When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, they did so according to a well-established playbook. Beginning with the air assault operation to capture Kyiv and overthrow the Ukrainian government, Russia’s moves followed the same model as those of past foreign interventions by both the Russian Federation and its Soviet predecessor, including Prague in 1968, Kabul in 1979, and Sevastopol in 2014. An appreciation of this playbook is key for states who might find themselves in the crosshairs of future Russian aggression.
Russia’s invasion playbook generally proceeds as follows: positioning conventional forces on the borders of the targeted country to amplify political pressure and organize for invasion; infiltrating special operations (Spetsnaz) units to prepare and spearhead the incursion; seizing a strategic airport through airborne units; and airlanding additional assault troops to secure the battlespace and decapitate the national government in conjunction with the already inserted special operations units. Understanding and delineating Russia’s sequence of events for regime decapitation allows for the creation of specific countermeasures that at-risk countries and their allied advisors can take to protect vulnerable national capitals.
Russia’s Invasion Playbook
One of the first examples of Russia’s playbook comes from the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to counter the Prague Spring. Czechoslovak First Secretary Alexander Dubček’s attempts to introduce economic and political reforms, along with efforts to decentralize power, prompted a Soviet-led invasion with the aim of restoring pro-Kremlin authority in the country. On August 20, 1968, a Spetsnaz element along with KGB personnel secured Prague’s Ruzyně International Airport. The rest of the assault force, consisting of a Spetsnaz brigade and an airborne division then airlanded, and the former proceeded to seize locations in Prague—the presidential palace, radio stations, and other key terrain. Simultaneously, Warsaw Pact mechanized troops crossed the border for the occupation. The Soviets arrested the Czechoslovak leadership and flew them to Moscow. Ultimately, the Warsaw Pact invasion, led by Russian forces, took eight months to successfully suppress the popular uprising that followed the invasion.
In 1979, Soviet forces replicated the 1968 attack by decapitating the existing Afghan regime and replacing it with a compliant proxy. Following the assassination of pro-Soviet leader Nur Muhammad Taraki on October 9, 1979, Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin seized power and initiated political reforms not aligned with Soviet policies. In response, the STAVKA (Soviet high command) made the decision in early December 1979 to invade the country and remove Amin. With the Soviet 40th Army poised at the Afghan-Soviet border by mid-December, elements of the 105th Guards Airborne Division and a Spetsnaz unit airlanded at Kabul Airport on December 25 to initiate Operation Storm 333. A joint Spetsnaz and KGB commando detachment proceeded from the airport and assaulted the presidential palace, killing Amin and installing Babrak Karmal as Afghanistan’s new Soviet-aligned leader. The 40th Army crossed the border to pacify the rest of the country. This invasion plunged the country into a civil war that ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the creation of the nine-country Commonwealth of Independent States with the Russian Federation at the helm, drastically changed the political landscape in Eastern Europe. NATO enlargement brought fifteen former Soviet and satellite countries into Western Europe’s security architecture, beginning with East Germany’s reunification with NATO member West Germany and continuing through, most recently, Montenegro’s entrance into the alliance in 2017 and North Macedonia’s in 2020. Despite these allegiance changes by neighboring states, Russia has continued to maintain its sphere of influence throughout Eastern Europe and has taken direct and indirect actions aimed at preventing governments that are antithetical to its political, economic, and security interests from assuming power.
Almost immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became a key battleground state in Russia’s efforts to maintain its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Ukraine’s intentions to align itself more closely with the European Union led to a series of acknowledgements, including a 2010 resolution acknowledging Ukraine’s right to join the EU. A November 2013 decision by Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych to not sign a political association and trade agreement with the EU sparked what became known as the Maidan Revolution, or the Revolution of Dignity. On February 21, 2014, in response to sustained protests, the Ukrainian parliament voted unanimously to remove the Yanukovych government from power and restore its 2004 constitution.
At the same time as the political turmoil in Kyiv was reaching its climax in February, Russian forces began invading Crimea, claiming to protect Russian nationals in the region and to defend its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Russia’s invasion of Crimea followed a similar pattern to Soviet-era coups, including inserting Spetsnaz, airborne forces, and other “little green men” in the capital prior to the invasion, surrounding the local parliament building on February 27 and ousting its leader, Anatolii Mohyliov, and installing a pro-Russia leader, Sergey Aksyonov, in his place. On February 28, Russian Spetsnaz seized two airstrips, and, along with landing several ships, began to rapidly move troops and materiel onto the peninsula. Simultaneously, Russian forces began a “snap inspection” exercise that, according to a RAND report on the annexation, was designed as “a diversion and cover for troop movements.” After occupying the peninsula with Russian troops, along with unmarked Russian and local “defense forces,” a referendum on March 16 allegedly gave the population the opportunity to vote on joining Russia. On March 18, Russia formally annexed Crimea, allowing Russia to maintain its naval presence in the Black Sea and to expand operations aimed at controlling portions of eastern Ukraine, particularly Luhansk and Donetsk.
