War in Ukraine would be unlike anything ever seen before — a combination of traditional tank fighting combined with cyber and electronic warfare, social media manipulation, political intrigue and potential mass drone attacks.
But if it happens, experts say, then Russia’s modernised military, honed from fighting in Syria, would sweep aside Ukraine’s defence, at least in the initial phase.
“It is too late now to give Ukraine a chance, because the US is too late with its military assistance,” retired French Army Brig Gen Guy Hubin told The National. “If Russia attacks the help that Nato is providing now will not change the outcome, as to build a consistent fighting force takes a long time.”
Other defence analysts agree that well-trained Russian armoured forces, equipped with western-supplied thermal imaging cameras, will sweep aside the defenders.
“I went to Russia 20 years ago and their troops were dirty and bedraggled but I went back two years ago and they were tactically and physically very smart,” said Chris Foss, chairman of International Armoured Vehicles convention.
“During a three-hour firepower demo nothing went wrong. They were good. So, if they really wanted to move their armour, you wouldn't stop them short term. But the Ukrainians do have the ability to slow them down with anti-tank weapons.”
One of more intriguing aspects of the near-constant talks concerning Moscow is that military commanders — from Russia and Ukraine — will know that by early March the so-called “Rasputitsa” thaw will arrive.
When the winter snow melts the ground will be churned into a quagmire, making passage difficult, even for armoured vehicles. If the Russian tanks are restricted to roads then they will be more vulnerable to Ukraine's US-made Javelin missiles.
Speed will be everything if Moscow is to avoid becoming bogged down both physically and politically.
Even the two swiftest armoured campaigns ever mounted — the German 1940 Blitzkrieg through France and the US-led thrust to Baghdad in 2003 — achieved an average of 32 kilometres a day, meaning it could take 10 days for the Russians to get from the east to the capital Kiev.
While Ukraine would be unlikely to initially stop a “hammerhead armoured thrust” — a tactic of concentrating armour for a breakout before dispersing — it could turn things around by assaults on the long logistics chain that would ensue, particularly as the Russians are dependent on rail resupply.
Stopping the tanks
While it would in military terms be “overmatched”, Ukraine’s capabilities should not be dismissed. Since its defeat when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the army has managed to rebuild and re-equip, particularly with British, American and Polish assistance.
Brig Gen Hubin, a former French cavalry officer, views a Russian tank attack as the key component in any invasion. “Armour will be at the core of tactical organisation,” he said. “Ukraine is an open country that’s ideal for tank deployment as it’s easy to cross and there are not too many cities.”
Certainly, nearly every available American and Nato satellite is currently focused on the tank parks assembled at the border, watching for any hostile movement.
“We’ll know for sure [Russia's] going in when the field hospitals and fuel dumps get positioned on the border, that’s when it gets serious,” a seasoned US Army officer told The National.
Key to stopping any Russia advance will be Ukraine's anti-tank system and its Javelin missiles in particular. Javelins, which the Ukrainians have had time to train with, make tank commanders very nervous.
Able to be carried by infantry on foot, the missile locks on to the heat signal of a target up to 5km away. It has the deadly ability to leap up just before striking, to come down on the weaker upper armour. It is also a “fire and forget” system, allowing the operators time to escape after pressing the trigger, something vital to Ukrainian “shoot and scoot” tactics against overwhelming numbers.
More than 5,000 have been fired in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere at a cost of $112,000 a missile.
One way the Ukrainians might slow down a Russian advance would be using their new Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, bought from Turkey. These proved highly effective for Azerbaijan in taking out Armenian tanks during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
But Ukraine only has an estimated six TB2s and its drone force would be up against arguably one of the best air defence systems.
The Azerbaijan victory was mainly down to winning the key electronic fight right at the very start of the campaign, giving it a “permissive” environment in which to attack the Armenians.
“The electronic and cyber fight will be key in any future war, said Brig Gen Hubin. “At the start you will have a furious struggle for information and electronic warfare because the military tactical link completely depends on it. If this is lost, the battle is lost.”
The Russians have developed their own drone systems, capable of long-range reconnaissance to locate targets for their batteries of Smerch rocket launchers.
If they find a concentration of Ukrainian armour, then a single Smerch launcher can cause devastation with missiles and cluster bombs an area the size of 75 football fields from a distance of 65km.
They also have combat drones and potentially have developed a capability to use swarm attacks in a kamikaze role.
Russia “will first need to degrade [Ukraine's] communications through electronic warfare and there will be political mischief but in the end the armour will have to come over the line”, the US Army officer said. “But Ukraine has plenty of anti-tank weapons and that could make it difficult for them, especially as the distances are big.”
The Ukrainians do have their own upgraded T-80 tanks and self-propelled artillery, although would be outmatched by Russia’s T-90s.
Russia's air defence system would also make Nato think carefully about deploying even its most advanced jets as they would be challenged by their layered defences, which include S-400 anti-aircraft missiles.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin has at least three options if he chooses to invade. The main ambition of the 2014 attack was to link up mainland Russia with Crimea. In this Russia failed, getting to the outskirts of port city Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, before meeting tough Ukrainian resistance.
There is also a pragmatic reason for seizing this southern territory, as Ukraine provided nearly all the water to Crimea for domestic and agricultural use. That has been cut off.
Mr Putin may choose a second option of not only linking to Crimea but seizing all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River. This eastern land mass has a larger pro-Moscow population, a huge area of excellent wheat and barley farming and could form part of his vision of a Greater Russia.
Or he could go for all-out conquest with at least three major simultaneous thrusts: one from Belarus straight down to take the capital Kiev; another from the east through north-east city Kharkiv; and then the southern route to link up with the Crimea and on to the key Black Sea port of Odessa.
Given the sanctions and international condemnation that would follow an attack, the all-out campaign would have to be swift, but is potentially achievable in 10 days. Following victory, Mr Putin could install his own puppet pro-Moscow government and withdraw, giving the world a fait accompli — much as he achieved in Crimea.
Will he really invade?
The National understands that the latest intelligence being briefed to key financial institutions around Europe is that the troop build-up is “posturing for leverage”.
Mr Putin could walk away either with his ally Belarus now firmly under Russian control or with a guarantee that Crimea will receive water again. Russia has struggled to supply the 2.4 million inhabitants of the annexed peninsula with enough water, complaining when Ukraine built a dam over the North Crimean Canal.
Or, at very little political or financial cost, he could draw back on the undertaking that America will not oppose the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline sending gas direct from Russia into Europe via Germany.
That would have the double reward of great financial benefit and undercutting the major gas pipeline that runs through Ukraine.
The very build-up itself has also acted as a marker to Nato that its eastward expansion should stop where it is. The alliance may tacitly acknowledge that Ukraine will not become a Nato member right on Russia’s doorstep.
As an accomplished KGB operator and unchallenged political mastermind of Russia for the past two decades, Mr Putin is unlikely to jeopardise losing it all in one impulsive act.
Things will remain tense until Rasputitsa arrives. After that it will become clear whether the great assembly was Mr Putin flexing his muscles or has real intent.