Atlantic Council Experts: Belarus Exercise is Rehearsal for Ukraine Invasion in a Month

Russia isn’t quite ready to invade Ukraine, but it could be at the conclusion of its current exercise with Belarus, panelists and experts said in an event streamed by the Atlantic Council on Jan. 25. They said the Belarus exercise, “Allied Resolve 2022,” is probably a rehearsal of moves against Ukraine and that its planned wrap-up, around Feb. 20, could be the invasion date, as Russia will have continued to mass troops on the Ukraine border in the interim.

Separately, a senior Air Force official told Air Force Magazine that Russia is likely to invade Ukraine in the coming weeks. The official also said Putin is not interested in reinforcing the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have held a tiny corner of southeast Ukraine since 2014.

“It will be further west,” the official said, noting that the Belarus exercises place Russian forces less than 100 miles from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.

In recent months, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa chief Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian has spoken regularly by telephone with his Ukrainian counterpart to discuss strategy.

Following the visit of Ukraine’s defense minister to Washington, and his appeal for air defense systems, the Pentagon dispatched air defense experts to Ukraine in December to assess its air defense needs.

Staffers on the Senate Armed Services Committee told Air Force Magazine that Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles could be effective in slowing the advance of Russian attack and transport helicopters but would be less useful against Russian fighter and attack jets, but additional lethal air defense aid has not arrived.

The Air Force official did, however, highlight Ukraine’s air-to-surface capabilities.

“They’re very good at concealing—they hide stuff,” the official said. “They’re good at protecting equipment and people.”

U.S.-made, shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missiles have been provided to Ukraine in the last few years and continue to be supplied.  

Russia is “not yet ready” for a Ukraine invasion, former Ukraininan defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said in the Atlantic Council panel. The level of Russian troops encircling the eastern part of the nation, which he said number about 127,000 troops, is a level “not much different” from where things stood last April. However, more are moving in every day, he added.  

“In the next few weeks, … they may be in a position to at least start” a Ukraine invasion, Zagorodnyuk said. The end of the Russia/Belarus exercise on Feb. 20 is “when they may be ready.”

He also said Russia may not have a firm gameplan of how to conduct the invasion, modifying its aims as the situation develops—an “emergent strategy.” Putin wants to preserve “a variety of options,” Zagorodnyuk asserted.

An invasion at the current force level “could be successful if it’s unexpected. But of course, it’s not unexpected,” he added.

Likely Scenarios

The most likely scenario is a “serious acceleration of their activities in the East, … a very serious provocation,” he said. Second most likely is that “they could initiate a scenario in the Black Sea,” threatening an amphibious attack, although Air Force Lt. Col. Tyson K. Wetzel, senior USAF fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said an amphibious operation would likely be meant as a feint or to draw Ukrainian forces away from Kiev. Russia has only six landing ships in the Black Sea able to land 2,200 personnel or 60 main battle tanks, insufficient for a Ukraine invasion, Wetzel said.

Wetzel was speaking on behalf of his own scholarship with the Atlantic Council and not on behalf of the Air Force.

A naval action may be intended to block trading routes, Zagorodnyuk said.

The third-most likely scenario, he continued, is that troops participating in the Belarus exercise move on Kiev, as they will be close by.

In any scenario, “all kinds of hybrid [warfare] will be engaged,” Zogordnyuk said. Russia would attack Ukraine’s government and try to “turn off the heat” and communications to sow panic and disorganize a defense, he said. The other panelists agreed that this is highly likely.

Wetzel said a hybrid war is “what Russia does. … We’ve already seen cyberattacks and information operations. Things below the threshold of a response are already happening.” This was also a hallmark of the 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine, he noted.

“Where is the main effort going to be?” asked Wetzel, who said the encirclement of the Eastern part of the country “does not support a major thrust … to Kiev to take the capital. I do not believe they have the forces ready to do that right now.”

But Putin’s objectives, to Wetzel’s thinking, are to “take territory, to make NATO look feckless, and I think they can do that with the forces they have … in place now.”

There is likely to be a push toward Kiev later, launched on the heels of a cyberattack, Wetzel said, creating a crisis that “threatens the [Kiev] regime’s legitimacy.” There will likely be a corresponding action in the Donbas, but the Black Sea action would most likely be a distraction, intended to draw Ukrainian forces “away from the main effort, which I believe will be further north or east.”

