"Ukraine's glory and freedom are not dead yet." Believe it or not these are actually the very first lines of the Ukrainian national anthem. They are about as depressing as they are prophetic.
At this point, it appears clear that Russia intends to invade Eastern Ukraine, perhaps earlier than expected. Regardless of the fact that many Russian's still consider Ukraine to be historically part of Russia, a move into Eastern Ukraine by Russian forces is no simple land grab, but represents a calculated move by President Putin to force Ukraine back into the Russian fold and further away from the EU.
Last week following the annexation of the Crimea, we have observed the buildup of up to 80,000 additional Russian troops along the Ukrainian border accompanied by large amounts of armored ground vehicles, battle tanks, artillery systems as well as rotary and fixed wing aircraft. There are also reports that military forces bearing no insignia have been making advance incursions into Ukraine to prepare for the coming occupation. On a side note, Russia, when attempting to perform "clandestine" operations inside another country, it would probably be advisable to paint over the giant red star insignias featured on the tails of all your helicopters to at least give the allusion of secrecy.
The Voice of America has reported that the Russians have already set up a field hospital in the Bryansk region, 20 miles north of the Ukrainian border in Southern Russia. This appears to indicate that Russian military expects to meet resistance when crossing the border, and that they are not envisioning their stay to be short-lived. Perhaps most indicative of the coming invasion is the increasingly aggressive PSYOP campaign being run in the provinces of Eastern Ukraine. The Russian airwaves are dominated by stories of brutal attacks on the Russian-speaking citizens of Eastern Ukraine by Kiev-backed ultra-nationalists. The Ukrainian government's decision to attempt to block these Russian language channels has further added to the paranoia felt by many ethnic Russians living in Eastern Ukraine. The Russian government itself has continued to fan the flames by continually expressing concern about the lack of law and order in the region, and have gone so far as to introduce new legislation in the Russian Duma making it extremely easy for Ukrainians to receive Russian citizenship, thus giving further credence to Putin's fabricated claims that "his" people are under attack in the Ukraine.
While the annexation of the Crimea was a matter of military necessity, a Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine would be an entirely political move on Putin's part. Losing access to a port of such strategic importance as the Black Sea was simply a nonstarter for the Russian Navy. Whether the loss of the Crimean Peninsula could have been prevented had assurances been made by the new Ukrainian government will be a matter of historical opinion for years to come. What is clear is that the acquisition of Eastern Ukraine will be of no strategic advantage to the Russians; however, its loss will be a significant economic and political blow to the newly established government of Ukraine.
Eastern Ukraine is a heavily industrial, largely Russian speaking area that has historically played both sides; touting their Russian ethnicity while enjoying Ukrainian citizenship. Most people living in this region could not tell you if they were more Russian or Ukrainian as the majority of families are mixed. Instead, people from this area tend to identify more with the Donbas region, which consists of three provinces in Eastern Ukraine and is historically known for its rich coal reserves. This coal is essential to the Ukrainian metal-processing industry, which due to a lack of competition for over 20 years has failed to upgrade to less energy intensive systems.
With one of the richest oil and gas reserves on the planet, Russia is obviously not interested in exploiting the coal fields of Eastern Ukraine. However, they are extremely interested in making sure that the Ukrainian government loses access to the region's rich energy resources and industrial facilities. In 2013, the Donbas Region accounted for 12.4 percent of Ukraine's GDP and was home to the country's dominant metal production sector, which alone accounts for 30-40 percent of Ukraine's export revenue. The loss of this region would be a major economic loss to Ukraine and would likely force Kiev's hand in the direction of Russia for subsidies on energy and industrial products.
The initial invasion of Eastern Ukraine will likely be rather anticlimactic with Russian forces steadily streaming into the towns and cities along the border. While the invasion of one country by another would usually be preceded by a large scale air campaign to knock out that country's command and control centers, radar installations and major transportation infrastructure, the Russians are likely to wait to see how the Ukrainian defense forces react to their presence. Any attempt to defend their homeland by Ukrainian forces will likely to be met with overwhelming force by the Russians. The Ukrainian military is also likely to face the challenge of dealing with a hostile local population who in addition to sharing strong ethnic ties with the Russians may also view incorporation into the Russian state as an economically viable alternative to the Ukrainian government, which for the most part has done little to improve conditions in the Donbas region over the past 20 years.
According to former Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, the Ukrainian army is currently unfit for combat. "There is not a single combat-ready battalion, not a single combat-ready squadron, and not a single combat-ready unit in the Navy."
The Ukrainian government's latest effort to establish a national guard to repel any future Russian incursions is noble and I cannot say for certain that I too would not feel compelled to take up arms in the spirit of national defense. However, while we must recognize and stand in awe of the bravery displayed by these young men and women, let us not delude ourselves into thinking that they would stand a chance against an invading Russian army. Forgetting for a moment the obvious advantage in training and equipment, the Russian military is an institution that has also proven time and time again that it is not causality averse.
The only real hope the Ukrainian military has to repel an invasion by Russian forces would be if they received immediate assistance from the United States in the form of heavily artillery, surface to air missiles, small arms and real-time intelligence. However, the Obama administration's desire to see Russian planes being shot down with weapons that read "made in America" along the side is likely nonexistent. With a lack of realistic alternatives available to them, the Ukrainian military leadership is now in the unfortunate position of debating between the sanity of surrender and their duty to defend its borders.