Russia-Ukraine: An alternative scenario

Rumors of war-war flying fast. What if there’s another option?

Saturday morning in the U.S. sees reporting that President Biden is recalling U.S. diplomats from Kyiv, and suspending consular services at the embassy.

Russia is also said to be pulling diplomats out of Ukraine.

The Russian news service TASS reported on Friday that “mass graves” had been found in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine in which people allegedly killed by the Ukrainian army were buried.  The total allegedly killed in the field is 5,000 (although, as the tweet thread points out, the allegation is not that that many were found in the graves.  The number seems to reflect a total of fatalities from earlier fighting).

TASS describes this report as having been made by the self-styled “Donetsk People’s Republic”; i.e., a separatist group.

As other analysts suggest, this will probably be used as a pretext by Russia.

Whether it’s used to actually invade or not remains to be seen.  But it can be touted as a grievance and a reason for supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine and coming to their aid.  Further negotiations with the U.S. and other NATO nations are likely to be enlivened by the claim.

In a notable development since that report, on Friday Israel also began evacuating the family members of diplomats from Kyiv.  This was before the U.S. and Russia began their pull-outs.

Israel doesn’t do this lightly.

The Israelis didn’t start evacuation of family and non-essential staff when the U.S. and UK did.  The report of the evacuation came a few hours after the TASS report broke.  Israel seems to be taking the latest developments seriously, and while an evac of family doesn’t necessarily mean Jerusalem thinks an invasion is imminent, it does mean the prospect of one is not being discounted and is expected to be relatively soon.

If visible indicators mean what they seem to – if Putin isn’t engaging in “mere” brinkmanship – the indicators are there.  The massing of a shipborne landing force in the Black Sea is obviously a big one.

Three missile-laden Slava-class cruisers are converging on the Mediterranean and Black Seas, along with escort ships equipped with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles for Tomahawk-like attacks on land targets.

Much of the ground force weaponry for a major action was assembled in western Russia and Belarus 2-3 weeks ago, but in recent days some key additions have been the apparent arrival of a field hospital, and Russian military special forces (SSO) support vehicles seen on the move in Smolensk, a couple dozen miles from Belarus.

The announced major exercise in western Russia, which includes allied operations with Belarus, is getting underway.  However, a full-scale deployment of SSO, in particular, is unusual for such exercises (even big ones).  Deploying SSO into Belarus, especially by road with support vehicles, looks like an arrangement with a longer-term objective in view.

Again, the exercise is starting.  But it is the opposite of de-escalatory for the Russians to deploy artillery to the border that puts Kharkiv, Ukraine in range.  (Tweep means “Belgorod,” about 30 statute miles from Kharkiv.  Range of the 2S7 Pion gun is 30-34 miles.)

Talks with France and the UK since the first of February have gone nowhere.  President Biden is deploying B-52s to the UK, and the 3,000 on-alert troops of the 82nd Airborne Division are to be sent to Poland in the next few days.

But U.S. diplomacy doesn’t have an active or visible profile at this point.  Vice President Harris is being dispatched to Europe for the Munich Security Conference (18-22 February) to do something about the Russia-Ukraine problem.  But it’s not clear what.

I’ve been in the contingent that thinks an outright invasion of Ukraine by Russia is not the most likely course of action (or COA, as the military refers to it in operational analysis.  I’ll refer to it as COA here, for brevity’s sake).

I continue to think that.  I don’t think Putin wants to conduct a blitzkrieg-style invasion with conventional arms, although I don’t dismiss the possibility.  This whole build-up has an “off” feel to it: scripted to an almost banal degree of predictability, yet unattended by any real attempts to deter Russia or even appease Putin with concessions.

It feels pro forma in every aspect, as if the force movements are meant to satisfy the touchstone of public expectations (the touchstone being the memory of World War II, and perhaps Desert Storm or the build-up to Iraqi Freedom), while the “diplomacy” is perfunctory, without the intention of actually achieving anything with it.

I do think, as I’ve said before, that Putin is more likely than not to support a separatist insurrection in Donbas (of which the Donetsk region is a part), with irregular forces inside Ukraine, air support, and artillery in Russia holding Ukrainian forces at risk to a range well inside Ukrainian territory.

From Belarus, Putin can also hold much of northern Ukraine at risk, including of course Kyiv.  I’m not aware of credible information that Putin may have an insurrection in Kyiv staged and ready; i.e., to include a coup that would oust President Volodymyr Zelensky.  If he did, that would obviously raise the stakes significantly.

