WHILE writing this piece, I’m conscious that its publication could so easily be overtaken by events on the ground in Ukraine. For with every hour that passes, it’s hard to ignore that growing sense of there being an imminent answer to the troubling question of whether Russia will or will not invade. If there is good news for now, it’s that more time has been bought to avoid conflict after a 90-minute meeting in Geneva last Friday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that dialogue, for now at least, would continue.

For his part Blinken described the meeting as “frank and substantive”. He said that diplomatic discussions would continue, but that “it is really up to Russia to describe which path it will pursue”. He said too that Washington will share its concerns and ideas with Russia this week in writing and that he and Lavrov had agreed it was important for diplomacy to continue amid the tensions.

For his part the Russian Foreign Minister repeated denials that Moscow had any plans to attack Ukraine with Lavrov describing the talks as “a useful, honest discussion”.

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So far, so good, but this crisis has barely begun and even as the uncertainty over continuing diplomatic efforts play out, analysts are pretty much agreed on one thing, the Russian military is already well prepared should the path of war be the one on which it embarks.

Ever since the end of December, in addition to the troops, tanks and other weaponry deployed, Moscow has also begun moving ammunition stockpiles, field hospitals and other supply and support services to locations closer to the border with Ukraine.

The presence of an increasing amount of medical equipment and manned mobile field hospitals are of particular interest to military analysts, who say it is as close yet to a sure-fire sign that Russia intends a ground invasion with a heavy force.

“They have enough on the border in terms of quantity and quality and capability to conduct a range of activities. That could be as small as a military intimidation, a raid, a strike or all the way up to more muscular options,” was how one senior western intelligence official speaking to the Financial Times summed it up a few days ago.

While last Friday’s crunch talks between Blinken and Lavrov might for now have lifted the pressure ever so slightly, elsewhere the war of words, claim and counterclaim between Moscow and Kyiv goes on. To give just one example, around the same time that the two senior American and Russian diplomats were meeting in Geneva, Ukraine’s military intelligence claimed that Moscow was actively recruiting mercenaries and sending them for intensive training in separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. It detailed in a statement that fuel, several tanks, artillery and mortars had been secretly taken to the area from Russia.

Adding further to the tensions were reports too that Russia’s parliament will this week hold consultations on an idea to appeal to President Vladimir Putin to recognise two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states.

As a Reuters news agency report highlighted, formally recognising the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, is seen as one potential step Putin could take if he fails to secure security guarantees against Nato expansionism he is seeking from the West. For its part the Kremlin played down Friday’s parliamentary initiative saying it was important to avoid steps that could increase tensions and cautioned against trying to score political points in a fragile situation. This dual positioning of the Russian parliament and the Kremlin – tough stance and softer stance – is typical of the way Putin aims to keep Kyiv and the West guessing over Russia’s ultimate intentions regarding Ukraine. BUT what if ultimately diplomacy fails, and Russia decides the time has finally come to take assertive military action? Just how different are the military capabilities of Russia and Ukraine compared to the start of hostilities between them in 2014-15 and what signs are security analysts monitoring to determine Moscow’s true intentions? How might a Russian attack play out? The first thing most experts agree on is that Ukraine has vastly updated and strengthened its armed forces in the past seven years. According to data and analysis collated from security and defence think tanks and presented by the Russian and English language online newspaper Meduza, Ukraine has spent more on its military than any country in the former Soviet Union except Russia. This means that it now has the second largest army in the region, an experienced army reserve, a new command-and-control system, and as the latest data also reveals, a significant share of its arsenal comprises modern weapons.

There have been other improvements too, with the Ukrainian military implementing the same structural template required for any country participating in Nato operations, this includes forming special groups tasked with intelligence, logistics, defence planning, and more.

Analysts say this is vastly superior to the old Soviet-style command-and-control structure on which Ukraine relied in 2014 and 2015, which made it impossible for Kyiv to manage its troops effectively. A new training system too has been introduced whereby active troops have been trained based on recent combat experience and regularly undergo training operations at the line of contact in the Donbas, opposite Russian backed separatists. Such measures have made today’s Ukrainian armed forces very different from those of 2014. “You have a Ukrainian land army that has gotten much better, much more capable,” since 2014, says Philip Breedlove, a retired four-star US Air Force general who was Nato’s supreme commander from 2013 to 2016. “But the Russians would own the air and the sea.”

