouts, turning off cellphone towers and so on. A panicked population and panicked authorities are bad, an overreaction by the latter to the former is almost certainly worse. Based on my observations of what’s happened in Ukraine I think a panicked overreaction by the Russian authorities at some level is almost guaranteed.
Beyond dealing with the population there’s how to impede the invaders? The obvious first step is air attacks and I would expect the first attacks at least to end in messy failure because the Ukrainian invaders will be bringing their air defenses with them. They may even be bringing air defenses “donated” by the Russians with them once they’ve done a bit of maintenance on them and given them proper tires. If the Ukrainians remain close to their borders they can get resupply fairly easily too so attempts to saturate the air defenses by a first wave to allow a second one to penetrate probably won’t work as well as hoped. It is also unclear to me how many working military jets Russia actually possesses and how quickly they could be brought into the area, particularly since the first targets of an invasion would be the airfields relatively nearby, such as Stary Oskol, and something similar to the Saky attack on such bases would likely remove many of the air assets Russia would normally use. Also if the nearby bases are trashed where would the planes be based? I don’t know enough about Russian airfields but I suspect that trashing the nearby airfields means quite a distance to/from the next suitable locations. Theoretically Russian aircraft can, as with NATO ones, operate from temporary airstrips made from highways. In practise though that requires Russia to manage the logistics to deliver fuel and munitions to strips of highway, have suitable depots of spare parts etc. etc. and based on what we have seen in the war so far that level of logistics is simply impossible for Russia to execute.
(Cruise) missiles are also possible but Ukraine has shot down many such and anyway assuming the invasion force is sensibly dispersed a missile strike would be unlikely to cause much damage. There’s also the question of how many such missiles Russia still has. Given that it has been lobbing S-300 anti-air missiles at ground targets in Ukraine the answer to that question is probably “not many”. And the “will the missile work?” question reduces the number of potential effective strikes even more.
In other words the use of air assets is likely to provide Ukraine with an excellent opportunity to atrit Russia of said assets without actually stopping the invaders.
So that leaves ground forces such as artillery and tank units. Which will almost certainly be old, poorly maintained and operated by poorly trained personnel. Although there is the new, newly equipped 3rd army corps (in theory at least, to what extent it actually has new equipment etc. is to be determined and my guess is that it mostly doesn’t). Presuming Ukraine equips its invasion force with drones (and that’s a 100% certainty in my mind) then those units will be basically targets – even the 3rd army corps unless someone trained them on how to eliminate drones. So they don’t matter either and will do even less to impede the invasion. So what’s left is going to be individual Russian infantry with their anti-tank weapons and occasional machine guns. I see no reason why Ukraine’s drones will not also identify those unless they go for well concealed ambushes. Russia in this situation is going to be playing the part of the Taliban or ISIS against the Ukrainians acting as the US. Neither ISIS nor the Taliban ever really managed to stop the US forces going where ever they wanted even though they did occasionally kill a few here and there and the same will apply to Russia. [Regarding the 3rd Army Corps, this post has a final throwaway line that suggests part of it was in action at Kupyansk and participated in the rout back so not particularly impressive. This earlier article also says part of it was sent to the Kharkiv area and fails to report any effective new equipment]
That means the only actual way to stop Ukraine will be for Russia to do what Ukraine did in the Donbas and the environs of Kiev and blow up its own bridges etc. Since that will impede a future Russian re-invasion of Ukraine, one suspects Ukraine will be quite happy with that, so long as the bridges blown up are more than 20-30km from the border. If the Ukrainians manage to threaten to use the M4 corridor from Voronezh south and get the Russians to blow that up (and the more or less adjacent rail lines) then they’ll count that as a huge win because those are the major routes from Moscow to Rostov and the Black Sea coast. It is worth noting BTW that if Ukraine regains control of northern Lukhansk Oblast then both are in easy HIMARS range.
Eventually, of course, Russia would manage to deploy actual trained armed forces from somewhere to impede an invasion. If the 3rd Army Corps isn’t enough the obvious place to take them from though is … Southern Ukraine because that’s the closest large concentration. So the invasion of Russia would be an excellent way for Ukraine to weaken the Russian defenses in Southern Ukraine so that they too can have the Kharkiv treatment.
Reasons not to invade
In addition to the key geopolitical/strategic reasons I mentioned above, there are potentially sound tactical and/or strategic reasons to not invade.
The most obvious is that Ukraine doesn’t have the spare manpower or equipment to do it effectively and still keep the pressure on all the other places where they need to. But short missions using forces already mostly deployed near or at the border reinforced with some additions should still be effective and be a far simpler set of operations. Likewise there could be concern that the invasion force could not be properly supported logistically. This is dependent on how long an engagement is planned. But again a series of shortish hit and runs would be much easier to support logistically than an extended tour of the bordering oblasts. Finally there is the fact that, despite Kharkiv, Ukraine doesn’t really have any experience with the kind of planning and execution needed for an extended operation across large swathes of terrain.
A second sort of reason is that it might be considered that invasion would not actually make a difference so it would just be a waste of resources with no upside but plenty of downside risks. I think that’s wrong but there could be considerations I’m unaware of that mean that it’s a bad idea. Some of the possible downsides are
- it might cause Russia to escalate to destroying Ukrainian civilian infrastructure in retaliation (given that Russia has already started doing that, this seems moot).
- it might be felt that an invasion would unite Russians behind Putin and induce them to put country before personal gain in the same way that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have united that country.
- it might be considered that an invasion would make negotiations to end the war harder or impossible.
Overall I would think that a few hit and tun raids to keep the pressure on while preparing the forces for a larger raid would probably be ideal. You’d start by taking out key infrastructure close to the border, then gradually as resources become available and experience grows you make longer and deeper raids culminating in the grand raid all around the borders
* Head east is a major simplification. It would depend heavily on where you end up in Belgorod Oblast and what state thing are in. You could pay a brief visit to Voronezh and then head south but it might be easier to pop back into Northern Lukhansk, resupply and then head east from there. Either way that’s the sort of thing I’d prefer to let real military planners figure out. It also depends on the Russians not having effective forces in the western oblasts of Kursk and Bryansk.