Putin’s Sphere of Fear : Ukranian Invasion Imminent?

Putin’s Sphere of Fear : Ukranian Invasion Imminent? “Today we actually find ourselves in such a situation when we have reached the brink and our proposals, which we have formulated, they are absolutely substantive, absolutely accurately describe without any half-tones how we see our national interests, and we also describe how we seemingly military safety in Europe. Today we have come to such a moment of truth in our relations with NATO, when it is necessary to decide in principle. We have taken this step and proceed from the fact that it will no longer be possible to brush it off or blabber it out…If this does not work out, then we will also switch to this mode of creating counter-threats. But then it will be too late to ask us why we made such decisions”.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, December 18th, 2021

Putin’s sphere of fear

This is a Christmas essay I would have preferred not to have written. The current crisis in Europe’s east is the most dangerous since the end of the Cold War. So let me take a punt. President Putin will send more Russian troops into Ukraine during the Christmas period, whilst Europe slumbers and the Omicron panic is at full spate. 

That is what the Soviets did in December 1979 when they invaded Afghanistan, what Putin did in August 2008 during Europe’s summer break, and what Anwar Sadat and the Arab Coalition did in 1973 when he launched the Yom Kippur War on Israel’s Day of Atonement. Putin’s strategy bears a marked similarity to Sadat’s Operation Badr before which Egyptian and Syrian forces had repeatedly feigned preparations for an attack to lull Israel into a false sense of security. The geopolitical choreography between China’s President Xi and Putin is also the ghost of Stalin past come back to haunt the West.

Putin’s strident demands that the US sign a treaty over the heads of its European Allies to roll back the Alliance’s presence in former Warsaw Pact countries to pre-1997 has two interpretations both of which are unacceptable.

Firstly, Moscow is (again) seeking to establish a precedent by which Russia is permitted to negotiate directly with Washington about Europe in the absence of Europeans. 

Secondly, it is simply a gambit to justify military action in which case the NATO Allies should simply not respond. Putin is clearly seeking to split the Alliance and again raise the prospect of decoupling of the US from its European Allies, much like Brezhnev’s 1977 demarche when the Soviet Union deployed Europe-busting theatre-range SS20s nuclear-tipped missiles. To repeat, given that the West simply cannot accept what are outrageous demands then they are either a first bid in an effort to force a weak West to accept a de facto Russian sphere of fear over Central and Eastern Europe, or rather like Hitler’s demands of Poland on the eve of World War Two, designed to be rejected thus providing the Kremlin with a casus belli for an attack on Ukraine.

Some in the West claim NATO’s original sin was to enlarge in the first place. This reveals a profound misunderstanding of the geopolitical stakes. The clash between the West and the Soviet Union was essentially about sovereign choice. The right of free peoples to choose their allegiances and alliances. Putin is seeking to again deny that to fellow Europeans and, make no mistake, not just in Ukraine.

The original sinners also suggest that all powerful states have spheres of influence. That is entirely correct. However, it is the nature of each sphere which is the core of contention now. The likes of the US and Germany do not force those in their respective spheres into servitude. Rather, the only demand of Allies they make is they uphold the values of liberal democracy and take part on collective defence. Putin’s Russia seeks the return of the NKVD/KGB/FSB state in a new sphere of fear. 

Just look at Russia itself. The West must resist. 

As for those who suggest the West broke a promise when NATO enlarged they are simply victims of Russian propaganda. According to President Gorbachev’s interviews about the events of 1989 to 1991 and no such undertaking occured. As for the stationing of NATO forces on the territory of former Warsaw Pact the most that ever existed was a tacit agreement not to so but only so long as Russia remained co-operative and constructive. Indeed, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was meant to codify such a mutually beneficial relationship but Moscow has chosen to destroy it. In other words, it is precisely the actions of President Putin which are destroying a secure Europe and precisely why Russia must not be permitted a de facto veto over the Alliance, its policies and its actions. 

