The author covered the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence, has covered three wars, led an open source intelligence company and served as a consultant to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Council.
THE QUESTION OF WAR over Ukraine is increasingly not over if but when.
Increasingly, it appears that both Russia and NATO have set in motion forces that make a clash likely. At the very smallest scale, Russia will finish seizing the separatist Donbass region at least to save face. But that doesn't really appear to be Moscow's goal; it effectively controls the ethnic Russian enclave already. Somewhere in the middle of the scale, NATO can intervene with an aerial combat air patrols to guarantee the rest of what's left of Ukrainian sovereignty, letting the Ukrainians continue to slog it out over Donbass -- or force Kyiv to trade it away for a temporary peace. And that's something the Ukrainians are already saying they won't do.
But on the largest scale NATO cannot afford exactly what Russia cannot afford to have: the other's forces on their doorstep. Russia's seizure and occupation of Ukraine would put Russian troops on the doorstep of Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia; with Belarus having effectively entered the crisis by allowing Russian forces to mass there they are also on the eastern borders of Lithuania and Latvia. Russian tactical missiles, which are nuclear capable, can strike at least 200 miles inside NATO nations.
Further, the financial stakes for the Russians are huge. They need European energy markets for natural gas and they need them now. They will reach peak oil next year and production will go into permanent decline. Most -- though not all -- signs point to war: Either a piecemeal one in which Russia dismembers Ukraine a little at a time with the acquiescence of NATO or a gambit for the whole thing which would create a big, permanent buffer between Russia and NATO out of Ukraine and Belarus -- but this time in Russia's favor. Even cutting Russia out of the SWIFT banking system and sanctions are basically acts of economic war anyway; they are the modern equivalent of naval blockades.
Here is the best I can piece together: Basically, expect war sooner rather than later and, according to one analyst, as quickly as 10 days from now.
#1. Strike First
So when? The problem is that both sides need to strike first. One prominent student of the Russian military and NATO strategy, Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analysis in Washington, estimates that a conflict will get underway in approximately 10 days. There will not be an advance warning. Ukrainian claims otherwise are an attempt to buy time for negotiations.
Russian military doctrine is dynamic and their armed forces have improved after conflicts in Georgia, Chechnya, Ukraine and Syria. The Russian military is predicated not on a grand declaration of war or massive daylight movement of armor but on striking first with cyberwar, creating chaos, inserting special forces who lead local rebels and creating havoc with information warfare. Only then, with the backing of concentrated artillery -- rocket -- fire do conventional formations enter the fray.
Information war has already begun in earnest with bomb threats made against 600 targets in a single day. NATO strategy is predicated on blinding an enemy first, destroying communications nodes, command and control and visibility of the battlefield for command elements. An air war follows as ground forces flow quickly into theater. Knowing this, Russian doctrine requires destroying airfields, pre-positioned equipment and supplies as quickly as possible. In both cases, though in varying ways, offense is defense.
"At this stage, Russia’s military retains operational surprise and could launch an assault on short notice. There will not be further strategic warning ahead of an offensive."
-Michael Kofman writing in War on the Rocks
The scenario that is emerging is a scaled invasion from small to big -- Donbas, Sea of Azov, with bigger option for driving to the Dnieper, cutting the country in half and most boldly Kyiv. With Belarus, Russian forces already on NATO's eastern flank. This Defense One interview with a Ukrainian intelligence official is revealing.
If the Russians officially grab Donbas, it may give them an off-ramp to all-out war now and conquest later. But in reality it buys them nothing they don't really already have. Donbas is a tiny corner of Ukraine anyway. If they seek to conquer Ukraine and install a puppet regime, as the British have claimed, they will not face any NATO opposition on the ground. NATO has guaranteed that.
Less clear, though, is what happens if NATO intervenes by air to guarantee the sovereignty of Ukraine while letting Ukrainians slug it out on the ground. This seems a highly likely scenario. It would be legal, plausible and precedented in that NATO did just that in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. It would also not halt a Russian ground advance just as it didn't for the Serbs without striking strategic targets -- this time inside Russia, something NATO doesn't want to do.
Russian doctrine calls for conducting three simultaneous conventional conflicts at the same time, not unlike the U.S. strategy of multiple regional wars, according to an unclassified 2017 report by the U.S. Army War College's Lt. Col. Brendan C. Raymond. In the Russian sense, however, these conflicts are somewhat more miniaturized and this, in turn, suggests the ability to engage in Donbass, easily, while opening a front between Belarus into northern Ukraine threatening Kyiv as well as either maritime landings at Odessa on the Black Sea or perhaps even attacking the Baltic states and Poland.
