Putin’s Likely Course of Action in Ukraine: Updated Course of Action Assessment
By Frederick W. Kagan, Mason Clark, George Barros, and Kateryna Stepanenko
Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the crisis he created by mobilizing a large military force around Ukraine to achieve two major objectives: first, advancing and possibly completing his efforts to regain effective control of Ukraine itself, and second, fragmenting and neutralizing the NATO alliance. Russian military preparations can support a massive invasion of Ukraine from the north, east, and south that could give Putin physical control of Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, allowing him to dictate terms that would accomplish the first objective. Such an invasion, however, might undermine his efforts to achieve the second objective because it could rally the NATO alliance around the need to respond to such a dramatic act of aggression. An invasion would also entail significant risks and definite high costs. A Russian military action centered around limited military operations in southern and southeastern Ukraine coupled with a brief but widespread and intense air and missile campaign could better position Putin to achieve both aims as well as reduce the likely costs and risks to Russia.
We therefore currently forecast that:
- Russia will not conduct a full mechanized invasion to conquer all of Ukraine this winter (unchanged).
- Russian mechanized forces will overtly deploy into occupied Donbas on a large scale by mid-February (increased likelihood).
- Russia may launch an air and missile campaign throughout unoccupied Ukraine in conjunction with an overt deployment into occupied Donbas (newly identified course of action).
- Russia may conduct limited ground incursions north and west from occupied Donbas and/or north from Crimea.
Our previous forecast that Russia would deploy mechanized forces to Belarus in early 2022 (which we first made in December 2020 and last updated in December 2021) has transpired.
We have identified a new course of action since our previous examination of Russian options that Putin is preparing and may pursue in conjunction with an overt move into occupied Donbas: an air and missile campaign, possibly extensive, throughout unoccupied Ukraine. We have observed indicators that he is preparing this option. We assess that such an air campaign in unoccupied Ukraine is significantly more likely than an invasion intended to seize large areas of unoccupied Ukraine, including Kyiv and other major cities. Putin could initiate the air and missile campaign and/or limited ground incursions in southeastern and southern Ukraine before Russian forces have completed deployments to and preparations along the northern Ukrainian frontier and in Belarus. We are not yet ready as of January 27, 2022, to forecast that Putin will actually order the air and missile campaign in conjunction with the move into Donbas, but policymakers must be aware of the conditions the Kremlin is setting for that contingency—separate from preparations for a major ground offensive.
A Russian air and missile campaign that targets both occupied and unoccupied Ukraine could pose an even greater short-term challenge to the US and NATO than an invasion to occupy most of Ukraine in the same way that a live hostage situation creates more tension and complexity while in progress than a completed murder. Once Russian mechanized forces have seized Ukraine’s capital and major cities, Putin’s effective leverage on the West drops substantially, as he will have exercised the near-complete extent of his ability to damage Ukraine and left little for the West to try to deter by action or prevent by appeasement.
A partial attack that retains the visible capability to go further, however, increases the pressure on the West to meet some of Putin’s demands to dissuade him from further violence. Holding back from the conquest of Kyiv and major Ukrainian cities allows Putin to continue to demand concessions from the West that transcend Ukrainian issues, such as blanket commitments not to expand NATO further. Russia’s military conquest of Ukraine would seem to make such commitments irrelevant and reduce pressure on the West to make them.
An air and missile campaign that leaves the Ukrainian state nominally independent with a beleaguered and fearful government and people, however, allows Putin to protract the crisis. He can continue his efforts to maximize the tension and friction among Ukraine, the United States, and America’s European allies (especially the Germans, given their extreme vulnerability to Russia’s energy pressure) by using the threats of continuing air attacks, the economic devastation of Ukraine and Europe, or, finally, the invasion and occupation of Ukraine.
An air and missile campaign against unoccupied Ukraine would pose less cost and risk to Russia compared with an invasion and occupation of territory, although an air and missile campaign would incur more cost and risk than simply moving forces overtly into occupied Donbas without attacking beyond the current line of contact. The United States and NATO should prioritize developing a coherent response to this course of action in addition to their other efforts to deter and set conditions to respond to Russian threats.
The objectives of such a Russian air and missile campaign could include:
- Expanding wedges in the Western alliance;
- Increasing pressure on the West to make larger concessions regarding NATO expansion in general and the disposition of NATO forces in eastern Europe;
- Forcing Ukraine to make further concessions to Russian demands regarding occupied Donbas;
- Coercing Ukraine into accepting a new version of the Minsk Accords or an entirely different agreement making even more concessions that undermine Ukrainian sovereignty;
- Forcing Ukraine to amend its constitution to rule out NATO membership;
- Disrupting the Ukrainian government;
- Creating a governance and stability crisis in Ukraine by forcing concessions that infuriate Ukrainian patriots;
- Crippling the Ukrainian economy; and
- Severely degrading the Ukrainian military to set conditions for further demands or Russian military activities if Putin is not able to secure his objectives through this more limited campaign.
An air and missile campaign would be far more likely to achieve these objectives than simply moving Russian forces overtly into occupied Donbas. It would also be more likely to achieve these aims at a cost acceptable to Putin than a mechanized drive along the northern Azov Sea coast would alone.
If the Kremlin can protract the crisis on its terms, it can raise the costs to the United States and NATO. The United States and NATO must prioritize preventing Putin from protracting the crisis by rapidly increasing the risks to his forces and the cost to the Russian economy as soon as he initiates the conflict either by moving forces overtly into occupied Donbas or by attacking unoccupied Ukraine.
The United States and NATO could best deter or disrupt such an attack by deploying and using ground- and sea-based air- and missile- defense systems and stealth fighters to shoot down Russian manned aircraft attacking targets in unoccupied Ukraine. The purpose of such Western military operations would be to impose high-enough costs on Russia to persuade Putin to avoid or terminate the operation.
Overt Russian deployments into Donbas with or without a Russian air campaign in unoccupied Ukraine should trigger the full array of US and European punitive sanctions on Russia. The United States and its allies should also define a threshold at which continued covert Russian deployments into occupied Donbas would trigger a response. But the Russian course of action considered in this essay, including the air and missile campaign, puts tremendous pressure on the US relationship with its reluctant partners, especially Germany, if it does not involve significant Russian forces invading unoccupied Ukraine. The United States and its more-committed allies must prepare now for this challenging contingency.
European responses to US attempts to rally the alliance to deter Putin thus far suggest that a more limited Russian attack is more likely to weaken and fragment NATO than the military conquest of most of Ukraine. A full Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine including Kyiv and/or other major urban centers collapses the West’s decision-space and is the likeliest Russian course of action to trigger a strong, coherent set of Western reactions. Russian military aggression short of a full-scale invasion, even including an extensive air campaign, however, gives Putin the initiative and creates uncertainty about how Putin will ultimately resolve the crisis. Putin has used this approach to great effect in Syria and elsewhere. It opens room for much debate and disagreement about responses among the United States, its European allies, and Ukraine. Continuing Russian economic pressure on Europe, especially Germany, amidst such a crisis may seriously erode alliance cohesion.
The United States and its other NATO partners must nevertheless accept the risk of serious strain and even damage to the US-German and NATO-German relationship to respond decisively to this more-limited form of Russian aggression. Allowing Putin to coerce major concessions from Ukraine or the West through limited aggression poses a greater danger to the NATO alliance’s cohesion, credibility, and even survival than does antagonizing Germany and other recalcitrant NATO members by imposing tough economic penalties on Russia that hurt those allies economically. Repairing strains with Germany and other allies, especially those caused by bad decisions the German government has already made, is a more manageable problem in the long run.