What would Russia’s big attack on Ukraine look like?
Illia Ponomarenko January 13, 2022

What would Russia’s big attack on Ukraine look like?

What would Russia’s big attack on Ukraine look like?

Kyiv, Ukraine — You suddenly wake up in your flat outside Kyiv to the sound of rolling thunder. 

Your window glass is rattling, you can see flashes of light breaking through the dead of night. Air raid sirens shake your district’s streets. Your neighbors pace in their apartments next-door, too, in panic and fear, having no idea what’s going on.

The Russian air forces and missiles are destroying Ukraine’s key defense infrastructure to pave the way for armored hordes on the ground. It’s a war. It is happening. And many of us here in Ukraine now might have this nightmare come true at any moment. 

The war crisis between Russia and Ukraine goes on with no tangible signs of de-escalation, as over 100,000 Russian troops still surround Ukraine in what can result in an all-out invasion.

Even though it’s been weeks in this crisis, nobody knows if the worst is to happen. If, though, Russia decides to make the biggest mistake in its modern history and try and seize much (or all) of Ukraine, what would such an operation look like? 

It turns out that Russia’s plan is potentially easy to predict.

The first shots would likely be fired in the media space. A big and blood-littered war against a country of more than 40 million and the size of France would require a loud casus belli. The Kremlin, via its state-sponsored propaganda mouthpieces, would start with a major disinformation barrage, with lots of hysteria being spread aggressively.

We are already seeing that in what Moscow is doing now. Over the last several weeks, the Kremlin has escalated its warlike rhetoric against Ukraine and the West. All those statements about the United States deploying unnamed chemical weapons agents to Donbas for staging “provocation” against Russia, all the accusations towards Ukraine committing a “genocide” against the people of Donbas, all those predictions of a NATO military action against Russia. 

Russian troops at a military base in Perevalne, Crimea. IMAGE: Anton Holoborodko

As Ukrainian intelligence says, the war preparation might also include instigating mass unrest and general political instability in Ukraine, possibly with widespread acts of violence. A widespread cyberspace offensive is also likely — or at least intended — to plunge the whole nation into chaos. 

In other words, the mission is to paint the picture of Russia having no moral choice other than to intervene for the sake of saving “a brotherly people,” or to launch a military response against “Western invaders.”

Then, the H-hour comes — likely a series of air- and missile- strikes to cripple Ukraine’s key infrastructure and possibly behead the Ukrainian armed forces.

This triggers our worst expectations — Ukraine’s air and missile defense is still pretty weak since our Air Force fleet is outdated and we lack experienced jet fighter pilots. 

The likelihood is that the ground phase would come within just hours of the air offensive. Here in Ukraine, it is reasonable to expect Russian ground strikes coming from three main directions: 

  • The Black Sea coastline. We should likely expect amphibious landing operations at key cities of Odesa, Kherson, and Mykolaiv. A combined arms offensive should also be expected from Russian-occupied Crimea to secure control of Ukraine’s southern coastline, as well as the North Crimean canal, which is supposed to supply drinking water to the peninsula but is closed due to Russian occupation. Given the weakness of Ukraine’s navy, the Russian Black Sea fleet is expected to enjoy supremacy at the sea. 
  • Offensive from the east. Combined Russian regular and local pro-Russian formations burst west from the occupied Donbas, break the Ukrainian front line defenses, and rush towards the key cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhia. This move might secure the control of many important points in the Azov Sea aquatic area, such as the key ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk. Besides, this offensive, after meeting with Russia’s forces in Ukraine’s south, would provide the Kremlin with a ground-borne link between mainland Russia and Crimea. 
  • Rush towards Ukraine’s southeast and center. This offensive can be launched by forces deployed to Russia’s southwestern regions bordering Ukraine, as well as Belarus. The incoming battalion tactical groups encouraged by Russia’s superiority in the air are expected to try to seize strategic cities like Kyiv or Kharkiv — or, possibly, bypass them in the operation’s early stage and rush deeper inside Ukraine. This group might expect to meet up the eastern offensive, probably in the vicinity of the Dnipro city — and to swiftly surround, demoralize, and destroy the Ukrainian armed forces in the country’s east and center. 

What would come next after this blitz is likely Moscow forcing the demoralized political leadership of Ukraine into a deal on its own new terms — and also pinning the shocked West down to the new reality. 

It is a matter of discussion, of course, if Russia is capable of such a grand and complex military action the scale of which would outstrip the Iraq invasion of 2003. Or if it is capable of paying the wages of occupying such a huge and hostile country like Ukraine. 

Estimates by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reckon that an all-out invasion might entail 10,000 or more fatalities a day, and also drive westward between 2 million and 3 million refugees fleeing their devastated cities. So it would go without saying that the West would have to do something about the Russian invasion, starting with  severe economic sanctions and political isolation.

That would make its task even more costly and difficult. If the unthinkable were to come, though, the Russians would need to launch the kind of steps mentioned here. And they would have to do it fast. Otherwise, they would bog down in an epic massacre in the middle of Europe in the year 2022 — a massive, brutal war they can’t win. 

Illia Ponomarenko is a defense reporter for The Kyiv Independent in Ukraine. He previously wrote for the Kyiv Post.