With Ukrainian forces now on the Russian border, a momentous question has arisen.
Will Ukrainian troops now invade Russia?
Ukrainian boots on Russian ground might divert forces from the main Russian offensive to the south, embarrass the Russian government. and boost Ukrainian morale. It would also be sweet revenge in a conflict that has almost totally been waged on Ukrainian territory.
However, advancing into Russia would more likely be an enormous blunder. It would dissipate Ukrainian military power, possibly provoke Moscow into using chemical or nuclear weapons, and support Russia’s claim that invading Ukraine was a “defensive” war. Perhaps most important, it would risk depriving Ukraine of support from Western nations reluctant to risk escalating the conflict into World War III.
So far, there are no public indications that Ukraine is contemplating sending ground troops into Russia. Nonetheless, in a war where reality has repeatedly defied expert predictions, anything is possible. For now, Ukraine is reporting that its counteroffensive around Kharkiv, in the northeast of the country, has advanced to the Russian border. The government released a video that purportedly shows Ukrainian soldiers posing triumphantly around a border marker painted in the yellow-and-blue of the Ukrainian flag.
This would be the culmination of a counteroffensive that has driven back Russian forces from the gates of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The Ukraine-Russia border is just 26 miles away from Kharkiv, and the Russian city of Belgorod is just 50 miles to the northeast of Kharkiv.
The first phase of the Russian invasion in February attempted to seize Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and the capital city of Kyiv. But fierce Ukrainian resistance, poor tactics and fumbled logistics thwarted that plan. Moscow then switched its main offensive from the north to the south, aiming to seize all of the Donbas region and the Black Sea coast, including the ports of Kherson and Mariupol.
The southern thrust has achieved marginal success at best, at the price of weakening Russian forces in the north, who have been steadily withdrawing under pressure around Kharkiv. British intelligence estimates that Russia has already lost one-third of the ground forces that invaded Ukraine in February. There are indications that Russia first-line formations are so depleted that hastily mobilized formations are being sent into battle.
Invading Russia would be a disaster
Nonetheless, attacking into Russian territory would be disastrous for Ukraine, according to several Western military experts.
First, there would be no military advantage to what could be no more than a token offensive. While Ukraine’s military has performed wonders – and Russia’s has performed abysmally – the fact is that Ukraine is outnumbered and outgunned. The Ukrainian military isn’t strong enough to mount a thrust into Russia while defending the critical Donbas and Black Sea.
“If Ukraine tries to press into Russia proper through Belgorod, it would stretch the Ukrainian flanks, leaving them open for Russian counterattack and possible encirclement,” Alex Vershinin, a retired U.S. Army colonel and expert on Russian military logistics, told Forbes. “This would delay whatever the Russians are planning, but Ukraine would lose critical formations.”
Nor would a Ukrainian offensive inflict much damage on Russia’s war effort. “Militarily, there is little utility in going into Russian territory,” Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general, told Forbes. “It is a massive country with a vast network of military infrastructure. A limited incursion would have almost no military impact.”
A more useful strategy would be for Ukrainian troops around Kharkiv to pivot to the south and attempt to encircle and isolate Russian troops in the salient jutting into Ukrainian lines around Izyum, about 80 miles southeast of Kharkiv.
“Once you’ve pushed the Russian forces back over the border, you’ve accomplished your objective locally,” Steven Horrell, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Analysis thinktank in Washington, told Forbes. “That effort and combat power is better spent turning to attack other Russian forces still in Ukraine.”
“You relieve the Donbass by encircling the Russians with those forces, not by a diversion across the border,” said Horrell, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer. “The military objective is to push the ‘orcs’ [Russian soldiers] off Ukrainian territory, not to embarrass Putin.”
Putin has already been embarrassed by the performance of his military. He has also failed to whip up enthusiasm for the war among the Russian public and military, whose attitude seems to be one of fatalistic acceptance. But foreign invasion is still a powerful theme for a nation that endured the armies of Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler. Putin’s propagandists would not fail to exploit photos of the Ukrainian flag fluttering over a Russian town.
Firing on targets within Russia, using long-range weapons such as artillery, aircraft and drones, might not be provocative. Russia has already claimed that Ukrainian helicopters struck a fuel depot in Belgorod in April — which Ukraine denies – and Ukraine is interested in buying U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones, which could strike as far as Moscow. “Command and control, or artillery and MLRS [multiple rocket launchers], or logistics nodes supporting Russian troops in Ukraine are legitimate targets for expelling Russian forces,” Horrell said. “But Ukraine should hit them with deep strikes, not ground troops.”
Ultimately, any Ukrainian decision to invade Russian territory must contemplate one factor above all: how this will play in Western capitals. Ukraine would not have survived – and will not survive – without abundant military and political support from the U.S., Britain and other NATO powers.
But the West is carefully treading a line between supporting Ukraine and risking escalation with Russia, which has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and can widen the war by attacking Ukraine’s resupply routes in Poland, for example.
“The Ukrainians have already proved that they can out fight, outthink and defeat the Russian Army,” Ryan said. “They don’t need to go into Russia to re-prove that.”