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The Bear in the Woods – Prepping for Invasion

“Moves against Ukraine and the Baltics will be likely to occur in four phases that would coincide with Russian political decisions to reclaim areas previously controlled by the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia.” 

“There is a bear in the woods.” So began the famous political ad in 1984 for President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign. In the commercial, the bear was a symbol of the Soviet Union. The commercial questioned whether some individuals in America saw the bear as a danger or not – it posed the idea that it might be best to be as strong as the bear. The commercial was a tremendous success and helped separate Reagan from his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Once again, there is a bear in the woods, but now it is the Russian Federation. This time, the bear is preparing to move West.

Since late 2013, the Russian ground forces have placed an increasing number of maneuver formations along their western borders with Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Finland, and Norway. They have expanded brigades into divisions by activating mobilization storage depots into brigades, and transferring other maneuver forces west from the Central Military District.

Equally significant, however, is that Russia has increased the number of operational-level headquarters along these borders. These headquarter units are responsible for executing any political decision to occupy Eastern Ukraine, Ukraine in total, or the Baltic States.

Prior to the Ukraine Crisis, Russia had only four operational-level headquarters in the two military districts (the Western and Southern) that border the Baltic states, Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine. These were the 49th and 58th Armies in the Southern Military District, and the 6th and 20th Guards Armies in the Western Military District.

Equally significant, however, is that Russia has increased the number of operational-level headquarters along these borders.

Since 2014, the Russians have transferred the 20th Guards Army from Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow, to Voronezh – near the Ukrainian border; reconstituted the 1st Guards Tank Army near Moscow; reconstituted the 8th Army (with the traditions of the famous 8th Guards Army) in Rostov-on-Don; and organized the 11th, 14th, and 22nd Army Corps in the Kaliningrad Oblast, Kola Peninsular, and Crimea Peninsular respectively. Augmenting these formations has been the creation of two separatists’ army corps in eastern Ukraine, both of which are certainly under Russian control.

These changes represent a significant increase in the number of operational-level headquarters in Western and Southern Military Districts. There can be no doubt the increase in these command headquarters means the Russian General Staff and Ministry of Defense are preparing for ground force operations in the future, should a political decision be made to do so. Moves against Ukraine and the Baltics will be likely to occur in four phases that would coincide with Russian political decisions to reclaim areas previously controlled by the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia.

The first phase has already occurred with the occupation and annexing of the Crimea peninsular. We are currently in the middle of the second phase – liberating the heavily populated Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. The political goal of this second phase is no doubt to turn this region into either an independent state (Novorussia) or eventually Russia.

The third phase would be the occupation of the remainder of Ukraine, and the fourth phase would be a move into the Baltics. This last phase, a move against the Baltics States, would probably only occur should NATO interfere with the occupation of Ukraine in total.

The disposition of these operational-level headquarters along Russia’s western border gives an indication as to how the Russian General staff might execute an invasion of eastern and western Ukraine, and any subsequent decision to occupy the Baltic States.  When the second phase, occupation of the remaining portions of eastern Ukraine, is executed – Russian strategic and ground forces would operate and maneuver in order to transition seamlessly into the third phase for the complete occupation of Ukraine, with minimal reorganization or resupply.

Spetsnaz troops would clandestinely enter the country to prepare for attacks against command and control facilities, communications and transportation nodes, and strategic bridges in eastern Ukraine

Opening moves to occupy eastern Ukraine would occur days before Russian ground forces actually cross Ukraine’s border from separatist occupied areas. Spetsnaz troops would clandestinely enter the country to prepare for attacks against command and control facilities, communications and transportation nodes, and strategic bridges in eastern Ukraine and along the Dnieper River. Hours before the first ground troops initiated a full invasion of eastern Ukraine, airborne troops would be inserted to capture airfields, bridges, and other strategic targets.

The 22nd Army Corps in Crimea, and the two separatist army corps in eastern Ukraine, would be tasked to engage and pin Ukrainian ground forces in Kherson and Donbas in order to prevent these forces from reinforcing the southern and northern flanks where the main Russian ground attacks would occur.

Russian ground forces would conduct an invasion into Ukraine via three main axes. In the South, the 8th Army would conduct a breakthrough operation at Mariupol and maintain an operational direction towards Kherson. Should a decision be made to execute the third phase — liberation of Ukraine — the 8th Army would advance to Mykolayiv, Odessa, and then to the Moldova border.