Putin’s power play

President Putin has adopted a classic Russian strategy by probing and seeking to exploit weaknesses and divisions amongst his enemies. He is not short of options. Consequently, this Kremlin-engineered crisis has thus far seen three of four phases and is the first real test of the Gerasimov Doctrine (and it is a doctrine – a way of doing military-strategic business) of escalating non-linear warfare reinforced by offensive manoeuvre. The first phase was back in the spring when the Union State with Belarus and Black Seas Fleet enabled Russia to threaten Ukraine from three of its four distinct sides. 

This phase was supported by a false historical narrative about the legitimacy of Russia’s claims built on the myths surrounding the Kievan Rus and Grigory Potemkin’s creation of Sevastopol. Putin hoped the mere looming presence of Russian forces would be enough to force President Vlodomir Zelensky and the Ukrainians into compliance with Russian demands that Ukraine remain firmly in Russia’s sphere of fear. This phase secured at least some of its objectives because in June Putin secured a Geneva summit with US President Joe Biden that was full of political symbolism.

Phase two began in October in the wake of Moscow’s taking of full control over Minsk, an engineered migrant crisis on the Belarus border with both Poland and Lithuania, allied to the steady build-up of crack Russian units along the Belarus and Russian borders with Ukraine. Phase three is now underway, the threat of an invasion of Ukraine allied to a widening of the crisis to overtly include wholly unwarranted allegations about NATO’s defensive posture across much of free Central and Eastern Europe. As UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on December 8th, “NATO is a defensive alliance that only borders with 6 percent of Russia’s borders. Russia is being the aggressor. No-one is trying to surround Russia. No-one should be suckered by the phoney narrative coming out of Moscow about provocation”.  Phase four? The attack on Ukraine.

What is the military situation?

Amiens 1918 : The Birth of Blitzkrieg

The Americans estimate the Russians could undertake a major offensive into Ukraine in the latter half of January. If Russian objectives are more limited than a full-blown invasion, which is likely, Putin could move tomorrow. As of December 20th there are some 90,000 Russian troops close to the Ukrainian border stretching from Rostov in the south into Belarus in the north, with spearhead elements of both Western and Central Military Districts now in place. 

There are also 80,000 deep strike formations and reserves held back from the border on a jump-off line running north-south centred on Voronezh. Crucially, elite Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) have now been deployed along the border, supported by field hospitals and other combat support and combat support services. At present there are 50 BTGs in situ. These are Putin’s shock-troops and are organised into 168 BTGs and have a ‘grab and hold’ function and are designed to link up with Spetsnaz forces and thus act as a link between Special Operating Forces and the bulk of the Russian Army. They are not unlike General Ludendorff’s tactical units deployed during the March 1918 Operation Michael. Five years ago only 66 BTGs existed.

The Russian Army has also deployed rocket artillery, self-propelled artillery, and the tanks of the usually Moscow-based First Guards Tank Army, as well as two tactical air groups and short-range ballistic missiles brought in from across Russia to within range of Ukraine.

There are a further 50 BTGs also believed to be moving into place, whilst much of Russia’s heavy weaponry that was deployed during the spring crisis was never withdrawn.

At the time, the Russian Army deployed an estimated 110,000 troops, tanks and other offensive systems not far from the border. Much of the Russian force, together with its strategy and tactics, has also been tested during the Zapad 21 and Vostok 18 exercises. Opposing them are some 100,000 Ukrainian regulars and reservists. The Regulars are better-equipped and trained than they were in 2014 when Russia seized Ukraine, having benefitted from training by US, UK and other Western Allies, but they are spread thinly trying to cover Russian forces along a long front.

If Putin launches an offensive the 41st Combined Arms Army will be critical. It is normally based in Novosibirsk almost 2,500 kilometres from Ukraine but has remain forward deployed at the Pogonovo training area south of Voronezh since April. Elements of the 41st CAA have also been observed at Yelnya close to Belarus. The 41st CAA comprises motorised infantry, main battle tanks, rocket artillery and Iskander short-range ballistic missiles organised around seven BTGs. Crucially, the main battle tanks, rocket artillery and motorised infantry of the First Guards Tank Army have also been observed close to Pogonovo. Motor rifle brigades from the 49th CAA have also been observed moving towards Crimea, whilst elements of the 58th CAA are now present in Western Crimea.

