While Russia in the news is touted as one tough military flush with oil money to modernize and equip for battle, much of their crack troops fought in Chechnya in 2000 and has been more a counterinsurgency since. Their 5 day action against Georgia in 2008 couldn’t really count as being useful for giving their fighting men combat experience against a determined large armed force. While Russia has a standing army of about 850,000 men, a large portion serve in the large Russian air and naval forces, and a good chunk are deployed across the massive frontier in the east. Given those defensive obligations and operations in the Caucasus that could tie up probably 200,000-250,000 ground troops, Russia can possibly invade nations to its west with about 200,000 men.
Most of those men have not themselves seen actual combat. So while they are better trained than its immediate neighbors, fighting against their former Soviet or ethnic Slavic cousins in the Ukraine may prove to be more demoralizing for these conscripts than quelling a rebellious region within Russia’s borders, or against an invader of Russian soil. The Ukrainians, within the next few months of preparation, can field about 30,000-40,000 combat ready troops, which is far more than the Chechens and Georgians can throw at the Russians. The Ukrainians also have hundreds of fairly modern tanks, fighter planes, ground attack aircraft, and artillery units. It would not be an easy campaign for Russia to engage in a non-traditional role as a regional aggressor. And Russian allies in Kazakhstan and Belarus, whom entered into their partnerships with Russia as a protective measure against European encroachment, also may have reservations about joining in an invasion against a neighboring nation that is being conquered rather than joining in mutual defense. They would act against a NATO invasion, but to kill ethnic kin and seize lands for Russia’s ultimate gain would not play well even in their own repressive regimes.
It may be inevitable that a full Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine would succeed, the act would cost thousands of Russian and Ukrainian lives, cost Russia billions in both property devastation and rebuilding of the conquered regions. Not to mention fomenting an instant insurgency amongst the Ukrainians living in Russia and the eastern regions of Ukraine. And since the losses will already be great, an invasion will only yield profit if all of Ukraine is taken. Putin will have to take Kiev and all if not most of Western Ukraine. Failure to defeat the western regions of Ukraine will fuel years of war, as it is unlikely the Ukrainians will yield their occupied eastern holdings to Russia and concede its loss as a historical fact. The Europeans, especially the Eastern states of Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia, will not sit idly by while their new west-leaning neighbor is besieged by an aggressive Russian invasion. What would happen if Russia is allowed to conquer Ukraine and bring their armies right up to NATO’s border? Would Russia also not eventually punish the former Warsaw Pact nations and force them to cow to Russian military threat in the next 10-20 years, eroding their participation in NATO?
These factors would result in these Eastern bloc nations lending at least covert military support to the Ukrainians, in hopes to weaken or reverse Russian gains. A Russian military defeat in Ukraine, would cause an overthrow of the Putin political establishment. So if Russia launches an invasion of Ukraine, Putin and his allies must be ready to risk the loss of their power that they have spent these past 20 years to build. Even if the war ends in a stalemate, or Russian victory, NATO and Europe will forever change their relationship with Russia and return to an adversarial footing. Economic relationships would end, political ties would be broken, and the EU would be more unified and militarized in the East to deter any further Russian moves against NATO allies. If Ukraine falls, there would be no other non-aligned nations except NATO allies to fight. Would Europe stand idly by while a conquered Ukraine faces oppression, ethnic cleansing, and economic blackmail? The answer would be no.
And if by chance NATO and the United States decide to intervene for the Ukrainians, then an invasion of Ukraine will only be the first war of World War III. Russia may have enough economic wealth for a short conflict, but a prolonged war with nations that provide the trade for that wealth, with Western armies that combined are equal or superior in combat power, that have strategic nuclear weapons that can devastate the Russian heartland, is an inconceivable idea to the traditional rational Russian leader. If Putin and his inner military circle are rational, and know such risks are unacceptable and damaging to their nation, would not invade Ukraine without cause.
While Putin works to “engineer” cause, creating the appearance of Ukrainian “fascism” that threatens ethnic Russian in Ukraine, that premise would not stand up to the test of world public opinion. The international community would grudgingly understand that a strongly Russian majority region such as Crimea may be justified to break away and join Russia, and of Russia’s strategic interests in taking over Crimea and seizing major Ukrainian military assets to weaken their defection. But for Russia to invade and grab vast parts of another country over unsubstantiated threats to Russians in eastern Ukraine would find little legal support in the U.N. The world watched as bloody sectarian war waged on within Syria as an “internal matter” and Russia denied the Security Council the ability to act against a Russian ally. Russia denied the UN action when Serbian atrocities killed thousands in Bosnia, until NATO acted unilaterally to halt the fighting. Russia would also find itself denied in the world body if it invades (and occupies) another member nation. The United States and its allies would move to actively erode Russian interests on a global scale.
And while Russia is engaged with most of its military in the Ukraine, other areas become more vulnerable. Georgia may be encouraged to take back their lost regions. Chechen rebels may re-emerge to depose the Russian backed strongmen and pull Dagestan along with Ingushetia into open war. The Chinese may even move to seize lands in the Far East to gain access to strategic oil fields and minerals. Russia would lack the manpower to resist all these other threats at once, except to use tactical nuclear weapons. If that happens, the Ukraine war will end in nuclear exchanges that would forever change human history.
Putin was smart to take what he could during the chaos and now only wielding the threat of more force. But he knows going further would be folly and the risks much higher than just taking the Crimean peninsula. Russia is a traditionally defensive country, even its role in World War III was defensive in smashing the threat from Nazi Germany for good. The setting up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact was defensive against a unified and powerful NATO and Western alliance. Taking Crimea was a defensive move to secure Russian strategic capabilities. But invading Ukraine on a trumped up pretext would be stepping out of the Russian comfort zone, against the Russian psyche and long espoused ideals of sovereignty and non-interference.
So Russia would invade Ukraine if its leadership has finally lost its mind. The world would tolerate much, but not that. So far the Bear was able to reach into the Beehive and tasted sweetness. But if the Bear reaches too far, it will stir up the nest and invite swarms from near and far to attack in common anger. No single blow can harm Russia, but it can still die by thousands of stings. Right now it can deal with one perceived/imagined/fabricated enemy, but if invasion creates multiple more real enemies, Russia knows it can go from a sure win to a no-win situation very quickly. Let’s bet that Putin too clever to put himself and Russia in a position that jeopardizes all these gains.