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It is these Ukrainian vulnerabilities that many experts have focused on recently including the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) who in their annual assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of countries worldwide in 2021, concluded that upgrading Ukraine’s armed forces to modern weapons has been only partially successful. In some areas for example obsolete Soviet era equipment is still in use. Air defence too is another weakness, while Ukraine’s Navy, decimated after Kyiv’s loss of its bases in Crimea, has been reduced to Coast Guard cutters received from the US, a mere tiddler when compared to Russia’s mighty Black Sea Fleet. It’s against this backdrop of Ukrainian military capability facing off against over 100,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border that has left analysts trying to assess whether Putin will opt for a full-scale invasion or a more limited operation. Or simply keep Russian forces in place to maintain pressure on Kyiv and the West.

With an overwhelming military advantage Russia can afford to keep its options open based on what Moscow wants to achieve, the price it is prepared to pay and finally how the West responds. In a recent canvassing of opinion from active-duty officers and analysts within the US military, the Washington based think tank Atlantic Council, came up with some revealing indicators to look out for that might help provide clues as to Russia’s next moves. Among these indicators were watching out for cyberattacks, military exercises, and evacuations of non-combatants and already some of these indicators have presented themselves as this crisis grows.

In mid-January for example, a cyberattack crippling government departments with a message calling on Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst” – purporting to be from Poland, one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters – was revealed by Ukraine’s information ministry to have probably been created by Russia.

In the coming weeks too, Russia will embark on military drills with its ally Belarus and has announced that its navy will stage a sweeping set of exercises from the Pacific to the Atlantic involving all its fleets.

In Belarus, which borders Ukraine the units involved in the forthcoming military drills include Russian S-400 and Pantsir air missile defence systems, which western officials say could be used to deter any Ukrainian allies from reconnaissance or support operations during an invasion.

As Reuters reported a few days ago, the deployment of Russian forces in Belarus creates a new potential front line for Ukrainian army planners to worry about.

Citing Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan consultancy, that specialises in analyses of Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian military capabilities, Reuters detailed how any reinforcement of that area will mean Ukraine spreading troops thinner elsewhere and diverting forces from positions facing southwest Russia and the Russian-backed region in eastern Ukraine.

“They don’t have enough manpower, so they’ll have to make choices,” said Muzyka.

Another factor worth watching say military analysts is Russia’s 250,000 reserve troops. If Russia is serious about a full invasion with the intent of taking and holding territory, then the consensus is that they would need more troops than currently deployed, and the use of reserves would point to such a strategy.

Then there is the question of physical territory too, both on land and at sea with one US Atlantic Council expert insisting that Russia’s movements regarding the port of Odessa, “a strategic prize second only to Kyiv”, being worth watching.

That said, the prospect of a full-scale invasion however is not one many observers subscribe to. While Russia has built up sufficient military resources to penetrate Ukrainian territory, many believe any incursion would likely be more measured.

Perhaps the most probable scenario which many military, security and intelligence experts have posited, would see the Russians aiming to first encircle Ukraine’s armed forces most of which are deployed along a “contact line” in the eastern Donbas region, where they are facing off against separatists backed by Moscow.

If the Kremlin rapidly moved armoured units to the west of this front line, it could cut off and trap much of Ukraine’s ground troops without having to occupy major cities.

A comparable scenario was outlined recently by analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) which envisaged Russia encircling the Ukrainian Army and then choking the nation’s economy by restricting access to its biggest cities, all without occupying or seizing additional Ukrainian territory.

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So much for Russia’s possible strategic options, but what would Ukraine’s response be if confronted with any of these strategies on the ground? The answer is almost certainly that Ukrainians would put up fierce armed resistance to any Russian incursion or invasion. Ever since the war in the Donbas and seizure of Crimea, the Ukrainian population has also been mobilising in support of its armed forces.

According to a poll taken in December 2021 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 58% of Ukrainian men and almost 13% of women declared that they are ready to take up arms. A further 17% and 25% more said they would resist through other means. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty a few months ago, General Oleksandr Pavlyuk, the commander of Ukrainian Joint Operation Forces fighting pro-Russian separatists, noted that Ukraine had up to half a million people with military experience. If the West does not come to Ukraine’s aid, he said, “we’ll start a partisan war”.

That said, Ukrainian military commanders are under no illusions as to what they would be up against in the face of a full Russian onslaught.

“Unfortunately, Ukraine needs to be objective at this stage,” said General Kyrylo O Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service in an interview with The New York Times recently.

“There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces,” Budanov confessed, before going on to outline how the Ukrainian military would quickly be incapacitated with its leadership unable to coordinate a defence and supply the front. Ultimately said Budanov, the responsibility would fall to frontline Ukrainian commanders to carry on the fight alone.

Fortunately for now it is the diplomatic not the military fight that remains in full force. This coming week however all that could quickly change should talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov fail to make headway. Few are hopeful of a significant breakthrough such is the nature of the deadlock between both sides. Difficult and dangerous days lie ahead.