The main goal of the 8th Army would be to remove the Black Sea as a viable means for resupply from NATO, and create an area for the deployment of strategic air defense and coastal defense units to deny the NATO air and naval assets from operating in the Black Sea.

North of the Donbas, the 20th Guards Army would likely launch from Belgorod Oblast with an operational direction towards Kharkiv and Poltava. Once at Poltava, the 20th Guards Army could pivot either northwest towards Kyiv, or more likely, southwest to cross the Dnieper River at Kremenchuk.

The latter option would isolate Ukrainian formations in the Donbas from reinforcing Kyiv, and allow the 20th Guards Army to approach the capitol from the southeast during the third phase. Alternatively, the 20th Guards Army could launch from Belgorod Oblast, with a direction to cross the Dnieper River at Cherkasy. This would again isolate Ukrainian forces in the Donbas and allow an approach to Kyiv from the southeast — this would require use of secondary roads. In the third phase, the 20th Guards Army would head west to seal off the borders with Rumania and Hungary.

The coup de grâce would likely fall to the 1st Guards Tank Army. Currently located in the suburbs of Moscow. This army would likely launch an invasion of Ukraine from the Bryansk and Kursk Oblasts. Its objectives in phase two would be Chernihiv and Kyiv. Transitioning to the third phase, after taking Chernihiv, the 1st Guards Tank Army would likely cross the Dnieper River at Vyshhorod, north of Kyiv.  Secondary river assault operations would likely occur further north of Vyshhorod.

Having the 1st Guards Tank Army taking this operational direction would mean that either neutral or allied Belarus, and the radioactive areas of Chernobyl, would protect the army’s northern flank. Once across the Dnieper River the 1st Guards Tank Army would turn left and encircle Kyiv from the north and meet the 20th Guards Army advancing from the southeast. Once Kyiv was isolated or captured, the 1st Guards Tank Army would advance to Ukraine’s borders with Poland.

The 49th and 58th Armies from the Southern Military District, along with units from the Central Military District, would serve as reserves for the invasion, and would relieve units from the advancing armies and occupy eastern and central Ukraine.

The fourth phase would be dependent on NATO’s response to a Russian invasion and occupation of either eastern Ukraine or all of Ukraine. NATO intervention or direct support for Ukraine would likely result in the 6th Army and 11th Army Corps occupying the Baltic States.

The 6th Army, launching from St. Petersburg, would enter Estonia at Narva with the goal of taking Tallinn and then head south. The 11th Army Corps would more likely take a defensive posture in the Kaliningrad and support the invasion with naval infantry, strategic missile and artillery strikes. Elements of the 11th Army Corps would also occupy the Suvalki Gap at the Polish-Lithuanian border. Belarusian forces would also be involved in the occupation of the Suvalki Gap if Minsk took an active role in the war.

A second axis into the Baltic States could occupy southern Estonia and northern Latvia from Pskov. And yet, so far there has been no operational headquarters organized in the Pskov region. Creation of one in the future would be telling.

The Russians love their military history and traditions. Looking at the historical combat paths of the 1st Guards Tank, 20th Guards, and 8th Guards Armies (whose traditions the 8th Army inherited) one can see the aforementioned proposed strategy to occupy eastern, and possibly, all of Ukraine has merit.

The 1st Guards Tank Army fought in the famous Battle of Kursk in the Great Patriotic War. It then fought across Ukraine and helped liberate the city of Lvov, now named Lviv, in Western Ukraine. The 20th Guards Army also fought across Ukraine and helped liberate the cities of Kamenets-Podolsky and Lvov.

The 8th Guards Army, whose traditions and honors have been bestowed to the current Russian 8th Army, had a combat path exactly as proposed above. In the Great Patriotic War, it helped liberate the Donbas and the Ukrainian city of Zaporozhye, crossed the Dnieper River, and eventually helped liberate the city of Odessa. Again, Russians love military history and traditions.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Dan Deyo

Dan Deyo is a former Soviet Ground Force analyst for the CIA. Deyo is also author of the book “Legions of the East: A Compendium of the Russian Army in the First World War.”

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