The Russian military could take nine different routes into Ukraine in a full-scale invasion, according to a U.S. military and intelligence assessment, and tanks could potentially reach Kyiv, the capital, within 48 hours.
Russia has already deployed nearly 100 of the military’s 168 battalion-tactical groups, composed of 800 to 900 troops each, with more flowing in every day. And President Vladimir Putin has dispatched personnel and equipment from six of the seven Russian special operations units, called Spetsnaz, according to the assessment. Each unit is made up of 250 to 300 elite fighters.
The two most extensive invasion scenarios would involve a simultaneous attack from multiple sides — a maneuver known as a pincer movement or double envelopment.
In one approach outlined in the assessment, the Russian military would take over most Ukrainian territory east of the Dnipro River, which includes about 50 percent of Ukrainian military forces, including their most capable units.
Russian tanks and mechanized units would cross the border from Russia and move toward Poltava and Kharkiv, encircling the cities as they move to the river. Ground forces would advance along three lines from Donbas, traveling east and south to Crimea, and taking the coastline along the Sea of Azov.
Russian military helicopters would simultaneously support an air assault from Crimea.
This option could also include an amphibious assault to take over the Black Sea coast, as well as air and ground units moving from Odessa to Moldova to create a land bridge along the Black Sea.
Russia already has positioned submarines and five amphibious ships with marine battalions off the coast of Ukraine. Six more are in position to be there in a few days, according to the assessment.
An even more aggressive option adds two attack routes from the north to encircle Kyiv — and includes artillery fire, electronic warfare and possible ground troops moving south from Belarus toward Zhytomer and east into Kyiv.
The scenario involves another route from Russia around the Chernobyl area and into the capital.
With well-established roads in that area, Russian tanks and military vehicles could be at Kyiv’s doorstep in the first two days, according to the assessment. The Russian military has placed two advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems in Belarus that will give them air superiority over much of the country with the ability to stop aircraft or incoming missiles.
Both attacks would open with a mammoth array of artillery strikes, medium-range ballistic missiles and bomber attacks — likely at night — that would target ammunition depots, radar stations, aircraft and air defense systems, and other critical Ukrainian military sites.
Russia will attempt to take out Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in the opening hours, the assessment said. It will conduct both cyber and electronic warfare (jamming) attacks to cut off the lines of communication between Ukrainian military units stationed in different parts of the country. At the same time, the Russian military will seek to separate them physically, destroying bridges and using military troops and engineers to seize river crossings.
The assessment included grim figures for possible civilian casualties in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion: as many as 50,000 civilians killed or wounded.
Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, believes Putin will focus his military assault on Ukraine’s military rather than civilians and infrastructure, in part to make any invasion more acceptable to the Russian people.
“The Russian military’s goals are inflicting casualties on the Ukrainian military, maybe taking POWs, and degrading their future ability to defend themselves,” he said.
Russia will try to disable Ukraine’s military as fast as possible, he added.
“They could disorient the Ukrainian military and society so the conflict is basically over in a day or so,” Lee said. “They can be as destructive and lethal as possible in the beginning and knock out as many important capabilities as possible right away.”
He warned that Russia could hit many Ukrainian airfields in the first 20 or 30 minutes and a ground invasion would follow soon after.
Lee said Russia’s decision to mass its military around such a large swath of Ukraine forces the smaller nation to stretch its defenses. “Stretching out Ukraine military units makes it more difficult to defend,” he said.
U.S. officials still believe Putin may choose a less aggressive option, which could entail taking steps to destabilize the central government — focusing on the Donbas region only — and trying to install leadership friendlier to Russia.
Lee doesn’t think Putin’s ultimate goal is to occupy Ukraine, but rather he may invade, destroy some military units and then make demands so Ukraine can avoid a larger invasion.
“The goal is inflicting punishment or pain on Ukraine to change Kyiv’s cost-benefit analysis,” he said.