The following is my mental wargaming of Putin’s options & likely next step in the Ukraine.
SPETZNAZ & BLITZKRIEG. The Russians learned the hard way from the German military in WW 2. From the school of hard knocks, they developed the military science of a lightening war, using infiltrated special forces (Spetznaz) who are totally ruthless & will stop at nothing. When Russia declared war on Imperial Japan in August ’45, their special forces moved so fast that they entered the building holding all the generals of the Japanese high command, and stormed into the room where they were all around their big planning maps. The Japanese Generals were so shocked, they surrendered. They did the same kind of thing in 2014 in the Crimea. So Putin will again use this tried & true method the next time he attacks. It will be hard & fast, with a limited goal. Why a limited goal??
NATO’S RESPONSE. In today’s high tech world, preparations for a Russian offensive will be hard to camouflage…so the offensive will have to be limited initially to what perhaps 30,000 ground troops can accomplish in a quick seizure. Putin could (I believe) credibly hide the intentions of 30,000 ground troops. Why limited? Because NATO has lots of air power, that quite frankly (at this pt.) is superior to Russia’s. I would not be surprised if 10 NATO fighter squadrons would immediately respond. Not quick & hard enough to stop a quick offensive of several days. The first day of the offensive would be Spetsnaz troops infiltrating into the line of assault, carrying out key ops to insure that the assaulting ground troops could move quickly. Their movements will go undetected. I would expect Putin would not bite off more than 250 miles…he needs to keep it obtainable before NATO gains air superiority. Once NATO is invited in & controls the air, Russian forward movement will not be sustainable. A-10s & F-16s protected by a CAP will work the Russians over on the ground. Besides perhaps a small token NATO ground troop presence, the Ukrainian army will be on its own.
SO WHAT IS A WORTHY GOAL? I see two immediate stepping stones that could be the next step for Putin. Eventually, he will want to extend Russian territory to the Dnieper River (which is one of the few good defensive lines in the area. He will also want to extend Russian territory down the Black Sea coast to link in with the pro-Russian breakaway territory of Transdniestria (pro-Russian Moldavia beside Romania). Neither of these two goals can be obtained quickly enough with a discreet 30,000 ground force. So I theorize that Putin will choose one half of one of these goals. I would expect him to stage out of the pro-Russian breakaway areas Donetsk & Luhansk a quick campaign to create a land bridge to his newly acquired Crimea. The Crimea depends upon this area for its water supplies, which makes it vulnerable. This would give him land transportation routes to the Crimea also, to add to his Black Sea water routes. The land bridge could be gained in the few days it takes before NATO could establish air superiority.
A TRUCE. At this point, Putin gets the U.N. to broker a truce (after all, who wants WW3?). He can make legitimate claims as to why he needs the land bridge, and may be allowed to keep his defacto victory. (Remember Russia is no longer isolated in the U.N.) I would expect that he would deploy decoy units to the Kursk & Kharkov regions to make it look like was going to push towards the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. The Ukrainians would have to move assets to protect their capital, and then he sucker punches them in SE Ukraine to connect to the Crimea. It’s the only thing I see do-able that he might gain from and get away with. If he can do this, he sets himself up for the two worthwhile goals that I initially mentioned…extending the Russian border west to the defensible Dnieper River and taking the entire Black Sea coast further than Odessa, which will suffocate western Ukraine, and allow it to eventually fall into his lap. Step by step…Putin is very calculating and is thinking his options through.