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The unprecedented three-and-a-half-month campaign to intimidate Ukraine with reports of a large-scale Russian offensive reached new heights when the Biden administration warned an invasion could begin February 16 and closed the U.S. embassy.

While provocations on the Russian-Ukrainian border and local hostilities are possible, there will be no large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and big war in Europe in the near future.

Instead, this has been a psychological operation designed to intimidate Ukrainian leadership to surrender to Putin by agreeing to the execution of the Minsk agreements. The objective is to make Ukrainians – both authorities and citizens – believe in the real prospect of a full-scale war, and under its threat, agree to Minsk – which will seem like a small loss when compared to losses incurred in a full-scale war.

Why is it a psychological operation and not an imminent invasion?

First, U.S. intelligence is known for its painful failures regarding 9/11, the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq, and most recently, its failure to predict the rapid collapse of Kabul. Western intelligence agencies did not see the preparation of Russian troops for an attack on Georgia in August 2008, or for the occupation of Crimea in February-March 2014, or for an attack on Ukrainian troops in August 2014 near Ilovaisk and in February 2015 near Debaltseve.

Second, Russian troops’ recent movements have been done openly. When Putin attacked Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014-15, he prepared secretly. When Putin acts openly, as he is now, it is not preparation of a real attack, but the conduct of operations of a different nature – bluff, blackmail, and intimidation.

Third, the actual location of the Russian troops does not confirm their readiness for an offensive. Most sources refer to the deployment of troops in a strip along the Russian-Ukrainian border, but at a distance of 250-260 km. Troops preparing for an immediate offensive would not deployed that far away.

Fourth, the maximum estimate of the number of Russian troops concentrated near Ukraine is currently 147,800 thousand. In September 2021, 200,000 servicemen participated in the Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2021 training exercise held mostly near the Ukrainian borders.

Fifth, during the Zapad-2021 exercises involving 200,000 military personnel, the media did not seem to publish a single article about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the three and a half months since October 30, 2021, several hundred stories about the “imminent” Russian attack have been published in the English-language media alone.

Table. 1. The reaction of the English-language media to the number of Russian troops in 2021-22

Periods September 2021 November 2021 –

February 2022

Estimates of the number of Russian troops on maneuvers and “near Ukraine”, thousand people ~200 94-148
Number of publications in the English-language media about the threat of a Russian attack on Ukraine Not found More than 500

Sixth, the maps of predicted hostilities published recently have an emotional impact on an audience unfamiliar with the subject matter.

For example, a map published on November 21, 2021 by the Military Times, shows one of the two Russian units aimed at capturing Kiev as 4 BTGs, battalion-tactical groups, which can include from 2,400 to 4,000 troops. Kiev has a population of almost 3 million people. For context, the November 1943 Kiev offensive during World War II took 671,000 soldiers.

The same Military Times map shows the group encircling Kharkov from the north with 8 BTGs, so between 3,200 – 8,000 troops. Kharkov has a population of 1.5 million, and the Kharkov offensive in August 1943 required 980,000 troops.

Even more troops are needed to not only to capture, but to occupy, large cities. Again, using World War II as a reference, the 1943 Chernigov-Poltava offensive operation required 1.6 million troops, the 1943 Low Dnieper strategic offensive operation required 1.5 million, and the 1943 – 1944 Dnieper-Carpathian offensive operation required 2.1 million soldiers and officers.

Seventh, and most important, Russia has an insufficient minimum number of troops near the border necessary to capture a significant portion of the Ukrainian territory. Those amount to 148,000 Russian troops and 32,000 troops pro-Russian separatists which would not be enough to seize important military, political, administrative, transport, infrastructure, and industrial targets. Another significant factor is the size of the population living in the territory subject to the planned occupation.

Moreover, Ukrainian forces are also hardened by almost eight years of combat experience, with 400,000 Ukrainian veterans of the War in the East. Ukrainian troops are at least equally skilled as Russian and Russian-backed separatist troops. For every 100 deaths of Ukrainian forces, there were 138 deaths from the Russian and/or separatist troops.

At a minimum, Russia would need to outnumber the Ukrainians. The Armed Forces of Ukraine is currently made up of 261,000 soldiers and officers. Recently, the Ukrainian leadership decided to increase the number of military personnel by another 100,000. In addition, another 200,000 thousand soldiers are in the active reserve. According to the Secretary of the Council of Defense and Security of Ukraine Alexei Danilov, the total number of people who are ready to defend Ukraine in different military/security formations exceeds 2 million.

Table 2. Number of offensive troops in comparable cases of war in recent decades.  

Conflict Date Population of the Territory Intended for Occupation Number of armed forces
Soviet Occupation of Eastern Poland September – October 1939 12 million 1,420,000 (the Polish army offered no resistance)
Soviet-Finnish War 1939 – 1940 3.7 million 761,000
Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina June 1940 3.8 million 639,000 (the Romanian army offered no resistance)
Occupation of Czechoslovakia by the 5 Warsaw Pact countries August 1968 14.3 million 250,000 soldiers (the Czechoslovak army offered no resistance)
USSR occupation of Afghanistan December 1979 15.5 million 300,000 (the Afghan army offered essentially no resistance)
U.S. and Allies in the Korean War 1950 – 1953 30 million 1,742,000
United States in the Vietnam War 1963 – 1979 52.7 million 1,420,000
Yom Kippur War October 1973 3.2 million 1,068,000
Sino-Vietnamese war February – March 1979 52.7 million 600,000
Operation Desert Storm February 1991 17.5 million 965,000
U.S. Iraq Invasion March – May 2003 24.7 million 584,000
U.S. War in Afghanistan 2001-2021 37 million 522,000

An analysis (see Table 2) of several dozen wars and major offensive operations carried out by the USSR, Russia, the United States, China, Vietnam, Israel, Iran, and the Arab states in recent decades, gives an idea of ​​the minimum number of attacking troops needed to launch a Russian large-scale offensive and attempts to occupy Left-Bank and Southern Ukraine (population 19 million), depending on the intensity of the expected hostilities.

Table 3. The minimum number of Russian armed forces required to conduct military operations against Ukraine in possible areas

Possible directions Number of armed forces
Southern Ukraine 517,000
Left-bank Ukraine 1,050,000
Southern and Left Bank Ukraine 1,452,000
Northern Tavria 235,000

Table 3 shows estimates of the minimum number of armed forces that would be required for the occupation of each area of Ukraine, based on the standards used by both the Russian General Staff and the military leadership of other states in recent wars.

It seems that 180,000 Russian and separatist troops currently deployed within 260 km from the Ukrainian border is not enough to carry out strategic operations to occupy even Southern Ukraine, not to mention Left-Bank Ukraine or Southern and Left-Bank Ukraine at the same time, especially forcing the Dnieper or the capture of Kiev.

So at the moment Putin clearly does not have enough troops to launch a large-scale operation against Ukraine, let alone a full-scale war or a new world war.

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