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Eastern Promises



16 September 2014

Scenarios for Future Russian Invasion in Ukraine: Bad, Worse and the Ugly

author Jewgen Worobiow

Ievgen Vorobiov (Analyst), Stanislav Secrieru (Senior Analyst) -

Hybrid Ceasefire: How long will it hold?

The intensity of the military action in Ukraine is somewhat mitigated, although not precluded, by the “ceasefire protocol” signed in Minsk by representatives of Russia, Ukraine and OSCE on 5 September 2014 and unveiled on 8th September, with representatives of Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” present as private persons. The protocol (original in Russian) is a de facto cross between Poroshenko’s proposals in June 2014 and points of „Putin’s plan” as of September 2014. We can expect the (relative) adherence to the points of the protocol only in those points of the plan where the positions of both coincide: exchange of hostages and OSCE monitoring.

Despite the continuous local fighting in several areas of the region, both Russian and Ukrainian leaders claim the ceasefire is still holding. The sides have differing objectives toeing the rhetoric of the “working ceasefire”. Ukraine’s government has motivation to adhere to the “ceasefire” to recover from the massive casualties at Ilovaysk. It is likely to toe a more careful line, as long as there are POWs and civilians held by the militants (from 800 to over a thousand by different estimates), which are being exchanged at a steady pace giving the edge to the militants. The militants keep testing the defences, like they have been doing around Mariupol and Donetsk airport for the past week. Russia awaits the political concession from Kyiv and in the meantime is likely using the time to reinforce the logistical capacities of the militants (in particular by sending new trucks with “humanitarian” aid) and rotate the military personnel.

Although neither of the points of the Minsk protocol mentions the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics”, the protocol charters a way for their legitimization through granting of a „special status” to the regions occupied by these armed groups. The proposal for the Law on a Special status unveiled by Petro Poroshenko on Monday and submitted to the parliament on Tuesday suggests that the militants may be granted right to keep control over the local government and judges (Poroshenko proposes, for instance, a local election on November 9). Besides, the proposal implies a certain degree of financing that the occupied territories will receive from Ukraine’s budget.


Key assumptions

In order to estimate what scenarios Russia’s intervention may follow in the months to come, we have outlined three key assumptions:

  1. There are only two factors constraining the Kremlin’s resolve in enhancing the occupied territory in Ukraine. Both are inherently domestic, although triggered by different sources. The first one is potential increase of domestic protest if intensity of the news of dead soldiers returning to Russia exceeds a critical level of Russian apathy. The second one is the magnitude of macroeconomic effects caused by the Western sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s invasion into Ukraine.

  2. The Kremlin perceives the war in Ukraine as a long-term endeavor, which will last months. The cycles of military destabilization have become somewhat longer compared to those observed in June-July. Stages of re-escalation will be tailored to the key political points increasing Ukraine’s vulnerability: the parliamentary election on 26 October, the onset of the first frosts in November, New Year holidays.

  3. The Kremlin’s short-term objectives are dynamic and get adapted to the development of the situation on the ground. The long-term goal, however, remains constant: to achieve a complete overhaul of Ukraine’s constitutional set-up along the Bosnian lines by a military occupation of the sizeable part of Ukraine’s. Where Russia stop will depend only on one factor: whether the „new boundary” is enough to make the functioning of the Ukrainian economy unviable and the social fabric of the state incoherent.

Based on those assumptions, we will now sketch out possible lines of Russian offensive in the weeks and months to come.

Scenario 1: Land Bridge to Crimea

In order to secure stable supply of resources to the occupied Crimea ahead of the winter season, Russia may attempt an occupation of a 50-km wide, 300-km long strip of land along the Azov sea. In the short-term, such a move would “seal” the peninsula off from Ukraine and turn the Azov into Russia’s “internal lake”. A new line of front would be created to the south of the Dnipro river. To occupy this strip of land, Russia would need to take over at least 3 cities: Mariupol, Berdyansk and Melitopol.

If successful, this military operation would have certain long-term benefits for Russia:

  1. Decrease the urgency to build the costly bridge over the Kerch strait, where the traffic collapses every time amid a storm. That constrains the functioning of traffic during wintertime. The evaluated budget for the Kerch bridge was increased from 6 bn USD in August to 8 bn in September, but final costs would be much higher, as the history of Russian infrastructure projects confirms.

  2. Come closer to controlling the power-generating facilities and water supply for Crimea. If Russia succeeds in building a corridor, they can widen it selectively to get a grip on energy infrastructure beyond red zone and access to water supply from the Dnipro.

  3. Establish a rail link between Crimea and Rostov region running through the Donbas to facilitate the logistical network both to Crimea and the Donbas.

  4. Portray the separatist entities with access to the Mariupol port have more chances as de facto independent states, which would have access to trade routes to the outside world (e.g. Abkhazia, Russia).