As part of phase three of the crisis Moscow is demanding ‘legal guarantees’ that Kiev will never join NATO and, with echoes of the November 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, never host Allied missile systems. What is particularly concerning is that Putin cannot keep his troops at such a high state of readiness indefinitely. By February, at the latest, Putin will either have to attack or withdraw, which without significant political and strategic gains would look like a defeat. One reason Putin is demanding major concessions from the Alliance is to provide political top cover for any such withdrawal. A further concern is that the 2015 peace agreement which established the so-called ‘line of demarcation’ between Kiev’s forces and Russian-speaking separatists appears close to collapse.

Can Russia Fund A Superpower’s Military?

For all of its impressive combat power there are also some constraints with which the Russian Army must contend. An excellent November 2021 piece by Alexander Vershinin entitled Feeding the Bear: A Closer Look at Russian Army Logistics and the Fait Accompli, claims that whilst the Russian Army is schooled in offensive doctrine (proval blitzkriga) and has the requisite combat power it lacks critical logistics. 

This means the Russian Army would probably need both logistics and operational pauses to achieve even a limited objective, although several senior Allied commanders with direct experience of NATO’s eastern flank disagree. They argue that Russia would not have invested in the current force at great expense if it was unable to use it. That would be like the Mercedes or Red Bull Formula One teams having to go to Kwik Fit every time they needed to change tyres during a race. 

One problem is the constant application of Western thinking and practice to the Russian military doctrine. Russia is not, for the moment, going to attack the Baltic States or the Suwalki Corridor but Ukraine, with everything in its operational and strategic favour. Russian military intelligence (GRU) and Spetsnaz have constructed a detailed operational picture of Ukraine over several years, with the latter now in place to cause mayhem behind the lines if ordered. Whilst Vershinin is right about a sustained land offensive against NATO territory his assumptions about Russian operations in Ukraine are misplaced given the likely objectives. In recent years Moscow has modernised relevant infrastructures to enable discreet and rapid mobilisation and reinforcement on Russia’s western border and the improved use of civilian assets to reinforce military logistics power.

What are Russia’s war aims?

A December article in Defense News by Hans Binnendijk and Barry Pavel suggests Putin has four options: occupy the whole of Ukraine, seize all of Ukraine’s coastline from Donetsk to Moldova, seize part of Ukraine’s coastline from Donetsk to Crimea along the Sea of Azov; or simply annex the Donbas region which Russia already occupies. 

Again, at some point Putin is going to do something, not least because repeatedly mobilising large forces is prohibitively expensive, and because having worked up the Russian people to believe something is coming not to act might appear as weakness, the very thing which he believes is Europe’s curse. 

It may not be this Christmas or early in 2022 but Putin is first and foremost a Russian nationalist inspired by a lop-sided view of Russia, its greatness and its history, He also seems determined to consolidate his 2014 seizure of Crimea for a mix of reasons – grand strategic, regional-strategic, political-domestic, and personal legacy. Given the forces deployed and the balance Russia will still need to strike between risks and benefit option two – seizure of Ukraine’s entire coastline from Donetsk to Moldova – would seem the likely objective.

If successful, such a campaign would leave a rump Ukraine dependent on the rest of Europe and thus Europe’s problem, and minimize risk of direct operational contact with NATO forces. It would also establish a further clear buffer between Russia and NATO forces, imply threat to the Baltic States, and also further extend Russia’s sphere of fear into the Black Sea Region.

Future Of Russia’s Submarine Fleet

Thereafter, in another ghost of Stalin past, Putin might well expel all non-native Russian speakers from the zone of occupation exacerbating the existing migration crisis on the Belarus border with Poland and Lithuania as part of an ongoing ‘perma-war’ hybrid campaign, whilst undertaking a series of targeted fake news and coercive cyber-attacks on European capitals and critical infrastructure. In other words, escalating a ‘deep grey’ crisis just enough to de-escalate the chance of a cohesive Western response beyond the sanctions he has already prepared for. He would then make the remaining population in the zone of occupation Russian citizens and formally annex the conquered territory into the Russian Federation.

