In late 2021 Ukrainian intel officials explained why Russia was serious about completing their takeover of Ukraine. The initial effort was partially successful but has been stalled since 2014. Ukrainians have long warned that the Russians were not giving up on their plans to reincorporate Ukraine into Russia and rebuild the Russian empire that communist misrule destroyed in 1991. Russia spins their rebuilding of the Russian empire as necessary for peace in the region.
Russia has used a collection of older tactics to create a plan, and a force currently gathered on the Ukrainian borders, to destroy Ukrainian independence by early 2022, probably beginning in January or February. Why a Winter Offensive? Because Russia can turn off the natural gas supplies to Ukraine without angering natural gas customers depending on the pipeline passing through Ukraine. Russia can now supply those customers via new pipelines to Western Europe via the Baltic Sea and avoid Ukraine. These new pipelines turned the gas supply into a valuable weapon. Russia has been waging a psychological warfare campaign on Ukraine since 2014. Ukraine warned the West what was happening and was, as the Russians expected, largely ignored.
Russia has a tiny army compared to the Soviet Union in 1990. After 1991 the Russian military lost 80 percent of its manpower and even more of its annual budget. Since then, the Russian ground forces have been smaller than the American Army in peacetime. That never happened before. But the current Russian leadership, containing a lot of Cold War era KGB officials, believe they can outsmart the West and so far, have had some success at it. This pleases China, which also seeks to restore their empire, which includes Russia’s Pacific Coast areas and perhaps more as well.
The key to the Russian strategy for conquering all of Ukraine is demoralization and multiple armed incursions that will overwhelm Ukrainian ability to handle the situation and further demoralize Ukrainians. Russia currently has nearly 100,000 troops in Ukraine or on the borders, Ukraine believes that Russia will make fifty or more simultaneous attacks using battalion size ground units, advancing into Ukraine from different locations along the northern border as well as from the larger garrison now stationed in Russian occupied Crimea. Russia also has some naval infantry units available for operations along the Ukrainian Black Sea coast as well as over 3,000 airborne and airmobile troops who can be flown in as small groups to attack or disrupt Ukrainian defense efforts. There would be a lot of artillery fire from the Russian side of the border initially as well as airstrikes inside Ukraine. All this offensive action will only last a few days because Russia has not got the supplies for anything longer. The invading units will go for some logistic targets that will provide needed fuel and food, but that cannot be relied on. The plan depends on demoralization of Ukrainians and economic collapse. NATO aid is not expected to be a major factor and keeping Ukraine from joining NATO has been a root cause of all this aggression against an independent Ukraine. Russia wants to make it clear that Ukrainians would be safer from this violence if they were part of Russia, and not an annoying neighbor.
Ukraine has been getting some military aid from the United States and other NATO states since 2014 and points out what Russia is planning is what was done to European nations by the Nazi Germans and Soviet Russians from the 1930s through the late 1940s. If Europe wants to avoid a repeat of past horrors, they must act fast. That might happen and is one reason Russia is making serious preparations for another offensive against Ukraine.
Ukraine has formed and expanded its armed forces since 2014 and currently has 250,000 troops on active duty and most (80 percent) in the ground forces. Conscription was halted in 2013, but revived in 2014 because of the Russian invasion. Because of this Ukraine has several hundred thousand men with military experience who can be called up, armed, and organized into units to deal with a major emergency. The ground forces also include about 10,000 special operations and airborne/airmobile troops. Russia has many agents inside Ukraine and knows of the growing reserve and paramilitary forces and the enthusiasm of Ukrainians to obtain military training to defend their independence. Russia has a lot of reluctant conscripts which means a large portion of their ground forces are untrained or poorly trained for offensive or special operations. Russia is putting most of its effective units into the new Ukrainian offensive.
In early 2014 the Russian operation to take the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine had a bracing effect on the other countries that, until 1991, were part of the ancient Russian Empire. In part this is because the Crimean operation was the second such land grab Russia has undertaken. The first was against tiny Georgia in 2008. Many of these former Russian subjects feel that the Russians are trying to get their empire back. Ask many Russians that question and most agree that it would be a nice thing. Some Russians are more outspoken and bluntly call for the empire to be reassembled no matter what. In reaction to all this the fourteen nations; the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Belarus (whose leader is pro-Russian but its people are not), Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the five Central Asian “stans” of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, that were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, as well as many East European states that were subject to Russian occupation from the end of World War II to 1989 became very nervous after 2014. They were concerned but not alarmed or paying close attention to what was going on in Ukraine. That meant no plans to get involved in the defense of Ukraine if there was a major Russian attack.
Poland was particularly agitated because large parts of Poland were part of the Russian empire for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Same deal with Finland, which broke away after World War I and had to fight off a 1940 Russian invasion and many threats since then to stay independent. There was a similar fear in Norway and Sweden, which also have land borders with Russia. That makes the forlorn fourteen the scared seventeen. All these nations have noted what happened to Georgia and Ukraine with great trepidation and are responding in expected and unexpected ways. Poland and the Baltic States managed to join NATO after the Cold War ended and are hoping that the mutual defense terms of the NATO alliance will dissuade Russia. Nevertheless, everyone bordering Russia has increased their military readiness this year and are seeking assurances from the West that they will have help against Russia.