In attempting this scenario Russia would face both substantial human costs incurred during the attack on Mariupol and additional sanctions imposed by the West for the outright violation of the ceasefire. Also, a longer boundary would be exposed to the mainland Ukraine in such a development. Given that the incurred costs are likely to be commensurate with the strategic benefits for Russia, we estimate the likelihood of this scenario at 50%. The most likely timeframe for acting on it would be Ukrainian parliamentary election at the end of October.


Scenario 2: Inciting “Novorossiya”

The Kremlin is now busy resuscitating the idea of „Novorossiya” (literally “New Russia”), voiced by Putin in April and now again flouted both internally and internationally. To give just a couple of examples, Putin was widely cited as lighting candles in the names of those who killed while defending Novorossiya. The former State Duma Chairman Naryshkin intends to write a history schoolbook about Novorossiya. Dozens of foreign journalists have caught up on Putin’s rhetoric and now use the term in their publications in earnest.

The change of rhetoric from Donetsk and Lugansk “republics” to the New Russia may imply an intention to stirs separatist sentiments in  South Ukraine (Odesa, Kherson) as a continuation of the advance from the along the Black Sea coast. In doing so, Russia would derail Ukraine’s economy, “link” Donbas to Transnistria and cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. The loss of Odessa infrastructure would cripple international trade and cut the currency inflows: the port handles about 23 mln t cargo per year, which accounts for about 1/6 of total maritime trade.  Apart from losing about a quarter of its GDP, Ukraine would incur colossal blow to energy security. To illustrate, 2 nuclear plants (Yuzhnoukrainska, Zaporizka) located on this territory provide about 17% of Ukraine’s power generation and 2 biggest thermal power plants (in Kryvy Rih and Zaporizhia) account for another 8% of power generation.

An assault on Southern Ukraine, a region mostly loyal to Ukraine’s state, would herald substantial human losses for Russian forces and pro-Russian groups. This scenario is laden with humanitarian consequences surpassing those in the Donbas: on the backbone of the massive exodus of IDPs (on a scale of 1 million out of total population of 6.4 mln, the economic and social situation in other parts of Ukraine would worsen dramatically.

The likely costs for Russia would be very high. It can hardly count on recruiting many locals for waging an anti-Ukraine war and Donbas-originating militants would not be enough, so most of the troops deployed would have to be from Russia’s regular army. Its monthly losses amid guerrilla war would exceed 1000, making it hard to suppress news of dead bodies delivered to Russia. This is likely to trigger domestic protests. In terms of the international reaction, the West could well impose sanctions “meant to cripple” Russia – perhaps, oil embargo and shut-down of access to the international banking system - rather than impose protracted, long-term costs.

The benefits of such an endeavor would be rather ambiguous for Russia. On the one hand, it would control the whole Northern part of the Black Sea, thus increasing its strategic reach. On the other hand, Russia would get a border with Romania, a NATO member, which would further increase the threat perception in the Alliance, this time in the South. Given that the likely costs of pursuing such a scenario seem to outweigh the benefits, we would estimate the probability of triggering this scenario as 30% till the end of this year.

Scenario 3: Partitioning Ukraine

This scenario would see Russia attempting to eliminate Ukraine’s statehood by using an all-out military campaign. It would deliver up on its talk of “protecting Russian-speakers” in a bid to occupy all the territory of Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnipro, including Kyiv, in addition to the South. The territory of independent Ukraine would thus shrink to Dnipro’s right bank.

This scenario would envisage the gradual destruction of major pillars of Ukraine’s economy. Occupation of the Central regions would cripple Ukraine’s high-tech potential: Yuzhmash (Dnipropetrovsk) or Motor-Sich (Zaporizhia) are important links in Russia’s own military complex. Energy suffocation would be ensured by the occupation of Poltava and Kharkiv region: in such a case, Ukraine would lose 17 bcm gas out of total 20 bcm domestic supply: If occupied, Ukraine’s GDP would be halved, with Kyiv it would be cut by 2/3.

The risks for such a scenario for the European Union would be very high. The inability of Western regions to absorb the flow of internally-displaced persons from the war-torn regions would prompt the refugees to go further westwards. Given the risks of infrastructure damage in combat, there is high likelihood of gas supply disruptions for Central Europe, Balkans and Italy. Finally, one cannot exclude the likelihood of environmental disasters if nuclear plants located in Central Ukraine are hit in combat.


In reality, Russia’s actions may combine different elements of scenarios mentioned above depending on Ukraine’s vulnerabilities on the ground. The degree to which those scenarios may be achieved by Russia will depend largely both on timely reaction (or lack thereof) of the West, as well as Ukrainian capacity to repel or slow down a Russian offensive and to prevent internal destabilization in the months to come.

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