Four Stages. Does Russia Plan a Large-Scale Aggression Against Ukraine?

This question arises after reviewing numerous comments by domestic and foreign experts on Russia amassing its troops near the border with Ukraine.

Most assessments in different variations boil down to the statement that this is nothing but the Kremlin’s informational and psychological operation (bluff) to step up pressure on Ukraine and its Western partners for them to cede down.

True, there are many signs pointing at this direction of future events, including massive leak of usually classified data, the lack of any evidence of the deployment of infrastructure necessary for the offensive, and, of course, the Kremlin leaders’ comments about Russia’s sovereign right to move forces in any direction, at any time and in any amount (although contrary to international agreements, in particular the Vienna Document). God willing, there is nothing more in that, but…

For some reason, people seem to ignore the fact that during seven years of war, the Russian army has trained battle-tested forces for action specifically in the Ukrainian direction, that during these years of endless manoeuvres along the Ukrainian border Russia could have already built management and logistics infrastructure for the offensive, and that Putin never gave reasons to doubt the steadfastness of his goals regarding Ukraine, especially given the principles of Russia’s foreign policy: 1. Russia’s national interests above all. 2. Search for compromises with foreign counterparts is only possible based on point 1 above.

Experts are fairly correct asserting that ahead of the State Duma elections, Putin needs not only quick, but necessarily a victorious “little war”, which in the case of Ukraine, will turn into a defeat if Russia’s open aggression provokes destructive Western sanctions. The latter are the main deterrent for Putin.

But what if Putin still decides to “slip through” those restrictions? His favourite game is to play on the opponents’ weaknesses. Possible scenario fancied by the Kremlin “sages” may consist of the following (very simplified) stages:

Arranging provocations with shelling of civilian objects in the Donbas by “Ukrainian troops” (corpses from morgues abundantly drenched in pig blood will be good enough to demonstrate mass casualties), with persecution of the Russian World representatives (Russian-speaking people, parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate) in the regions. Obviously, they can find other groups of “potential martyrs”, whom Mother Russia is always ready to help. Opportunities for such provocations increase due to predictability of Ukrainian pro-government and opposition (including patriotic) forces and independent media, fragmentation and insufficient consolidation of Ukrainian society, strengthening of regional elites due to decentralisation, and lack of specifics and effectiveness in combating the “fifth column”.

Powerful strikes by the Russian army in several directions to render concentrated resistance from the Armed Forces of Ukraine impossible. The direction of the main attack will be chosen taking into account the region of Ukraine, in which they could achieve real destabilisation. The attack must be lightning-fast, involving airborne, ground, missile and artillery, as well as air forces in order to overrun the Ukrainian troops and complete the operation as soon as possible. The operation ends with the introduction of Russian “peacekeepers” (or better CSTO peacekeepers, which is unlikely) into the occupied territory.

Until Ukraine’s Western partners make any decisions (in a week at best), the strike forces will be withdrawn from the occupied territory, followed by a massive information attack with the Russian propaganda going into full swing, describing “crimes and victims of the Ukrainian junta” and purely peacekeeping intentions of Russia. It will be geared towards Western politicians and their sensitivity to peace in order to save lives, thus leading to delays in the adoption of “punitive” decisions and the erosion of the “sanctions front”.

The West will be invited to adopt a “new reality”, as well as a new format of negotiations with Russia acting not just as a mediator, but a peacemaker that controls the situation — with all adverse consequences both for Ukraine (finalisation of its surrender), and for the collective West (confirmation of its inability to counter Russia).

Russia’s main strengths — not in general, but in critical situations — include the rigid top-down command structure and the quickness of political decision-making, powerful armed forces with one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, regime-controlled financial resources, accumulated in the times of expensive oil and kept in the banks of the invidious West, well-developed school of political analysis in many, including extraordinary, aspects (which, however, has been decaying recently), as well as the presence of a powerful “army” of lobbyists of Russian interests (corrupt politicians and officials), as well as proxies (a broad network of agents, “useful idiots”, right- and left-wing radicals) in Western countries, which is as effective as the “hard power”.

However, practical implementation of Russia’s foreign policy, both in Ukraine and elsewhere, reveals its weaknesses. It is primarily about underestimating (just like they treat their own people) of civic activity within Ukrainian society, which has repeatedly become a “lifesaver” in the critical moments of Ukraine’s independence. In particular, it has already materialised in civic self-defence units across Ukraine (not to be confused with the Territorial Defence Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine), which, unfortunately, has not yet become a priority for the state and has not become a system.

Russia also underestimates political solidarity both within NATO and the EU. Despite all the troubles faced by the collective West, Russia could hardly expect its readiness to grasp and correct its own mistakes, which leads to the growing — albeit slow — political solidarity of member states. In order to compensate for differences in the speed of political decision-making and in build-up of its combat-ready forces, the West could oppose Russia in its conflict with Ukraine not only by providing military-technical, financial, intelligence, diplomatic and sanctions support, but also by sending certain NATO members’ military forces to Ukraine to participate in military exercises.

Therefore, taking into account all the cons and pros (including those not mentioned here) and assuming that the Putin’s regime (that is, the group of individuals involved in decision-making) is the entity capable of rational assessment of the situation, large-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine is unlikely. But, unfortunately, no one is safe from the “irrationality” of this entity, which threatens huge casualties and thus requires strengthening of defence capabilities, increased vigilance and readiness for active action.

Mykola Sunhurovskyi

Director, Military Programmes

Born in 1951 in Moscow.


Orenburg Higher Military Air Defence Forces School (1972);

Kyiv Air Defence Forces Academy (1982);

Higher School of Entrepreneurship, Kyiv Institute of National Economy (1991).

Ph. D. in Technical Sciences, Senior Research Fellow, the author of more than 90 publications.

Colonel (Ret.) with 31 years of military service, half of that term — at research institutions. Research profile — systems analysis, strategic planning, analysis methods, national security.


Most recent position in state bodies — Department Chief at the Analytical Service of Ukraine's NSDC Staff;

Since December 1999 — Razumkov Centre Programme Co-ordinator;

Since February 2000 — Freelance Consultant to the National Security and Defence Committee of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.

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