KIEV, Ukraine —The guns haven’t quite gone quiet but with a fragile cease-fire in Ukraine, the key question being asked these days in Kiev, Brussels and Washington boils down to this: What is Russia’s next move?
Western leaders say Moscow has fueled the conflict by first covertly invading and annexing the Crimean peninsula a year ago and then backing separatists in Ukraine’s east with cash and weapons.
Russia has denied direct involvement in the year-long conflict which, so far, has cost the lives of more than 6,000 people, according to the United Nations.
But corpses of Russian soldiers coming back from the front in body bags and the presence of Russian weapons and military equipment on the Ukrainian side of the border strongly suggests that Moscow has sent military forces to fight in Ukraine.
The U.S. estimates as many as 12,000 Russian troops are presently operating inside Ukraine. A report released this week reveals just how massive Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine really is, even listing specific units.
So what happens next?
Three Russian military scenarios in Ukraine
One scenario is Russia pushing west from separatist-controlled Donetsk through the strategic port city of Mariupol, currently held by Ukrainian forces, and on to Kherson to create a land bridge stretching to Moscow-annexed Crimea.
This would require a force between 24,000 and 36,000 military personnel during the course of six to 14 days, according to Stratfor. Kiev and the West has already warned of a buildup of thousands of Russian forces in the southwestern Rostov region near the Ukraine border, and among Kremlin-backed separatist forces near the eastern edge of Mariupol.
Having that land bridge would give Moscow 150 miles of new coastline and control over the entire Azov Sea as well as any offshore oil and gas reserves and an unobstructed supply route to the peninsula.
Another scenario would be Moscow seizing the entire southern coast of Ukraine in order to connect Russia to Moldova’s breakaway territory of Transnistria, a post-Soviet frozen conflict since 1992. Some 2,000 Russian soldiers are currently stationed in Transnistria.
This would take a significant attacking force of between 40,000 and 60,000 troops driving almost 400 miles to seize 40,000 square miles of territory encompassing 103,600 square kilometers during the course of 23 to 28 days, according to a Stratfor estimate.
The sweeping move would cripple Kiev by cutting off access to the Black Sea and the crucial port city of Odessa, not to mention assist in creating a direct supply route from Russia to Transnistria.
A third scenario presented by Stratfor involves Russia taking all of eastern Ukraine to the Dnieper River, encroaching upon Kiev, an operation that would require a massive military undertaking. Between 91,000 and 135,000 troops would be needed for this offensive — the most ambitious of the three outlined.
Russian forces stretched thin
In each case, a massive defensive military force requiring tens of thousands more troops would still be needed after the offensive.
And with Russia’s military and financial resources stretched thin, says the Russia report, that would be a significant challenge.
“Indeed, it is obvious that there are insufficient resources -– military and financial –- under the Kremlin’s command to sustain military operations at the current level for over a year: the military capabilities required to carry out the operation are already reaching their limits,” the report states.
Of course, other scenarios are possible, too. The Stratfor video below outlines six offensive military options Russia could conduct in Ukraine.
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