Many Finns have called for Finland to join NATO, but a large minority has opposed this because of the fear it would anger the Russians. There was a similar division in Ukraine but since 2014 more Finns are thinking that NATO membership is preferable to trusting Russia to always behave. Even Sweden, never part of the Russian empire and successfully neutral since the early 19th century is thinking about joining NATO for protection from an increasingly aggressive Russia. The stans of Central Asia have another option; China. The stans have been very receptive to Chinese diplomatic and economic cooperation. This bothers Russia, but not to the extent that threats are being made, as was the case with the former imperial provinces to the west.
The stans also have a problem with never having been democracies. When the Russians conquered them in the 19th century, the local governments were monarchies or tribes. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, locals who were former Soviet officials held elections and manipulated the vote to get themselves elected "president for life." But many people in the stans want clean government and democracy, as well as continued independence from Russia. China is no help with that because the Chinese prefer dictators. In the Caucasus Georgia still seeks closer ties with the West. Armenia, because of disputes with Azerbaijan and long-term fear of Turkey remains a close ally of Russia. Azerbaijan maintains good relations with Russia mainly because Iran claims Azerbaijan as a lost province, stolen by Russia in the 19th century.
Russia has long been quite open about wanting to rebuild the old Tsarist Empire that the communists managed to lose in 1991 when the Soviet Union came apart and half the population of that empire went off and formed 14 new countries or reconstituted old ones the Russians had conquered. Russia is proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. There’s been some progress, but many of these 14 nations want nothing to do with Russia. Meanwhile Russia must face the fact that when the Soviet Union broke up half the population willingly went to the 14 new countries and most of those people were quite enthusiastic about ending the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was basically the Russian Empire cobbled together by the old czarist monarchy over more than two centuries of conquest and expansion. Thus, in the Soviet Union half the population felt like conquered people, not part of any union.
The Soviet Union dissolved quickly in 1990-91 because over half the population really wanted it to happen and had wanted it for a long time. Moreover, many ethnic Russians were tired of supporting a lot of the less affluent conquered peoples and were fed up with the economic failures of communism. The former Soviet Union citizens who regret the breakup tend to be older people who were disillusioned at how corruption and bad leadership made post-Soviet life less wonderful than expected. The younger people are more realistic, never having lived as adults in the Soviet Union and are intimately familiar with the fact that freedom isn’t free and democracy is hard. For younger Russians there are more economic opportunities than under communism. While Russia lost half its population in 1991, it hung on to most of the valuable natural resources like oil and natural gas. That meant more prosperity for post-Soviet Union Russians. While the post-Soviet government was initially reluctant to increase state supplied pensions, which were low during the Soviet period because there was little to spend it on and the state supplied housing and some health care, the pensions did eventually go up. But not as much as the economy grew and the working Russians were obviously doing better than the pensioners who had grown up under communism. In Soviet times that meant there was little economic opportunity and most everyone was equally poor. The old-timers never got used to the changes and most would prefer the communists to come back. That won’t happen and as the generations that grew up under communism die off so will any desire to return to the bad (but familiar) old days. Nevertheless, enough Russians favor rebuilding the empire to make the idea a popular talking point among major politicians and that may continue for decades.
A big supporter of Russian aggression is China. In large part this is because China is also an empire trying to reclaim lost territories. That some of those territories are currently Russia’s Far East (areas bordering the Pacific) is not officially discussed in Russia or China but is no secret to many Russians and Chinese. That is a problem for another day as currently Russia and China support each other’s imperial ambitions in Ukraine and the South China Sea and help each other out to deal with any associated problems, especially the UN or economic sanctions.
Another reason China is watching Ukraine carefully is because China is violating an international maritime borders treaty it signed by claiming all the South China Sea. What happens to Russia for violating the 1994 agreement to protect Ukrainian borders in return for Ukraine getting rid of its Cold War era nukes is of interest to China. Russia simply says the 1994 agreement does not apply and that attitude will influence what China does with its numerous offshore territorial disputes. Another problem with violating the 1994 agreement is the message it sends to states like Iran and North Korea. The message is that if you really want to keep invaders out and dominate neighbors, you need nukes.
As for nuclear armed Russia, earlier threats to use nukes against the NATO “threat” caused momentary consternation but were soon discounted because that was all the Russians had to deter real threats and NATO, the United States or an independent minded Ukraine were not a real threat to Russia. When informed that NATO, including the Americans, would respond militarily to a Russian invasion of all Ukraine, the Russia leader responded that such an attack was not going to happen because the Russian plans and concentration of troops on the Ukrainian border were an effort to see what Russia could get away with while avoiding a major war that Russian could not afford. Or something like that. With the Russians it is more realistic to depend on what they can do right now and not predictions of what they might do.