Here again, however, he could achieve the purpose without a full-scale invasion, if he could topple the existing government and create uncertainty and chaos by supporting a faction inside Ukraine.

Again, there’s an “off” feel to all this.  It’s stately-paced and deliberate, yet seems wildly out of control, as if the world is careening into something that isn’t being stopped, but could be.

One alternative view, of course, is that Putin is determined to seize this opportunity, with NATO showing weak and clearly not planning to fight back, to fully and overtly subvert Ukraine.  That would produce not just a fait accompli but a statement, and not only a statement about current power conditions.  It would be a tit-for-tat:  payback for the times Putin and his supporters have insisted Russian interests were being disregarded in new geopolitical arrangements brokered by outsiders.

Western recognition of Kosovar independence was a watershed event in this regard, especially as it was largely predicated on Serbian atrocities, which had  been brought before the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague as war crimes.  On this theory, Putin might even seek to hang war crimes on current and former Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv as justification for partitioning the country to his liking.

The more active COA in this case could indeed involve a show of force with Russian arms in Ukraine, driving into Kyiv and perhaps Kharkiv (depending on how the locals there reacted to a separatist/Russian victory in Donbas) and “parading” for intimidation and punctuation.

Reviewing a major alternative view

Another view has gotten a lot less attention, and it’s the one I want to discuss now.  If it is not the one we see unfold in this instance, the day is fast approaching when it will be.  No kind of capability or preparation is now lacking to make it feasible — and it would obviate much of the formal pre-war maneuvering we are seeing in such peculiarly rich detail in the Russia-Ukraine situation.

There could be multiple permutations of this COA; I won’t try to address them all.  Most readers are well able to add potential measures and details themselves.

The outline of this COA – call it COA 3 – is an asymmetric approach by Russia and China, and potentially Iran and North Korea, to paralyzing the alliances they face in the two great powers’ prospective regional moves.

In the most minimal version of COA 3, Russia might see if some local sabotage of NATO force arrangements in Europe – enough to interfere meaningfully with operations and/or have an intimidating effect on decision-makers, but not cause long-term damage – would tip the balance for concessions to Russia’s strategic demands.  Russia would pocket the concessions and back off the appearance of an imminent invasion for the time being.

At the other end of the spectrum, a maximal version of COA 3 could see Russia and China fomenting the precursor events to coincident subversions of Ukraine and Taiwan, and both bringing asymmetric tactics to bear in order to stall and paralyze their U.S.-allied opponents.  There would be various versions in between, but for full development, let’s look at a maximal version of COA 3.

Aircraft carriers FS Charles de Gaulle (R 91), ITS Cavour (C-550), and USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) exercise together in the Mediterranean Sea in Feb 2022. SHAPE (NATO HQ) via Twitter

Such a version would entail asymmetric measures against Japan and Australia as well as NATO Europe and North America.  The Philippines and Singapore could be affected as well, and possibly even South Korea and Thailand, although they are unlikely to involve themselves politically or militarily in a Chinese subversion of Taiwan.  (The U.S. has defensive agreements with both, and thousands of troops stationed in South Korea.  Balancing that, in Chinese calculations, could be the desire to keep relations on an even keel with Seoul.  If U.S. forces on the peninsula can be kept out of the fight, or interfered with separately from asymmetric interference affecting the South Korean public, Xi Jinping may prefer the more discriminating approach.)

COA 3 at its worst would also very likely incorporate a range of tactics employed by Iran (with Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, the PMF/Hashd in Iraq) to distract and preoccupy the Western alliance, and by North Korea to distract and preoccupy Japan, and U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea.

One tack COA 3 might take is being launched during the Olympics, with some of the national athletic delegations being detained in China, essentially as hostages.  Remember, we’re talking about the maximal version of COA 3 here.  I don’t think very many would dispute at this point that such a move, though we can reasonably hope it’s improbable, is no longer unthinkable.

In the homeland territories of their major opponents, Russia and China could attempt to sabotage the power grid and communications, as well as essentials like fuel manufacturing and distribution, major transportation hubs, and banking.  They could do this entirely without having to use conventional military force (or using it only in unconventional, non-overt ways), if they have prepared properly.

Denying residential and business heating and power to portions of their opponents’ populations would have a significantly disruptive effect, especially in the Northern hemisphere’s winter.  So would widespread outages for ATM and spot-payment networks, which could very quickly make it difficult for people to get food.  (Interfering with power would obviously be a major food problem anywhere, as it would affect manufacturing and refrigeration.)

