At daybreak on 24 February 2022, Russia mounted a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on all fronts, with Russian tank crews moving from the north through Belarus simultaneously with other forces moving from the west of Russia and a sea-borne invasion conducted through the Sea of Azov and Crimea.
Clashes broke out on the outskirts of Luhansk, recognized by Moscow as an independent republic two days before the start of the invasion in Shasta, which was under the control of the nationalists loyal to the Kiev regime in the Donbas. In this vein, the Ukrainian army claimed its defense systems had shot down five Russian fighters and helicopters, which the Russian army denied, announcing neutralizing Ukrainian air defenses.
The First Strike: Militarily Paralyzing Ukraine
The sudden Russian invasion of Ukraine, an hour before dawn, reflects Moscow’s move towards imposing total (land, air, and sea) blockade of Ukraine. In many respects, the first strike unveiled an accelerated implosion of Ukrainian border defenses. From Donbass, Russian forces aimed at making advances on the north, and within less than five hours, they found their way to Lviv in western Ukraine towards the Ukrainian border with Poland. With the sea-borne invasion from the south through Crimea, Russia seems to be fully encircling Ukraine to tighten its blockade. In parallel, missiles rained down on the capital, Kiev, which seemed uninhabited, with residents rushing into bomb shelters and subway stations.
The first strike also crippled the Ukrainian Air Force, with Russia targeting 12 airports causing them to go out of operation. Likewise, separatists’ command centers in Donbas and Russian naval forces are working to prevent the arrival of any military reinforcements from abroad.
So, in this initial phase, Ukraine no longer has an option but to move its ground forces which will not be an easy option either. While the Ukrainian Ground Forces is better off than the naval and air forces, its deployment in the latter period and performance in cases of mobilization since last year are revealing of a potentially limited resistance to the Russian forces.
When it comes to the Russian military deployment, we find that, on the front line, Russian forces formed land and sea cordon and imposed air blockade whereas behind the lines, forces from the north are supporting Belarusian forces. Indeed, Belarus has been the strategic arena that has been set for the scene more than a week ago through “strategic deterrence” maneuvers, including exercises by strategic nuclear missile forces and tests of hypersonic Kinzhal missiles. Additionally, the Russian Southern Fleet was strengthened with Moskva and Corvette cruisers and Kilo submarines. Defensively, interceptor batteries, Iskander missile systems, and two S-400 missile systems have been deployed in Asipovichy deep into Belarus, in addition to three S-400 systems deployed in Krasnodar Krai along the demarcation lines with Georgia and along the Black Sea, in preparation for any possible air attack from the sea. Further, various battalions have been deployed in Yelena – an accommodation in Crimea situated northeast of Gora Syuryu-Kaya, and northwest of Bukhta Koktebel – towards the north to strengthen the front near the Baltic borders. This deployment is demonstrative of Russia’s readiness for a second strike, a potential scenario if the NATO forces took any military action from outside Ukraine.
NATO’s Preparations: Mobilization and Defensive Emergency
Simultaneously with Russia’s military action, NATO’s military preparations for deployment started in mid-February 2022. In effect, NATO had had doubts that Moscow may back off invading Ukraine. Upon the Russian invasion, the NATO Council convened to respond to Russia. The current state of “mobilization” reflects preparation for a defense emergency operation aimed at safeguarding Europe’s eastern wall (i.e. the Baltics, Poland, Germany, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria), noting that the infrastructure in these countries, particularly Poland, is still “under construction”.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine came as a preemptive step against Ukraine’s possible accession to NATO, as step the deferment which wasn’t ascribed to NATO’s open door policy but rather lack of Ukraine’s military preparedness. As such, the current mobilization in eastern Europe is not geared towards responding to Russia –against which sanctions have been imposed to economically isolate it– but comes in preparation for what the European Union called as Moscow’s attempts to sabotage Europe’s defense architecture.
In this vein, the United States European Command (EUCOM) deployed 4,000 troops in Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia (including a German battalion and 360 reconnaissance and artillery troops deployed before the Putin-Schultz meeting) concurrently with the Pentagon announcing placing about 8,500 troops, mostly from the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on heightened alert status for possible deployment to Eastern Europe. Furthermore, on 10 February, the B-52H strategic bomber was deployed at the British Fairford base. Concomitantly, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that other bombers could be sent to Romania, along with NATO’s existing military assets that include the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System deployed in Poland, Romania (Deveselu) and Turkey (Kargıcak, a suburb in Alanya), the operation headquarters in Germany, 4,600-strong rapid reaction force, French-led joint operation group comprising 40,000 soldiers that can be can be deployed within 3 days, and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium.
As such, it is still early to see a second strike coming. Along with strengthening its defenses in Eastern Europe, NATO will evaluate the situation to take action in line with the Russian moves in Kiev and the size of the forces and military capabilities employed in the operation. However, the current state of mobilization isn’t likely to give rise to a second strike that would require three days of counter preparations for full mobilization. That said, the assessment of the situation will all depend on China’s support to Russia. Speaking of blocs, NATO relies on Turkey, a NATO member, which already contributed to strengthening Ukraine’s military capabilities providing it with Bayraktar unmanned combat aerial vehicles. However, Russia, too, counts on Turkey to close the Bosporus. This poses a significant challenge for Ankara. The developments of this whole scene may lead up to a worst scenario for the whole world, i.e. a third world war that won’t be in the interests of any party.
Overall, Russia took the first step, imposing rules of engagement by invading Ukraine. The Russian invasion wasn’t of a great surprise to Ukraine as it was to NATO, notwithstanding its expectations that an invasion was a more likely scenario. This put NATO in the difficult position of having to respond militarily. So far, NATO is likely to move towards securing its front lines along the demarcation lines with Russia in preparation for what’s ahead.