Three hundred and forty kilometers east of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, is the city of Poltava.
At its heart is a semicircular plaza with a cast-iron column and nearly two dozen 18th-century Swedish cannons captured in the 1709 Battle of Poltava, a decisive encounter in the Great Northern War, fought between the Russian Peter the Great and the Swede Charles XII for supremacy in Eastern Europe.
The Tsar of Russia won.
Almost four centuries later, the Ukrainian city located on a bank of the Vorskla River may soon find itself in history again. That is, if Russian Vladimir Putin decides to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and orders Russian forces to drive deep into the country, as some Western leaders fear.
Poltava lies across the road from Kiev and could become a factor if Putin chooses to withdraw from the Russian-controlled oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and crosses the border near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine by other forces, said Robert Fry, a former commanding general. of the British Royal Marines.
It was at Poltava in 1709 that “Peter took the first step towards the sobriquet ‘Great’ – a path which the Russian president may have ambitions to follow,” the retired British general noted in a military assessment for The Article, a UK commentary site.
Fry, however, suspects that Putin will be in no hurry to give up the advantages he has in pursuing hybrid warfare, extracting the Western concessions he has demanded, and not courting the dangers of full-scale invasion with the risks of having to pacify Europe’s second world war. -the largest country and counter a probable Ukrainian insurrection.
“The dexterity with which Russia handles the threat of escalation has become one of the defining characteristics of its military/diplomatic playbook and it is way ahead of the West in this respect. If the mortgage was in play, I would see it boiling with below-threshold activity supported by many conventional military postures, stopping short of actual conflict,” he wrote.
Russian officials say they have no intention of attacking Ukraine again, and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov has denounced reports of a planned invasion as a lie. NATO’s secretary general has warned the risk of conflict is real, and US President Joe Biden said this week that Russia will step in, either with an invasion or a more limited assault.
But what any “move” might entail is unclear, and many Russian watchers suspect Putin hasn’t made up his mind. Ukrainian leaders say it is not useful to distinguish between a full-scale invasion and a more limited land grab in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine, perhaps with the takeover by Russia from Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and Odessa on the Black Sea.
“Talking about minor and total incursions or total invasion, you can’t be half-aggressive,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
Whatever Putin decides to do, he has the forces in place for a major attack and could quickly build up his forces for a deeper assault on Ukraine, Western officials said. Russia began massing troops along the borders with Ukraine last year and by December about 100,000 troops had been deployed, according to US and Ukrainian intelligence assessments.
Artillery, advanced weapon systems and armor have also been deployed, along with field hospitals and the logistics needed to support the battle groups.
Western military officials estimate that Russia would need around 175,000 troops to mount a massive assault and some Ukrainian intelligence officials suggest that number may have been reached. Their American counterparts say the strength of the force is still below 175,000. But Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said on Thursday that Putin had “plans in place to increase this force even further at very short notice. “.
By midweek, the Kremlin reportedly moved forces within 30 kilometers of the Ukrainian border in Belarus. The Kremlin says the forces are taking part in joint military exercises with their Belarusian allies, but that puts a large Russian force just 80 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital. It is large enough to cut off the bulk of the Ukrainian ground forces, which are stationed along the front lines in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
The Russian army has an overwhelming superiority over the Ukrainian armed forces. Ukraine has about 209,000 soldiers in active service against 900,000 in Russia; and Ukrainian reserve forces number 900,000, while Russia has 2 million.
Ukraine’s annual military expenditure is $4.3 billion, while Russia’s is $43.2 billion. Russia has 2,840 tanks against 858 for Ukraine; and 4,648 artillery pieces versus 1,818. The huge advantage continues when it comes to combat aircraft – 1,160 versus 125. All figures are from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research organization based in the United Kingdom, which publishes an annual report on the composition of the world’s military forces.
If the Kremlin decides to attack, the most limited operation would likely be a repeat of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and seized Donetsk and Lugansk, mostly using armed proxies. “Russian forces could expand the fighting in Donbass to drag Ukraine into a conventional conflict,” warned Neil Melvin of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense policy group in London.
Others believe that Putin’s ambitions could be greater.
“Putin has started exploring coercive options beyond annexing Crimea and occupying Donbass, none of which have given him what he wants,” according to Michael Kimmage and Liana Fix of the German Marshall Fund , a research organization based in Washington, DC. .
Their assessment: “Maybe war is the path Putin has already chosen. If so, it can’t be a minor war. A minimal goal would be to overthrow the Ukrainian government – not necessarily by overt military force – and install a puppet leader. A more ambitious goal would be to divide the country in two, with the line between Russia and a rump Ukrainian state chosen by Putin. The larger goal would be to conquer Ukraine entirely and then either occupy it or demand that its independence be negotiated on Putin’s terms.”