Note that disrupting communications could also take the form of compromising mainstream media broadcasts as well as information dissemination via the Internet.  It would be possible to create public confusion about what national and state policy messages are (e.g., announcements from the White House or from governors) long enough to induce a level of disorder and paralysis.

Equally disquieting is the prospect of strategic comms systems being interfered with in NATO’s nuclear-armed nations.  Although survivability and redundancy are built in to the networks of the U.S., UK, and France, no system is completely tamper-proof.  The right targets and level of interference could create questions about Russian and/or Chinese intentions, and the integrity of our response mechanisms, at a time when those questions about our nuclear deterrent posture, and theirs, are exactly the greatest threat.

Russia and China might also clog up vital maritime chokepoints to slow down their opponents’ responses.  We saw not long ago how the Suez Canal could be blocked to traffic by an oversize cargo ship.  Impeding the Strait of Gibraltar, Strait of Malacca, or the Turkish Straits, or blocking the Panama Canal, would involve yet other, differing sets of measures, but accomplishing such goals is not infeasible.

Note that since the coup in Burma (Myanmar) a year ago, China has had the opportunity to further beef up a logistics pipeline to the Andaman Sea suitable for military use.  Myanmar has been a major Chinese client for several decades and is one of the chief features of Beijing’s Belt and Road strategy.

China’s military interest in such arrangements cannot be in doubt; in the role of Burma/Myanmar’s major weapons supplier, Beijing provided the Burmese with a Ming-class diesel-electric attack submarine at the end of December 2021.  The Ming boosted Myanmar’s submarine fleet to two, with an Indian Kilo-class attack sub provided by New Delhi in 2020.

Click to enlarge for legibility. Overview of China’s newly privileged posture vis-a-vis the Strait of Malacca. Unimpeded control of ports and naval bases in Myanmar, and endowing Myanmar with a Chinese submarine, ensued on the military coup of one year ago. Google map; author annotation

Don’t think inside a tunnel on this.  China won’t leave the Burmese to operate that submarine in a period of heightened tensions without, shall we say, onboard assistance.  In effect, there is now a submarine that may at any time be a Chinese-operated submarine permanently based on the west side of the Strait of Malacca.  The former Indian Kilo SS might at some point be used the same way; the Chinese have operated Kilos for years.

Iran, meanwhile, would be capable of – at the very least – drawing a resource-intensive response from the U.S.-led coalition in CENTCOM, with any attempts to impede traffic in the Strait of Hormuz or Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.  Indeed, China is well positioned to interdict traffic in the Bab-el-Mandeb, with her extensive base facility in Djibouti.

Disrupting military communications and electronic equipment would be high on the list.  We should expect to encounter that in any case, involving everything from spoofing commands to our major systems to confusing and deceiving them and inducing malfunction in them.  Our “ISR” assets – intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance – are entirely dependent on electronic components that can be disrupted in various ways, and disruption can apply to systems like Patriot air and missile defense as well, along with our NATO Aegis Ashore missile defense systems deployed in Romania.  (Israel, which hosts an X-band radar for the NATO missile defense complex, might also expect to see asymmetric disruptive measures being used.)

In the Far East, we can certainly expect such efforts to be launched against the forces of Japan and Australia as well as the U.S.  Depending on the scope of China’s immediate ambitions, use of these measures against Philippines forces could range from minimal to blinding and deafening.  In the case of China wanting to consolidate control of the South China Sea in the same campaign as subverting Taiwan – which I consider more than 50% probable – Vietnam could expect to absorb the impact as well.

Live fire exercise, Patriot missile battery from 108th ADA Bde. Red Legs rule. CENTCOM video (A1C Eric Mann), YouTube

Of course, disrupting communications would also involve interfering with satellite networks, a measure that would presumably target civilian as well as military users.

On-scene interference with weapon systems is likely to be most noticeable to warplanes, helicopters, drones, warships, and indirect-fire artillery – any system that can experience remote interference from somewhere in its operational envelope, without being attacked with explosives or other kinetic means that inflict “kill” level damage.  ISR and fighter patrol aircraft, for example, would be especially likely to see such interference.

The sabotage of warships as well as commercial shipping is also quite possible, and not necessarily using mines, cruise missiles launched by guerrillas, or other explosives.  The collision incidents several years ago with USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S McCain (DDG-56) in the Far East may have illustrated methods with application for an operational campaign.  Such methods, unlike explosive devices, could leave us without an immediate understanding that we had actually been attacked.  They could, as mentioned, be used against oil tankers, civilian cargo ships, and military sealift ships as well as naval shipping.

