President Vladimir Putin’s forces have encircled Ukraine.
Many believe that these deployments are a feint, that what we’re actually seeing is one big scare tactic, designed to deter international sanctions. Perhaps.
Still, it’s a dangerous gamble to assume that Putin will stay within Crimea. In fact, two specific factors suggest that Russia’s president may be planning a new offensive.
First, consider the character of Russia’s military deployments.
Over the last few days, among the many units that have been sent on “exercise” near Ukraine, Russia has deployed 8,500 artillery troops to its southern military district (the Russian military command that borders Ukraine). Additionally, Putin has sent an airborne brigade into the Rostov Oblast, which runs along Ukraine’s southeastern border. The Russians have also accepted a “request” from Belarus to situate forces in their territory (in this case, fighter jets).
Again, Russia claims that these actions are simply about training and preparedness. But the combined arms encirclement is concerning. At a strategic level, whether this is preparation or posturing, Putin is establishing a superb position from which to launch a very serious attack and envelop Ukraine’s eastern territories.
Invading from the north, east, and southeast, the Russians could likely overwhelm the Ukrainian military in a classic pincer movement. By seizing the E105 highway, which runs from Kharkiv on the northern border of eastern Ukraine to the transport hub of Melitopol on the coast, Putin would be able to open a supply route to his forces in Crimea. In doing so, he could establish a contiguous front line against western Ukraine. Taking advantage of the Dnieper River, which runs from north to south, the Russians could effectively split Ukraine into two parts.
While Russia might not annex eastern Ukraine in its entirety, a push to the Dnieper would evidently destabilize the government in Kiev. Putin would regard the perception of a split Ukraine as a victory in and of itself.
In this context, Russia’s airborne deployment is especially concerning. These paratroopers are trained and prepared for aggressive seizure operations, which would be critical to any invasion.
All of this leads us to one unenviable question.