What does Putin want?

As any negotiator knows the framing of discussions shapes the outcomes of negotiations because concessions are already hard-wired into the assumptions behind them. Last week President Biden suggested that he wanted to convene talks to “…discuss the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO writ large’. Moscow has ‘responded’ by proposing two treaties, probably prepared when the campaign was being designed earlier this year, that make a series of implausible demands that transform the crisis from one between two non-NATO states into one that is essentially about NATO. 

Putin has already succeeded in establishing a dangerous precedent when President Biden effectively conceded that a threat against a non-NATO member might lead by obvious implication to limits on the security NATO can provide to its Eastern European members. Putin has also succeeded already in sowing a seed of doubt about American resolve in the mind of Allies because the security of the Baltic States would not be strengthened by such discussions. One of Moscow’s objectives is also to prevent the Alliance strengthening deterrence and defence by doing what is required to counter the very real Russian threat. Putin has identified a ‘deterrence hole’ in the Alliance force posture between Western Poland and the Baltic States and Bulgaria and Romania which he would like to make larger.    

Kursk Submarine Disaster : The Genesis of Putin’s Post-Soviet Russia

NATO membership should be based on the fundamental principle that a citizen of Riga enjoys the same level of security and defence as a citizen of Berlin or Paris. Therefore, the US and its Allies must never accept the principle that Moscow has the right to discuss the planning and deployment of Allied forces whilst it egregiously breaks international treaties and acts coercively. Any such concession would come close to conceding some form of Russian veto over NATO policy. One can only hope that the planned talks do not follow the same pattern as the Doha talks with the Taliban and the subsequent sell-out of Afghanistan to which they led. Putin clearly hopes so.

Why now?


There are several reasons why Putin has chosen this moment to threaten Ukraine and the wider West. First, it is getting colder. Germany needs gas after Berlin’s nonsensical decision to abandon nuclear power and commit to carbon-zero climate change goals before having established a new energy mix that avoids overt reliance on Putin’s Russia for energy. It is strategic illiteracy at its worse. The same goes for other parts of Europe. One of the many paradoxes of this crisis is that it is European energy reliance on Russia that is paying for much of Moscow’s capacity to coerce. 

Ideally, Nordstream 2, the direct and just-completed gas pipeline between Russia and Germany should now be scrapped. Berlin’s new Scholz government has hinted at such action if Putin attacks Ukraine. However, Putin and his team will have war-gamed such threats and are clearly betting that any such sanctions would not last long because the German people need heat. Putin can also blame the West for any suffering he has imposed on the Russian people as a consequence of his actions.

Second, Ukraine remains corrupt and divided, mainly thanks to Russian help and Putin is still gambling that the Zelensky regime might collapse like a pack of cards so he can install a Lukashenka-like puppet regime in Kiev. Crucially, China has also come out in support of the Russians, which begs a further question – what does Beijing want in return? At the very least the current crisis might well herald what might happen in reverse if China invades Taiwan. Clearly, it is in the interests of both Beijing and Moscow to exacerbate pressures on an already over-stretched US military and to keep Europe permanently politically off-balance.

Third, there is Omicron and a divided Europe that is once again in disarray over the COVID pandemic. It is a Europe that is also as wary of US as at any time since the Cold War given the recent debacle in Afghanistan and as unsure about Biden’s grip as Putin is. A Europe led by a Germany in which leaders have too often abandoned the responsibility of leadership by citing evidence such Pew research that surprise, surprise tells them their people do not like bad things. 

Russian Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

There are also specifically Russian factors. Putin has been modernising his armed forces at great expense since the 2008 Georgia fiasco. His modernised military is now close to peak efficiency and is very expensive to maintain. Putin may well feel he faces a use it or lose it dilemma if the post-COVID Russian economy weakens significantly. Furthermore, Putin is also unchallenged in Russia with his 2021 change to the Russian constitution ensuring he will be effectively President-for-Life (or at least until 2036).