In the Western hemisphere, the U.S. and Canada (and the Caribbean islands of our NATO allies) could not be complacent about asymmetric attack.  The wide-open stretches of the U.S. southern border over the last year have afforded potential opponents ample opportunity to infiltrate irregular-warfare teams.  And besides Cuba, Venezuela and potentially Nicaragua could be used as bases of operation.  (We should not discount the possibility of intermediate-range missiles being covertly stationed in Central America either.)

In commercial terms, offshore oil rigs could be high-payoff targets.  Fishing vessels, potentially under false flags, might start colliding with U.S. and allied nations’ shipping.  And as alluded to earlier, it might be thought useful to render the Panama Canal impassable, or at least degrade its operations and slow shipping to a crawl; a move that would significantly affect the supply chain for North America and limit options for U.S. military logistics in particular.

USS John S McCain (DDG-56), putting into Singapore, displays ugly gash from from her 21 Aug 2017 collision. USNI News video, YouTube

As China’s role in unleashing COVID-19 demonstrates, it would be quite possible to spread an infectious virus as a biological warfare measure, and leave nations around the globe uncertain that that’s what it was.  That’s the condition we’re in today:  we don’t know.  We may assume it wasn’t bio-war, but that’s not the same as having incontrovertible evidence to that effect.

This reality is emblematic of how asymmetric warfare could manifest itself.  The measures could be enough to impede our understanding and awareness, our movement and decision-making ability, and yet leave us uncertain – at least for some period of time – that we were under attack.

That’s a major hazard of an asymmetric campaign.  It’s not just that it impedes our operations.  It’s that it can be subtle enough to leave us simultaneously worried, behind the power curve, and yet uncertain that we have a casus belli – unless we have the political will to simply make Ukraine’s or Taiwan’s cause our own outright.

In the case of Ukraine, it’s already clear we don’t have that will.  If Biden had it, he would have pocketed a Senate vote in favor of applying harsh sanctions to use of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline when it was offered to him by Senator Ted Cruz and the other Senate sponsors.  (Biden would not have signed off earlier on completion of NS2, for that matter.)  Instead of holding a credible threat of such sanctions if Putin interferes in Ukraine, Biden prejudiced the Senate vote with his signal that he wouldn’t sign such a resolution.

As a more general but entirely germane matter, Biden could likewise have continued the Trump energy policies that had the U.S. self-sufficient in fuels – a net exporter, in fact – and the price of fuels much cheaper than today.  Those circumstances would change the cost-benefit calculus of sanctions on both sides, a reality that would apply to Iran as well as to Russia, and to all their customers.

Cruz speaks on the Senate floor. YouTube, Ted Cruz video

As it is, a COA 3 approach by Russia and China would make sanctions moot.  They simply wouldn’t matter, if disruptions were already underway:  it’s the U.S. and our allies that would be dog-paddling behind the speedboat.

There won’t be a glass-shattering trigger moment at which it’s instantly clear it’s time to impose sanctions.  The “war” will have already started, if it’s pursued asymmetrically.  Beating the sanctions-effectiveness clock is about seeing that coming, rather than recognizing it only in hindsight.

The added weight on the scales

All of those asymmetric measures are tactics that could be used to impede and deter the U.S. and our major allies in any posturing or live response to provocations centered on Ukraine, or potentially Taiwan

It’s also possible for side campaigns to be unleashed to complicate our calculations and obfuscate our priority-setting.  A number of the parties have national interests that can be menaced, outside of the Ukraine and Taiwan scenarios.  Various nations’ interests in the Middle East being threatened by Iran is the most prominent scenario of that kind, but not the only one.

Americans naturally focus on U.S. interests; e.g., our troops in Iraq and Syria, and South Korea and Japan, who could be immediately threatened.  (Guam is U.S. trust territory, so I consider threats to it under the umbrella of any threats to the U.S. homeland and our core security imperatives.)

But allies and neutral friendly nations whose unsettled interests come under asymmetric attack would quickly be added problems rather than benign conditions or solutions.  Festering regional security problems could be exacerbated to preoccupy and turn conditions against us, in places like Libya, Western Sahara, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Cuba, and Venezuela.  Russia could drop all pretense and overtly occupy the Northern Territory islands at the north end of Japan.  China could turn up the heat on India at their disputed border area, and encourage Pakistan to do the same.  A melancholy reality is that some kinds of biological warfare could be easier to wage in Asia and Africa than elsewhere, something that could deepen and polarize political divisions at a most disadvantageous time.

