Could Putin's troops 'be in Warsaw in two days'?
“If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, and Bucharest”, Russian leader Vladimir Putin said, according to a report in Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung on 18 September.
He reportedly said it to Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko, who then told EU officials.
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Other media asked Brussels, Kiev, and Moscow if Putin really made the threat, but they declined to confirm or deny.
EUobserver asked three Russian analysts if Putin could really do it.
The short answer is No.
The more realistic threat is “hybrid warfare” - economic coercion, political subversion, and covert military action - against the Baltic states in order to split Nato.
But the long answer sheds light on the balance of power in Europe and the psychology of the Ukraine war.
The analysts are Pavel Baev, Pavel Podvig, and Igor Sutyagin.
Baev used to work at a research institute for the Russian defence ministry but is now with Prio, a think tank in Oslo.
Podvig taught at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology but now works for the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva.
Sutyagin worked at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow before he was arrested for espionage. He went to the UK in a spy-swap in 2010 and now works for Rusi, a think tank in London.
Testing Article V
For his part, US leader Barack Obama recently went to Tallinn and Warsaw and said that a Russian attack would trigger Nato’s Article V on collective defence.
But Article V has never been tested and no one knows if Americans or French people would be willing to die for Estonia or Poland in a war with a nuclear power.
If Article V was not triggered, the analysts said the Baltic states are “indefensible” due to their proximity to Russia.
Bucharest and Warsaw are a different prospect, however.
“Bucharest is completely out of the question - Russian troops would have to cross such a huge territory that it’s impossible technically”, Baev said.
“You'd have to make a large-scale sea landing to reach Bucharest and Russia doesn't have the capability to do this”, Sutyagin added.
He said Warsaw is more vulnerable.
Russian tanks and infantry could attack Poland from Belarus and Russian Iskander missiles could hit Polish cities from Kaliningrad. Russia could also air-drop special forces.
But Russian planes and infantry would be operating far from their bases and would face complications with fuel and supply routes.
“Maybe they [Russian forces] could reach Warsaw, but what would they do after that?” Sutyagin said.
Baev was more sceptical.
He said that, unlike in the Cold War, Russian forces aren't kept in a state of readiness for a large assault: “The structure of mobilisation for a conventional war isn't there and Warsaw is probably beyond what Russia can do”.
Baev and Sutyagin said Kiev is “within reach”.
But Baev noted that Russia’s invasion of Crimea and east Ukraine has caused such “bitter” feeling that it would face sustained popular resistance.
“I don’t think Russian officers would be happy about such orders … they already feel betrayed because Russia has refused to give a proper burial to soldiers killed in east Ukraine”.
If Obama is as good as his word, then Putin’s boast is even less credible.
Sutyagin said Nato jets could inflict severe damage the moment that Russian forces crossed into Article V territory: “Without air superiority, he has no chance to win such a conflict”.
He added: “The ratio of Nato ground forces in Europe to Russian forces is four to one, even if you count Russia’s Asian troops. If you don’t count them, it’s seven to one”.
Baev noted that Russia has “no defence” against Nato’s “long-range, high-precision” weapons, such as conventional cruise missiles.
Sutyagin added that Putin might think Nato would not retaliate against targets on Russian territory, “but he'd never be sure".
Nuclear escalation 'unthinkable'
Baev also said nuclear escalation is “in the very far corner of the unthinkable … there are long-established taboos and they are likely to hold no matter how insane a leader might be”.
But analysts do think about it.
Baev said the most likely use of nuclear weapons would be nuclear-armed torpedoes or anti-ship missiles at sea, where there is no collateral damage.
There is also a possibility Russia could use "tactical" nuclear weapons as a "force equaliser" against Nato states' ground forces.
Baev noted that in the past 30 years Western military doctrines have shifted to a “flexible response” - escalation of conventional, high-precision strikes against Russian targets instead of a nuclear reaction.
But the UN’s Podvig said Russia would only use nuclear weapons defensively.
“Military doctrine says Russia would only use nuclear weapons if the Russian state is facing an existential threat”.
“For instance, if Russian forces are at risk of being defeated, then you could use a nuclear weapon against some isolated island at sea. The thinking is that if you use a nuclear weapon, even if you don’t hit enemy forces you stop them by showing your will to use any means necessary to halt the aggression”.
Meanwhile, Russia has test-fired two "strategic" nuclear missiles since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict .
It plans to test two more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), capable of striking the US, in October and November.
Many of Russia’s ICBMs date back to the 1980s and the number of warheads is much lower than in the Cold War.
But Podvig said Russia has updated capabilities in recent years.
“The Russian nuclear force is in reasonable shape … there is no reason to believe that Russia couldn't mount a very serious strategic strike”.
He added the tests have nothing to do with the Ukraine confrontation, however.
He said that, unlike Russia’s tactical arsenal, which is a “black hole” in terms of open source information, its ICBMs are controlled by international treaties. Tests are normal practice and Nato states are notified months in advance.
“In my conversations with people on both sides, I don't see any particular anxiety about the nuclear dimension of the conflict in Ukraine”, he noted.
Why did he say it?
If Putin’s claim on Warsaw and Bucharest is false, then why did he make it?
Baev said that while sabre-rattling scares “armchair generals”, real generals know the threat isn't credible.
He noted that Putin might have a distorted idea of his capabilities: “He lives in a Kremlin court which is very tightly organised around him and nobody contradicts his opinion. They say: ‘Yes president. Certainly we could do this’.”
But he added that Western and Russian military chiefs have better contacts than during the Cold War, with Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu, for instance, kept off EU and US blacklists in order to keep channels open.
“[US military commander Chuck] Hagel speaks personally to Shoigu on a regular basis”, Baev said.
Podvig noted “it’s very hard to know what’s in Putin’s mind, but I see his statement as a figure of speech”.
“He’s trying to project the image of a person who is willing to take risks that the West isn't”.
Unlike Baev, he added: “The bluff seems to be working. Nobody wants to call it”.
“You've seen that the West is very cautious about supplying weapons to Ukraine partly, I think, because nobody wants to move in a direction which could escalate the conflict”.