The sea is an important concern for the Ukrainians and being overlooked in the hype about ground units building up. Russia has sortied vessels from the Baltic to the Mediterranean presumably for the Black Sea to build up amphibious landing forces. Crimea provides a good enough command and control platform. At the same time, the Russians are making NATO look everywhere: Belarus, the Black Sea Coast, the Med, the Baltics even around the world, Ireland and the Pacific, 140 warships in all. It's a very clever shell game. It keeps us from simply concentrating intelligence, surveillance and naval assets.
The reality is that Donbas is a cakewalk, leaving Russia to attack on the other three fronts with relative ease. And Russian doctrine insists on a range of dynamic warfare that is pre-emptively defensive. Moscow's forces would likely strike a NATO transport hub in Greece, airfields inside NATO countries and prepositioned armor, equipment, ammunition and supplies all along the alliance's eastern periphery easily from Romania to the Baltic Sea -- while probably avoiding targets in Germany and France since their governments right now desire peace and natural gas above all else.
This doctrine, in turn, requires NATO to go further: Strike first.
#3. Red Lines
Most of Russia's demands can simply not be met by NATO. What Moscow is demanding is not only the re-absorption of Ukraine into Moscow's enforced sphere of interest but that NATO withdraw to its pre-1997 boundaries, below. And frankly, that's just not going to happen.
However, it would be extraordinarily important for NATO forces, to succeed, to deliver a a defeat -- but, oddly, not too big a defeat in order to prevail. The political goal is not merely to protect the territory of the alliance -- and the usefulness of Ukraine as a buffer -- but rather to topple the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, now in power nearly 25 years.
Following the U.S. advantage in space, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, a highly targeted air war might, say, seek to kill Russian conscripts and damage morale at home. It would also disable -- not just cripple -- the Russian economy. Cutting Russia off from the international SWIFT system, which is how we pay bills, would crash the Russian economy. But blinding Russian leaders through space-based, information and cyber attacks -- as well as kinetic attacks against forward Russian forces and key nodes further back -- would inflict just enough to damage to halt an offensive campaign. Centralized command could not know what is happening on the battlefield.
And at this point, Russian commanders might reach for tactical nuclear weapons. When Russian officials first floated this idea this week, it seemed unlikely. But upon further research, it turned out to be true. Facing such a situation on the European battlefield, Russian leaders could well conclude that the nation itself was at risk of invasion or destruction and rationally employ tactical nuclear weapons which are already fitted for their concentrated fires of artillery missiles. The Russians would view it as a way to save the motherland from a larger attack.
The trick for NATO is to carry out pinpoint attacks that inflict severe damage against exposed units and air forces, blunting a drive and turning the population against Putin by sending back body bags-- and yet keep from driving Moscow into panic mode. This is no small order. Yet, the United States has plenty of experience doing it, mostly with airpower. There NATO overall enjoys a distinct advantage: twice as many aircraft as Russia and superior intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, airlift and refueling power.
Nothing is preordained. In the coming days, cable news will provide viewers with long depictions of the weapons of both sides. You can find the Russian table of organization and elements here and the NATO one here. Russian armor needs the frozen fields of winter to be most effective. And yes, the weaponry is awesomely destructive. But that's not the point.
War is ultimately and precisely politics by other means. The Putin regime -- ideology and national origin stories aside -- needs to push NATO back to Germany, essentially for security reasons. And it needs the money. It absolutely needs to dominate the European natural gas market for revenue and currency reserves, already supplying nearly 40 percent of Europe's natural gas, largely for electricity, and set to double that with the completion of Nordstream 2, a northern pipeline.
As a petrostate, Russia is desperate for cash, not just because of western sanctions, but because no later than next year it will hit what is known as peak oil and decline in oil production thereafter year over year. Forever. It must sell natural gas. And dependence on Russian energy is not something the United States, another energy producer, will tolerate. Abandoning Eastern Europe is not something NATO will do without falling apart.
And while Putin is smart he is not infallible. Putin misunderstands the West. He never lived or, studied outside Russia except for a posting in Dresden -- in the early 1970s. His July letter about Ukraine, filled with historical revisionism, compared Russia and Ukraine to North America: "USA and Canada ...Close in ethnic composition, culture, in fact sharing one language." He seems, frankly, to be misreading the Americans already. And mistakes like this are fatal.
Condition red for rain because it is, unfortunately, ripe for war.