Many ‘false flag’ operations recently deflected attention and concealed Russia’s plans for military action against Ukraine, such as the reported explosion of a gas pipeline in Luhansk, the use of a non-existent ‘threat’ that Ukraine might try to retake Donbas by force because of a reported ‘genocide’, or the general mobilization of separatist troops in occupied Donbas.
Such proven tactics have already been used in a similar way to justify Russia’s intervention in Chechnya in 1999 as well as against Georgia in 2008 among others, so it is no surprise Moscow is using them again. And the organization of a nuclear-readiness check exercise acts as a deterrent against international decision-makers.
The organization of an emergency National Security Council meeting in Russia on 21 February was a pretext to justify further military action against Ukraine. And Putin’s announcement recognizing the legal existence of the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ was a game-changer as it gave Russia the excuse it needed to ‘defend’ the separatist territories against a fabricated Ukrainian attack. On 23 February, on the eve of the military operations, Putin even declared Ukraine an ‘occupier’ in Donbas, demanding Ukrainian forces be withdrawn from the ‘People’s Republics’.
A new military geography is unfolding
War operations will not stop with occupied Donbas. Initial ground and air strikes have been concentrating on destroying key Ukrainian military command and control (C2) assets and civilian infrastructure in major urban centres. Russian troops and heavy infantry units have moved in force into Ukraine to prepare for the next phase.
A full-scale ground invasion of Ukraine is now likely in the coming days across several fronts. The goal will be to quickly seize territory, occupy more of Ukraine, and declare a fait accompli. The new military geography remains unknown but a worst-case scenario would be the complete seizure of Ukraine, which is not entirely excluded at this stage.
Russia’s war termination strategy will unfold only if, and when, the Kremlin believes it has reached an acceptable outcome – in other words, when Moscow can credibly declare a form of victory. The problem is no-one knows what endgame is acceptable to the Russian elite, what ‘success’ looks like for the Kremlin, and what Russia considers its desired end state over Ukraine. One thing is sure however – the human cost is likely to be extremely high, both in terms of casualties and refugees.
Since the beginning of 2022, the standoff has been defined on Russia’s terms, and so will its end. Renewed war with Ukraine is a political decision Moscow probably made weeks ago, and international policymakers failed to recognize in time that the crisis had tipped over into war before Russian tanks started firing.
What happens in the next few days
Three main factors are now impacting Moscow’s timeline. The first is Ukraine’s broader military response – especially the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to mount a rapid counter-offensive to protect the country. The second is Russian public sentiment regarding the war, especially when the ‘body-bag count’ starts piling up. And the third is the scope and scale of the international response.