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Illia Ponomarenko: Is Russia really about to invade Ukraine?

November 30, 2021 6:52 AM 4 min read
Illia Ponomarenko
Illia Ponomarenko
Former Defense reporter
(Maxar Technologies)
This audio is created with AI assistance

Let’s say the unthinkable begins.

Let’s say we in Ukraine wake up in the dead of night to the sound of window-rattling thunder.

The sound of Russian missile strikes. They are targeting Ukraine’s military infrastructure. Their strategic air forces hit our command and control grid to behead our Armed Forces. They pave the way for a ground-borne blitz toward Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv and Odesa.

This is what many experts and governments have been warning us about: a full-fledged invasion by 100,000 Russian troops with full superiority in the air and at sea.

But here’s a question that must be answered before we dive deeper into this Doomsday scenario: Does Russia’s end goal justify the price it will ultimately pay for a victory in a Ukrainian hellscape?

The answer is no.

It goes without saying that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a European nation of 41 million the size of France, is not a walk in the park. Such an endeavor would require a multilayered military operation equal or greater in scale than the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It would be a colossal military action involving every branch of the armed services. An effort that requires gargantuan human and economic costs.

Are Russians now capable of invading, dispersing and defeating Ukraine’s 250,000-strong armed force, then forcing Ukraine’s political leadership into a dictated political deal?

Potentially, yes.

But this would be a battle not seen in Europe since World War II. Ukraine is not the tiny and weak Georgia of 2008.

And, despite all the systemic flaws in Ukraine’s military, I would not recommend underestimating a force of 250,000 that has held the line in Donbas for seven years without a clear vision for victory, yet without getting demoralized and falling apart.

Let’s not forget, as the year 2014 demonstrated, Ukrainian taxi drivers and programmers can quickly take up arms and form fierce volunteer battalions when they have to. I also strongly warn against underestimating the morale of these volunteers who fought an enemy invasion wearing hunting fatigues and old sneakers.

The costs of subduing such a big and hostile nation would be extreme. Occupying it would be almost impossible. The stream of soldiers’ coffins that would flow back to Russia would shock its population.

We haven’t even mentioned Russia being cut off from the global economy and the Kremlin elites losing their billions, their families and their assets in the West. Yes, that would happen.

Because even to Russia’s toothless frenemies in Berlin and Paris, a Vietnam-scale bloodbath in Eastern Europe is beyond the pale. Just try and imagine the waves of Ukrainian refugees fleeing west from their devastated cities.

And if Russia is determined to inflict this nightmare on Ukraine and itself, what would it get for such an extreme price? What could Russians stand to gain that they don’t already have?

After all, the Kremlin isn’t insane. It does what it can afford to do. It has to balance objectives with costs.

We can see the reason behind the annexation of Crimea in early 2014: The peninsula had immense military and political value. Ukraine was weak and disoriented following the ousting of the pro-Russian government in the EuroMaidan Revolution.

We can see the reason behind the proxy invasion of Donbas, the occupation of eastern Ukraine’s two major cities, and a years-long static war. By doing so, Moscow has inflicted wounds that exhaust our economy and effectively prevent us from joining NATO.

The Kremlin has done its best to leave itself some wiggle room in order to convince the West to take a raw deal over Ukraine’s head.

But the giant gasoline pump can’t afford to go too far.

The Kremlin’s already done what it can afford to Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. A direct invasion and occupation of the whole country was way too costly even eight years ago.

An opponent might say that I am being too rational about the Kremlin’s barbaric, delusional mindset.

This might be true, but then again — you can’t cheat the simple economy of war. You can’t buy something that costs $1 million, while all you have is $100,000. Russia currently can’t allocate the political and economic resources sufficient for a quick, full-scale military victory over the whole of Ukraine.

Russia would get bogged down in an epic, unwinnable war with a nasty ending. And the Kremlin knows that.

Besides, people in the Kremlin and around it love their money and their villas on the French Riviera. We often tend to oversimplify and over-personalize the decision-making process in Moscow and place too much emphasis on Vladimir Putin’s personal power, forgetting the billionaire elite surrounding him.

Western intelligence is just doing what it is supposed to — analyzing and reporting on all those in-your-face Russian military movements near Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. As is NATO — by stating that it is paying close attention to these movements and is ready for anything.

But the panic gives the Kremlin exactly what it wants — leverage. The Germans start causing trouble about the certification of Nord Stream 2? Time to move some more tanks to Ukraine’s borders — and make sure everyone sees it.

The Kremlin never hesitates to play the intimidation card. And not just against the world, but at home as well. State-controlled television has been feeding Russians a story that their great motherland is a step away from yet another great war and that they need to unite behind the leader, Putin, whose support rating is dropping steadily.

No matter what, Ukraine needs to continue building the most effective and combat-ready Armed Force possible. And the world needs to continue paying attention and helping Ukraine.

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