Illia Ponomarenko: Is Russia really about to invade Ukraine?

Nov 30, 2021

(Maxar Technologies)

Let’s say the unthinkable begins.

Let’s say we in Ukraine wake up in the dead of night to the sound of window-rattling thunder.

The sound of Russian missile strikes. They are targeting Ukraine’s military infrastructure. Their strategic air forces hit our command and control grid to behead our Armed Forces. They pave the way for a ground-borne blitz toward Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv and Odesa.

This is what many experts and governments have been warning us about: a full-fledged invasion by 100,000 Russian troops with full superiority in the air and at sea.

But here’s a question that must be answered before we dive deeper into this Doomsday scenario: Does Russia’s end goal justify the price it will ultimately pay for a victory in a Ukrainian hellscape?

The answer is no.

It goes without saying that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a European nation of 41 million the size of France, is not a walk in the park. Such an endeavor would require a multilayered military operation equal or greater in scale than the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It would be a colossal military action involving every branch of the armed services. An effort that requires gargantuan human and economic costs.

Are Russians now capable of invading, dispersing and defeating Ukraine’s 250,000-strong armed force, then forcing Ukraine’s political leadership into a dictated political deal?

Potentially, yes.

But this would be a battle not seen in Europe since World War II. Ukraine is not the tiny and weak Georgia of 2008.

And, despite all the systemic flaws in Ukraine’s military, I would not recommend underestimating a force of 250,000 that has held the line in Donbas for seven years without a clear vision for victory, yet without getting demoralized and falling apart.

Let’s not forget, as the year 2014 demonstrated, Ukrainian taxi drivers and programmers can quickly take up arms and form fierce volunteer battalions when they have to. I also strongly warn against underestimating the morale of these volunteers who fought an enemy invasion wearing hunting fatigues and old sneakers.

The costs of subduing such a big and hostile nation would be extreme. Occupying it would be almost impossible. The stream of soldiers’ coffins that would flow back to Russia would shock its population.

We haven’t even mentioned Russia being cut off from the global economy and the Kremlin elites losing their billions, their families and their assets in the West. Yes, that would happen.

Because even to Russia’s toothless frenemies in Berlin and Paris, a Vietnam-scale bloodbath in Eastern Europe is beyond the pale. Just try and imagine the waves of Ukrainian refugees fleeing west from their devastated cities.

And if Russia is determined to inflict this nightmare on Ukraine and itself, what would it get for such an extreme price? What could Russians stand to gain that they don’t already have?

After all, the Kremlin isn’t insane. It does what it can afford to do. It has to balance objectives with costs.

We can see the reason behind the annexation of Crimea in early 2014: The peninsula had immense military and political value. Ukraine was weak and disoriented following the ousting of the pro-Russian government in the EuroMaidan Revolution.

We can see the reason behind the proxy invasion of Donbas, the occupation of eastern Ukraine’s two major cities, and a years-long static war. By doing so, Moscow has inflicted wounds that exhaust our economy and effectively prevent us from joining NATO.

The Kremlin has done its best to leave itself some wiggle room in order to convince the West to take a raw deal over Ukraine’s head.

But the giant gasoline pump can’t afford to go too far.

The Kremlin’s already done what it can afford to Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. A direct invasion and occupation of the whole country was way too costly even eight years ago.

An opponent might say that I am being too rational about the Kremlin’s barbaric, delusional mindset.

This might be true, but then again — you can’t cheat the simple economy of war. You can’t buy something that costs $1 million, while all you have is $100,000. Russia currently can’t allocate the political and economic resources sufficient for a quick, full-scale military victory over the whole of Ukraine.

Russia would get bogged down in an epic, unwinnable war with a nasty ending. And the Kremlin knows that.

Besides, people in the Kremlin and around it love their money and their villas on the French Riviera. We often tend to oversimplify and over-personalize the decision-making process in Moscow and place too much emphasis on Vladimir Putin’s personal power, forgetting the billionaire elite surrounding him.

