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The only mountains in Ukraine are in the west (the border with Romania), the Carpathian Mountains. Most of the rest of Ukraine is either steppe - grassland - or woods. Much of the forest has long since been converted into farmland and it was across the farms of Ukraine that German tanks swept with great speed in the early days of the invasion of Russia during World War II. If there’s a great physical obstacle to overcome, it’s the Dnieper River that separates eastern and western Ukraine. But the border between Russia and Eastern Ukraine has few if any natural physical obstacles. And Ukraine’s northern border west of the Dnieper, which it shares with Belarus, also is devoid of any significant physical obstacles.
Said otherwise, Ukraine is not an easily defended piece of terrain.
Could Ukraine defend itself? Perhaps. Every piece of terrain can be defended, every piece of terrain can be taken. It’s all a matter of will and how much you are willing to invest: in people and material.
About the only way to ensure that you are not invaded is, of course, to promise an apocalyptic response if attacked. Ukraine was able to do that for a short period of time. In 1991, after the break up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had the third largest nuclear force in the world, with 150 SS-19 ICBMs, 46 SS-24 mobile ICBMs, and 33 nuclear capable bombers; a total force of more than 1700 nuclear warheads.
Three years later, in December 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up those weapons in exchange for a “commitment” from the US, the UK and Russia to respect the independence of Ukraine; practically speaking, the US would place Ukraine under the US nuclear umbrella in exchange for Ukraine destroying its nuclear weapons.
20 years later, the Sochi Winter Olympics finished, Tsar Vlad moved into Crimea.
And the US did nothing.
What then followed, and continues to this day, has been steadily increasing pressure on Ukraine. In particular, in those areas of Eastern Ukraine where large segments of the populace favor Russia, Russian “Little Green Men” - special operations personnel who led the subversion of Crimea - have worked to undermine Kiev’s control.
Several times over the last six years Russian forces have conducted large-scale operations in close proximity to Ukraine. This happened again recently, with the Russian army moving two Combined Arms Armies (CAA), some 90,000 troops, into the field.
Ukraine has complained to Moscow about these forces, the Ukrainian Defense Minister specifically citing the presence of the 41st CAA near Yelnya, a town about 160 miles north of the Ukrainian border. For those unfamiliar with this sort of thing, when traveling on your own roads, a modern mechanized unit can cover 160 miles in a night.
The commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Lt. Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, also noted Russia has about 2,100 military personnel (those little green men) in the rebel-controlled east, with Russian officers holding the command positions in the separatist forces; Moscow denies the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine.
As for the 41st CAA, per a basic on-line search, it consist of 9 brigades: including 3 motorized rifle brigades, a rocket brigade, an artillery brigade and an air defense brigade; commanded by a Major General Sergey Ryzhkov. The Russian Army uses the term “army” the way the US uses "corps,” a force sized at 2 or more divisions (each division made up of 3 or 4 brigades). Two other CAAs, the 20th and the 8th are headquartered within striking distance of Ukraine. A third, the 22nd, a small CAA, is in Crimea.
What makes this more interesting is that the 41st CAA is headquartered in Novosibirsk, 1500 miles east of Moscow. So: why was the 41st moved?
Are the Russians going to jump off? Or was this just basic maneuvers? Or are they desensitizing everyone to the presence of large, mechanized forces within striking distance of Eastern Ukraine? Hard to say.
But here are some other questions:
With winter setting in and Europe dependent on natural gas from Russia, is Europe more or less likely to support Ukraine?
With the US having gone from an energy exporter to an energy importer in less than a year, and facing rising energy costs and rising inflation, is the US more or less likely to act in a manner that would spike energy prices further?
In the wake of the mismanaged departure from Kabul, is the US more or less likely to risk a major international confrontation?
What if Putin and Xi are working this together, that they have developed a “whole of both governments - whole of both nations” plan to exploit US economic, political and social fault lines to achieve their own goals, whether in Eastern Ukraine, the Baltic States, the South China Sea, Taiwan or elsewhere?
And what of our allies? What lessons should they draw?
Can they, in the light of Kabul, rely on US decision-making?
Can they depend on US economic strength supporting a long, slow “Cold War” style confrontation?
Can they, in light of the US failure to honor its 1994 commitment to Ukraine, count on the shield of the US nuclear umbrella?
One of the nagging thoughts the French held in the 1960s was the fear that, if pressed, the US would be unwilling to engage in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets over the loss of a French city or two. It contributed to the French pulling out of the military side of NATO and declaring their forces, in particular their nuclear forces, as independent from the US.
How much that affected the calculus of Soviet leadership will never be known. But it certainly had to give them a little pause. No one was going to simply march into France again. To do so would be apocalyptic. And the decision would be completely in French hands.
Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, even Japan, must now be thinking some of these thoughts. If the US wants to keep this sort of nuclear proliferation from taking place, it needs to make it very clear that the “nuclear umbrella” remains in place.
Nothing says: “independence” like your own nuclear weapons. Ask North Korea.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...