Moreover, Putin is also 69 years old and clearly seeking to secure a place in the Pantheon of what he regards as Russian ‘greats’. There are also no major elections forthcoming (for what they are worth in Russia) and he has crushed the opposition movement, most notably that of brave Alexander Navalny. Finally, Putin is surrounded by ‘yes men’ which creates a dangerous dynamic for any unchallenged leader. His cronies, and the Siloviki who support him, are no doubt competing with each other to reinforce Putin’s prejudices simply to survive in the ‘medieval’ court that is Putin’s Kremlin. It is precisely why Western leaders should never look at Putin’s actions through their liberal eyes. 

How should the West respond?

Western leaders should be reminded of Thomas Hobbes’s dictum that, “Covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” The Russian ultimatum to the US concerning NATO is straight out of the Soviet playbook with no such ultimatum having been made since the height of the Cold War and the Berlin crises of both 1958 and 1961. Much will depend on President Biden. In June 1961, President John F. Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during which the Russian thought he had identified a weakness he could exploit. He was wrong. Kennedy stood firm. Biden?

The West’s aims must be fourfold. First, to de-escalate the immediate threat. Second, to preserve the rights of Kiev as any European sovereign state to choose its own alliances. Third, to convince Russia that the use of such coercion will not work and will be prohibitively expensive strategically, politically and economically. Fourth, convince Moscow that if it chooses not to be a friend then its only real option is to become a transactional partner in a peaceful Europe.

Top Gun Instructor Commander Dave Baranek on F-14’s Supersonic Flight & Ejecting In The Indian Ocean

Ukraine? The former US Ambassador to Moscow and NATO Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow recently called on NATO to launch a Ukrainian Deterrence Initiative (UDI) as an extension of the Alliance’s Enhanced Opportunity Partner (EOP) programme. Under UDI, the Allies would do all they can to assist Ukraine to defend itself, dissuade Russia from launching further aggression, and thus increase Kiev’s leverage in pursuit of a political settlement to the conflict in Donbas. Such a demarche would include the provision of more military equipment and further training, as well as efforts to enhance Ukraine’s resilience against cyber-attacks, disinformation, economic warfare, and political subversion. UDI could also establish a function-driven form of partnership with NATO, making it a formal Alliance responsibility to help train Ukrainian armed forces and to facilitate their acquisition of modern defensive weapons backed by common funding. 

To conclude, the West must not sacrifice the longer-term for false security in the near term. Western leaders cannot and must not avoid the fundamental principle/tension in this crisis between the democratic belief in sovereign freedom and Russia’s determination to re-assert a sphere of fear around its borders. If North Americans and Europeans are weak now they could well pay a terrible price in future, particularly those living east of the Oder-Neisse line. As such they might well remember the words of Thucydides in The Melian Dialogue. “The strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept”. We are better than that!

Happy Christmas!

Putin’s Sphere of Fear : Ukranian Invasion Imminent? Written by Julian Lindley-French

Written by Professor Julian Lindley-French

Analyst, author, commentator and speaker with ten books to my name, including two for Oxford University Press (and about to publish my third for Oxford “Future War and the Defence of Europe), My job is to speak truth unto power in an age when the gap between power, people and politics is growing dangerously wide. My focus is the tension between strategy and politics with an emphasis on security and defence policy. My analysis is the product of many years policy and practitioner experience, allied to long and deep research. Sadly, I also support Sheffield United Football Club – the triumph of endless hope over long, hard, and painful experience!

Forthcoming Book

Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford University Press English Edition and Kosmos Press German Edition)

Recent Books:

2017: The Geopolitics of Terror – Demons and Dragons (Routledge)
2015: NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015 (Routledge)
2015: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power ( 2nd and paperback edition) (Amazon)
2014; The Oxford Handbook of War (paperback edition) (Oxford University Press)
2014: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (Kindle e-book)
2012: The Oxford Handbook of War (Oxford University Press)
2007: A Chronology of European Security and Defence (Oxford University Press)
2007; NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2007 (Routledge)
2003: Terms of Engagement (EUISS)
1998: Coalitions & the Future of Security Policy