Western intelligence is just doing what it is supposed to — analyzing and reporting on all those in-your-face Russian military movements near Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. As is NATO — by stating that it is paying close attention to these movements and is ready for anything.

But the panic gives the Kremlin exactly what it wants — leverage. The Germans start causing trouble about the certification of Nord Stream 2? Time to move some more tanks to Ukraine’s borders — and make sure everyone sees it.

The Kremlin never hesitates to play the intimidation card. And not just against the world, but at home as well. State-controlled television has been feeding Russians a story that their great motherland is a step away from yet another great war and that they need to unite behind the leader, Putin, whose support rating is dropping steadily.

No matter what, Ukraine needs to continue building the most effective and combat-ready Armed Force possible. And the world needs to continue paying attention and helping Ukraine.

Author: Illia PonomarenkoIllia Ponomarenko is the defense and security reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He has reported about the war in eastern Ukraine since the conflict’s earliest days. He covers national security issues, as well as military technologies, production, and defense reforms in Ukraine. Besides, he gets deployed to the war zone of Donbas with Ukrainian combat formations. He has also had deployments to Palestine and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an embedded reporter with UN peacekeeping forces. Illia won the Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellowship and was selected to work as USA Today’s guest reporter at the U.S. Department of Defense.

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  1. The first OpEd from the fledgling Kyiv Independent. And it’s a magnificent effort; almost Churchillian in tone.
    Someone sensible in the WH needs to see this.
    Ukraine needs air support now. Plus a whole lot of other things. Such as many thousands of Javelins and Stingers; spread out throughout Ukraine. Naturally with a full tech support crew in situ.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This is a good time to post some information on the limitations of the Russian Military. We hear a lot about how big and bad they are but they have some very real drawbacks.
    Russian logistics are very limited. at each level the support is one grad lower than a Western unit ie a western brigade will have a support battalion while the Russia will only have a company. however they do have three times the artillery. A given Russian brigade will have three battalions two tube and one rocket.
    Russia is also heavily dependent on railroads. They have far less trucks than the west As a practical matter they can only operate about 90 km from a rail head. these rail heads are where equipment is unladed and broken down for distribution to the various units. they are prime targets for what ever can be thrown at them.
    Modern mechanized warfare consumes resources very fast. In the Georgia- Russia war of 08 the Russian units involved used up their basic load od ammo and fuel in 12 hours. that was not a particularly high intensity battle.
    Given this the idea of a “Russian blitzkrieg” across Ukraine in a few weeks is unlikely. they will launch a furious attack then have to pause after 3-5 days to refuel rearm.
    Additionally the ida of a “Operation Barbarossa” like surprise is also unlikely. Currently Russia does not even have all of the troops forward based near Ukraine. they will have to assembled from across western Russia. that takes time and is easily detected even on the open source recon systems like civilian satellites and social media. in the spring the movement of Russian forces is reported with in days and took two weeks to assemble 60k troops. once assembled in foreword camps the units will have to be uploaded with ammunition. that to is easy to detect. once uploaded they will have to be deployed in to assault columns. 100k troops is not an easy thing to hide. once deployed they have to be committed to battle with in 4 days or stood down. This is what happened in March of 2014. 50k Russian troops were lined up for the asault on March 15th and by March 18 they were stood down. Putin lost his nerve and decided to go with hybrid attack.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We have seen reports of Putin practicing sea landings to the south, do you think he is still trying to get a land bridge to Transnistria? Or perhaps just deep enough to try to knock out the two dams holding water back from Crimea?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “Besides, people in the Kremlin and around it love their money and their villas on the French Riviera. We often tend to oversimplify and over-personalize the decision-making process in Moscow and place too much emphasis on Vladimir Putin’s personal power, forgetting the billionaire elite surrounding him.”

    Should Putler decide to risk all, and invade further into Ukraine. It will be very interesting to see the response of his mafia clan, should their ill gotten gains be confiscated and all their assets seized. Will we see Putler’s head on a spike in Red Square?

    Liked by 2 people

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