“I do not think they have the forces in place to take and hold the country,” he asserted. “I think they can take and hold small areas [pending] a political objective.”

Michael Kofman, the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russian studies director, said he sees a likely operation across Ukraine’s eastern region “combined with an encirclement of Kiev, … which I think they can do pretty quickly,” with forces already arrayed, “and, potentially, a march across the southwestern coast toward Odessa.” Russian forces would get into position to move after a governmental collapse, he said, and he disagrees that much more force would be needed.

“We are not days away—we are potentially weeks away, … the second half of February,” Kofman said. He said he disagrees with the “massive estimates you get from Ukrainians about the forces required” to effectively take over the country. “They’re probably going to need a lot less. … They could do a rolling start,” with reinforcements coming swiftly from Russia and other nearby areas.” He said a force of 75,000-80,000 troops, with 50,000 in support, would put Russia “in good shape” for success.

“Just remember, we invaded Iraq, which has 26 million people, with a coalition force of 177,000,” Kofman said. “We’ve done it.”

He also said there’s likely “war optimism” in Moscow, thinking it can succeed with fewer assets than others might assume, and that “that the cost of occupation would be cheap.” The U.S. has also made this error in Iraq, he noted.

Zagorodnyuk countered that Russia doesn’t need to just force its way into Ukraine, “but to stay there. … There’s no point in getting there and then getting out.” To control Ukraine, “they would need way higher numbers than they have right now.”

Ukraine is well prepared; there is no element of surprise; and Russia can’t predict how it would go, Zagorodnyuk said. “How can they control the safety of their people? … [There are] many questions about that.”

Putin’s Calculations

John E. Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, is not so sure a Ukraine invasion is forthcoming. Putin faces “a very serious reaction from the West, which will be quite damaging to Russia.” Putin’s calculation of the costs will weigh against whether he proceeds, Herbst said.

Sanctions, he said, have cost the Russian economy 1-2 percent of its gross domestic product every year, and that could worsen with an invasion. If Russia does take Ukraine, Putin will have another 20,000 NATO forces “on his doorstep … Is that an improvement in his geopolitical position?” Moscow could also likely count on Sweden and Finland seeing an aggressive Russia and deciding they, too, need to join NATO … Another loss for Putin.

“These are countries that had no interest in joining NATO in the past, but now they’re having a serious national conversation about it,” Herbst noted.

Finally, Ukraine will put up serious resistance to an invasion.

“If Russia has learned anything from Donbas, … it’s that they cannot depend on locals to fight this war,” he said. Russia’s operations there “have turned many of the people against them.” There was a “fierce insurgency” in eastern Ukraine at the end of World War II “that lasted for years,” he noted.

While Russia could probably take terrain at “any point,” in Ukraine, “their ability to sustain casualties is another matter,” Herbst said.

If there is major resolve in the West, particularly by the Biden Administration, “the odds of this … go way down.” Herbst added, though, that Biden “has not been resolute enough” and has only upped his stance on Ukraine after strong public pressure “and the embarrassment of the Biden press conference last week.”

John Sipher, a nonresident scholar at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said Putin could not invade Ukraine and still save face.

“He controls the narrative at home,” Sipher said, and much of it abroad through media. “He will lie and play the victim, or claim the world came running to Russia.”

Putin’s main strategic goals are his own political survival and control at home, Sipher asserted, “but he also wants the U.S. out of Europe and pliant, weak states on his periphery.”

But Putin already has a win in that he’s “learned a lot already,” Sipher noted. “He can destabilize and threaten at will, and the world will come running … He’s learned that France and Germany can be bought and intimidated. He knows the small countries hung tough, but America’s been pretty wobbly. A third of Americans actually support him, … and 60 percent really don’t care about this issue.”

Moreover, “he’s learned a lot about our intelligence,” Sipher noted, since the U.S. had to use intelligence to push back against him. “I assume he’s also learned a lot about how much support he could receive from China. Are they really supportive, or passively supportive?”

Finally, Ukraine becoming a member of NATO is really off the table, “in a de facto sense.” NATO expansion is a question of debate, while Russia getting out of areas it has already invaded “is not.”