The widely shared view among some pundits of international politics is that Vladimir Putin was planning to launch a wide scale military operation against Ukraine in spring of 2021.
For example, one of the most renowned military observers, Pavel Felgengauer, went even so far that he “revealed” the Russian General Staff’s ostensibly existing plan of “strategic Cannes” – two deep raids into the core Ukrainian territory: one, in the north-east, a tank incursion from Belgorod via Kharkiv to Zaporizhzhia, and the other, in the south-west, landing troops on the Black Sea shore between Odessa and Nikolaev. Two striking forces were supposed to meet somewhere in the lower Dnieper river region therefore encircling all Ukrainian troops on the Left Bank of the Dnieper. Then, continues Felgengauer, Russian troops would liquidate Ukrainian forces facing Donbass, create Russian-backed quasi-state called Novorossia in Southern Ukraine that had been almost forgotten since 2014, and finally realize a three-decade long dream of the Russian neo-imperialists – establish an unbroken land corridor from Russia via Donbass and Novorossia to Russian-sponsored Transnistria in Moldova.
Then, something in the actual execution of the Putin’s plan went wrong, forcing its abrupt abandonment. On the surface it looked like after the Joe Biden’s call to Kremlin, Putin “progressively” spoke at the Biden’s Climate Summit, agreed to talks with U.S. president in June, recalled his troops back from the Russian-Ukrainian border and occupied territories of Donbass and Crimea, and substantially reduced level of the Russian militant propaganda against Ukraine.
The threat of the Armageddon that only two weeks ago looked imminent suddenly dissipated.
Biden appears a profoundly successful peace maker. By placing a single telephone call in the peak of the tense confrontation he was able to stop a serious military conflict that had potential to turn into a new World War, at least according to Felgengauer.
The reality is a bit more prosaic.
Biden has nothing to be proud of — quite the opposite. Putin was not ready to launch a war in Spring 2021, but Biden’s actions since his inauguration did raise the probability of a serious skirmishes later this year.
There are several reasons why Putin could not start a wide scale military operation against Ukraine in Spring 2021.
First, in March and April Putin did concentrate some Russian troops on the Ukrainian borders and “line of contact,” but they were insufficient for a large-scale offensive. According to the estimates of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ГУР ВСУ), 89,000 Russian troops were accumulated near the Ukrainian borders and in occupied Crimea by end of March and were expected to rise to 110,000 by April 20. With Ukrainian’s army of 250,000 troops and 900,000 reservists – many of which had acquired recent experience in the war in Donbass—a large-scale Russian offensive seemed unlikely.
Second, the movement of Russian troops and military equipment to the Russian-Ukrainian border were performed in a very demonstrative and open manner. It occurred during the day and unmasked to allow hundreds of witnesses to take pictures, make videos and post on social media. Putin does not prepare serious offensives that way. In Georgia in 2008, Crimea in February 2014, Ilovaisk in August 2014, and Debaltsevo in 2015, when he was planning a serious attack, the troops were trained, prepared and moved to attack positions at night, and under cover. Their sudden appearance on the front turned out to be a surprise for those attacked as well as for the Western intelligence. As soon as photos and videos of Russian units began to be posted on social networks in March 2021, it became clear that this might be a Putin’s bluff, blackmail, a “war of nerves” – but not preparation for a real offensive.
Third, from March to June 2021 NATO will be conducting the “Defender Europe – 2021” training exercise in Europe. Although only 28,000 troops are going to participate (which is visibly less than the number of Russian troops already concentrated along the Ukrainian border), this is one of the largest NATO maneuvers since the 1990s. As long as NATO forces are conducting their exercises on the European soil, with American troops physically in Europe, Putin will not start large-scale military operations.
Fourth, by April 2021 the construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, Putin’s grand project that intends to annihilate Ukraine economically and geopolitically was not finished. As of April 26, a total of 26 kilometers of branch B of the pipeline and about 85 kilometers of branch A remain to be laid down. The project is expected to be complete by August 2021. Nordstream 2’s projected capacity is 55 bln of cubic meters of gas. Last year, 55.8 bln of cubic meters of gas were pumped to Europe via Ukrainian gas transmission system (GTS). As soon as Nordstream 2 is put into operation, Gazprom, for one reason or another, will likely stop pumping gas through the Ukrainian GTS and redirect it via Nordstream 2. Europe’s interest in protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine would tangibly decrease, and Ukraine’s the geopolitical position would noticeably worsen. Naturally, Putin is not in a position to risk unleashing a large-scale international crisis until his pet project, the pipeline intended to hit a mortal blow to Ukraine, is completed.
Fifth, although Putin’s public announcement of unification with Belarus, scheduled for April 21-23, failed once again, it is still possible to do so in the time remaining until September this year. Then the front of Russian military pressure on Ukraine, already existing in her east and south, will increase by another thousand kilometers in her north.
Therefore, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis in Spring was only a preparation for possible larger stage of the whole 2021 Russian military campaign, apparently scheduled for late summer – early autumn this year, with the highest probability to explode being in September.
By September 2021, all components necessary for large-scale Russian offensive against Ukraine will be in place. The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline will be completed, with part or all gas supply from Russia to Europe being redirected from Ukraine to the new pipeline. The NATO drills “Defender Europe – 2021” will be finished, with American troops being redeployed from Europe. The scheduled June meeting between Biden and Putin will be largely forgotten by September. The most important component of preparations will be joint Russian-Belarussian drills “West – 2021” («Запад – 2021») scheduled for September. The maneuvers will allow reasonably covered and at the same “legitimate” concentration of substantial Russian military power on almost all Ukraine’s perimeter – including Belarussian territory regardless of the success of the Putin’s prepared Anschluss of Belarus by that time.
Based on number of troops amassed during drills “West – 2017” («Запад – 2017»), 100,000, and “Center – 2019” («Центр – 2019»), 128,000, the exercises “West – 2021” might pull up to 150,000 Russian troops to the immediate proximity of the Ukrainian territory. With about 40,000 separatist forces in Donbass, the total Russian military power to intimidate Ukraine might reach 190,000, if not more. Without physical presence of substantial U.S. troops in Europe and NATO drills in Central and South-East Europe, Putin’s army may present a formidable challenge for the sovereignty of independent Ukraine as well as for international peace.
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