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Mar 11, 2015 | 09:07 GMT

8 mins read

Russia Weighs the Cost

A picture of a Russian self-propelled artillery gun motoring along a Ukrainian highway
(VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Besides considering the constraints and achievable objectives of various military options, as well as the potential responses to them, Russian policymakers will have to decide whether any of the scenarios meet their political requirements. The goal is not simply to be left with options that are feasible but to find options that serve an actual strategic purpose. Russia clearly has the military capability to put immense pressure on Ukraine if it chooses to, but the results would not necessarily rise to meet Moscow's higher geopolitical objectives. The Ukrainian question needs to be seen in the broader context of Russia's need for a buffer against the European powers and NATO to its west. Ukraine is critical to that need because it covers a wide landmass in the Intermarium, the area between the Baltic and Black seas.

Apart from the actual geopolitical achievements available in these scenarios, Russian policymakers would also have to consider the consequences of a large-scale U.S. or NATO intervention. As the second part of this series described, such an intervention would likely doom the Russian offensive. But the question is whether an intervention would be a favorable course of action for the West. The United States and NATO have no commitment to defend Ukraine if it were to face an overt Russian offensive. As with Russia, broader geopolitical imperatives will drive the West's actions.

In fact, it is more likely that NATO would not directly intervene, but Russian planners must consider all the risks. A more realistic means of retaliation or dissuasion would be for the West to impose sanctions more significant than those currently in place, which could bring the Russian economy to its knees. Stronger sanctions would come with a cost for the West, but Russia's weak economy amplifies the political threat.

Examining Russia's Objectives

We approach Russia and Ukraine's current situation, the point at which these scenarios come into play, in the context of recent changes that have threatened the Russian imperative of preserving Ukraine as a buffer zone. As the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, Kiev veered toward the West. Any moves toward further integration with Europe or NATO would significantly threaten Russia's goals and could move NATO's borders to within 435 kilometers (270 miles) of Moscow. At this point, despite Russia's annexation of Crimea and its military actions in eastern Ukraine, Kiev seems to be growing even closer to the West, and Russia is left without its buffer in this section of the Intermarium.

In examining military options and the political and material cost that would come with each scenario, the payoff for Russia would be restoring this buffer, or strategic depth. Several of the scenarios we studied have little to offer in this regard.

For example, although a land connection to Crimea seems perfectly feasible from a military perspective and could guarantee freshwater supplies for the peninsula, it achieves little in terms of strategic depth. It would cause severe economic damage to Ukraine, especially if occupation extended beyond the Dnieper River to Transdniestria. But crippling Kiev economically does not guarantee Russia's security imperatives. In fact, doing so could lead Ukraine to depend more on Western financing and, as a result, to become further integrated with Europe.

The territories in eastern Ukraine that separatists have carved out with substantial support from the Russian military give Russia's Volgograd and Rostov regions some added strategic depth. This is not insignificant — these Russian regions form the connection to Russia's southern border in the Caucasus — but the loss of the rest of Ukraine as a buffer still puts the West closer to Moscow. Even if the separatists and their Russian backers were able to take the entire regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, a gap in the buffer would remain at Kursk. Given that Ukraine has committed a considerable portion of its combat power to the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, an operation to take the entirety of those regions could destroy Ukraine's military capabilities. It would be well within Russia's abilities to significantly reduce the combat effectiveness of the entire Ukrainian military. However, this would not eliminate the possibility of Kiev aligning with the West and, much like crippling Ukraine's economy, crushing its military could push Kiev even closer to the West by forcing it to depend on the United States and NATO for assistance in rebuilding its military capabilities.

The only military option for Russia that we examined that would both be within its capabilities and significantly improve its strategic depth is the scenario in which the Russian military advances across eastern Ukraine to anchor itself on the Dnieper. As explained in Part 1 of this series, the manpower required to carry out this operation would constitute a considerable portion of Russia's ground forces. By committing this force, Russia would not only have to repurpose many of its existing security forces, but it would also likely have to increase the size of its military through recruitment and extensive mobilizations of reserves, especially if it wanted to maintain a presence in other areas along Russia's border and in its periphery.

The state of the Russian economy would hinder such efforts. A significant mobilization would require Russia to increase its already tight defense budget, although defense has been an exception to the government's budget cuts. Even if Russia managed to launch the operation, its success could not be guaranteed. Moreover, a NATO intervention in Ukraine could not only quash Russia's efforts to reach its objectives, it could also serve a crippling blow to Russia's military capabilities.

The Risk of Escalation

A U.S. and NATO intervention against an overt Russian offensive in Ukraine would be a substantial escalation in and of itself. However, in the case of such an intervention, the threat of military operations and retaliations expanding into the Baltics, or inside Russia, would be very real. As part of the strategic level of warfare, both sides could seek to strike infrastructure and military assets beyond the Ukrainian theater using ballistic missiles and cruise missiles or airstrikes. Such actions could of course rapidly devolve into all-out war, and at that point the possibility of nuclear retaliation would bring an unpredictable dynamic into the conflict, making military victory a moot point.

Of course, Russian policymakers could consider the risk of escalation as a deterrent to U.S. or NATO intervention against any offensive they might conduct in Ukraine. But if Russia did carry out an operation that allowed its forces to anchor along the Dnieper River, the condition Ukraine would be in may not be desirable for Russia. Even if no direct military response from the West materialized, the western part of Ukraine would remain as a state, and the West's current inhibitions about arming Ukraine or deploying forces in its support could evaporate quickly.

Essentially, a new Iron Curtain would emerge along the Dnieper River, with Russian and NATO forces staring each other down from opposing riverbanks. Although Russia could consider this a net gain compared to losing all of Ukraine to the West, it is a significant loss compared to a whole but neutral Ukraine. If Russia were to seize eastern Ukraine, it would be trading a buffer zone about 800 kilometers wide for about 320 kilometers of extra depth within its own borders. Granted, the geography would be more defensible, but NATO would probably end up right on Russia's border, with no buffer remaining.

The conclusion reached from matching up these scenarios with Moscow's strategic imperatives is that no obvious options stand out. All of the scenarios are logistically feasible, though some would come at an incredible cost, few of them actually meet Russia's needs, and none of them can be guaranteed to succeed as long as the possibility of a U.S. or NATO military response remains. If the prospect of such a military engagement deters the West from taking direct action against a Russian offensive, the West's option to subsume the remaining parts of Ukraine significantly minimizes the benefits of any military operation Russia might consider. As Joshua, the computer in the 1983 movie WarGames, observed, "The only winning move is not to play." 

Editor’s Note

As part of our analytical methodology, Stratfor periodically conducts internal military simulations. This series, examining the scenarios under which Russian and Western forces might come into direct conflict in Ukraine, reflects such an exercise. It thus differs from our regular analyses in several ways and is not intended as a forecast. This series reflects the results of meticulous examination of the military capabilities of both Russia and NATO and the constraints on those forces. It is intended as a means to measure the intersection of political intent and political will as constrained by actual military capability. Part 1 discussed several scenarios for a Russian invasion. Part 2 examined how U.S. and NATO forces would respond, should they choose to. This study is not a definitive exercise; instead it is a review of potential decision-making by military planners. We hope readers will gain from this series a better understanding of military options in the Ukraine crisis and how the realities surrounding use of force could evolve if current efforts to implement a cease-fire fail and the crisis escalates.

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