Iran-backed Hashd militia troops flying the Khataib Hezbollah flag man a U.S. 155mm howitzer in fighting in Iraq. (Image via Twitter, Mohamad 6234)

And, of course, North Korea could, with China’s leave, pick this of all times to demonstrate heaving an ICBM out into the Pacific.

This survey is nowhere near comprehensive, especially if we were to imagine a maximal COA 3.  What if they gave a world war and none of the great powers “fought” with each other, at least as fighting has been defined up to now?  We should consider that the answer to that question may be what we find out, if Russia and China make good on their long-building threats.  Altering maps and ruining alliances may not require exchanging hot lead.

Russia may go to hot lead, of course, including a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  We are led to imagine so by reports being dribbled out in the media.  It feels like they mostly come from a back-room messaging team in Washington, D.C. (we — the Biden administration — seem to know such an awful lot, and yet are merely disclosing it to the media at regular intervals; a curious pattern if it’s not our problem).

There appears to be little big-picture advantage in that approach, however.  It could transfix the NATO alliance, of course, and make a statement with explosives that Putin feels he hasn’t gotten acknowledgment for with words.

But it would overbalance a Russian commitment unnecessarily, leaving Putin with multiple constraints centered on Ukraine, and fewer options than he’d have if he played a subtler, slower-evolving hand.  My perception is that he wants to get more done than just parade some tanks around Ukraine for a while.

It’s possible Putin calculates that he is in a position to accept the burden of conventional-force commitment in Ukraine, and still get done the other items on his list.  Given the supine posture of Biden and NATO, he could combine a dramatic, classic invasion with asymmetric measures to shape conditions for probes elsewhere.

Or maybe, in the inevitable “dimensional chess” analogy, the Russians have started playing basic checkers with a bad poker face.  But I tend to doubt it.

Given the possibilities of asymmetric war, foreseen for decades, the trick may not be knowing when or if to enter an unfolding world war, but recognizing that we are already there.  We can at least be trying, for the future, to think outside the OODA loop drawn for us by our outdated expectations.  Whatever Putin does, he probably won’t start by “bombing Poland like it’s 1939.”

The good news, however qualified, is that if we shift our thinking and recognize alert conditions earlier, we might still avert the map alterations most imminently in prospect.  And perhaps some others down the road.

Feature image:  Troops of the XVIII Airborne Corps arrive in Germany to form a Task Force HQ as additional airborne troops are deployed to Poland, Feb 2022.  U.S. Army/XVIII Airborne Corps via Twitter

8 thoughts on “Russia-Ukraine: An alternative scenario”

  1. “They’re going to invade on Wednesday” was beyond incredibility.
    Neither Russia nor China will mess with the MENA chokepoints.

    NATO is too busy fighting Truckers who politely protest peacefully.

    It’s ok for Biden to talk with, plead with, Putin to not ‘violate Ukraine’s borders’,
    but neither Trudeau nor Biden will talk with protesting Truckers flying Canadian flags?

  2. Sounds like a high price to pay for not addressing an other Great Power’s legitimate security concerns, Opticon. – – jg

  3. If not now, when? If you have been promising your core supporters that you were going to confront the US someday, isn’t now the perfect time? The US won’t have a senile president forever. Sooner or later, DHS will be forced to curtail its massive human trafficking program and the DOD won’t have any more troops to purge. Your millions of smuggled-in terrorists may start growing fond of the neighborhoods in which they are stationed. The threat that an actual honest election poses to the fortification of democracy grows exponentially. .What are you waiting for?

  4. The nazis infesting the Ukrainian Forces aren’t satisfied with terrorizing ethnic Russians in the areas of the Donbas still under Ukrainian control anymore. They’ve been emboldened by recent Western support. Yesterday, two ethnic Greeks were killed and two seriously wounded in an incident, for no apparent reason, near Mariupol in a village close to the contact line. 120,000 ethnic Greeks populate the areas near Mariupol. I was told, the ukie Foreign Ministry got an earful from Athens. I hope Athens pulls the rug out from under these SOB’s pretending to be victims at the next NATO Council meeting, but that’s wishful thinking. The only American eurovassal that’s shown any sort of spine has been Orban’s Hungary. For some reason, we never hear about ‘incidents’ like these in the ‘West’. . .I wonder why.

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