Despite its 2014 success in Crimea, Russia’s efforts to draw once again on its playbook to invade Ukraine in February 2022 did not go according to plan. Beginning in March 2021, Russia started amassing forces on Ukraine’s borders, placing over one hundred thousand troops on three sides of the country by January 2022 and claiming that the buildup was for training exercises and not an invasion. Simultaneously, Putin began to make demands that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO, while claiming that Ukraine was persecuting ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. On February 21, 2022, Putin announced in a speech that Russia recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, also announcing the end of the Minsk Protocol the following day. And on February 24, Putin commenced the beginning of a “special military operation,” designed to counter what he claimed to be the rise of Nazi forces in Ukraine and to protect Russian subjects within Ukraine’s borders.
Simultaneous to ground forces advancing into Ukraine, a battle broke out at the Antonov Airport in Hostomel on the outskirts of Kyiv. The fight began with Russian airborne forces attempting an air assault on the airport, which was repelled by elements of the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade of the Ukrainian National Guard along with Ukrainian special operations forces. A second air assault the next day, reinforced by Russian ground forces moving south from Belarus, succeeded in capturing the airport. However, the Ukrainian National Guard troops had intentionally damaged the runways, preventing Russian forces from landing aircraft. Fighting for control of the airport continued for a week until Ukrainian forces succeeded in taking it back completely by March 3, ultimately foiling efforts for Russia to use its playbook as means of rapidly deploying troops and materiel to seize the capital.
Countering Russia’s Invasion Playbook
Ukraine’s ability to disrupt Russia’s invasion playbook and the ongoing war it is fighting should make clear to other countries that are vulnerable to Russian aggression how important it is to understand the invasion playbook. Among these are Moldova, whose pro-Western president warned earlier this year of a possible Russian-led coup, and Georgia, which has been subject to Russian disinformation and other hybrid tactics for years. Russia may have its hands full in Ukraine right now, but adequately preparing for Russia’s invasion playbook takes time. This, combined with Russia’s pattern of invading a country and deposing its leadership, makes it critical for vulnerable countries to take measures to counter the threat. For countries like Moldova and Georgia, this preparation is no small feat, given that both have Russian troops already in their country, are relatively small, and are faced with a range of resource constraints.
Four broad countermeasures aimed at thwarting Russia’s invasion playbook can be gleaned from the above cases. First, at-risk countries should create some sort of military unit dedicated to defending their key airports. The Ukrainians left elements of the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade of the National Guard at the Antonov Airport, despite the overwhelming need for Ukrainian troops to confront the Russian invasion at its borders. This unit of around three hundred troops succeeded in frustrating the Russian forces’ seizure of the airport and rendered the airstrip unusable, foiling subsequent Russian efforts to land forces and seize the capital. Alongside the recent Ukrainian experience, examples from the Cold War, specifically Switzerland’s creation of an airport defense regiment to safeguard Zurich Airport from Soviet airborne troops, illustrate possible countermeasures for securing critical airfields and preventing a Russian coup de main.
Second, US and European allies have an important role to play in training and advising airport defense forces. The United States military has several units dedicated to seizing or securing airstrips, particularly within the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and Air Force special operations forces. These units could provide valuable training on how to plan for and disrupt a Russian assault on critical airports. Similar capabilities exist within European special operations and conventional forces, including countries with total defense plans, such as Finland and Sweden.
Third, sharing strategic intelligence is another means through which US and European countries could aid states vulnerable to a Russian military coup. Reporting from the Wall Street Journal claims that the CIA was instrumental in warning Ukraine of Russia’s planned air assault on the Antonov Airport, including a visit from the agency’s director weeks before the attack. This intelligence sharing may have resulted in the retention of a force capable of defending the airport and thwarting Russian forces’ use of the airport to launch a coup.
Finally, President Zelenskyy’s decision to remain in the country and not flee during the invasion was critical for foiling Russia’s information warfare aimed at delegitimizing his administration and justifying the need to install a new government. President Zelenskyy’s frequent social media posts showing him and his entourage walking through the streets of Kyiv in the first hours and days of the invasion provided a powerful counternarrative to Russian propaganda and became a visible sign of resistance to the invasion.
Ultimately, at-risk states and the countries that advise and support them should aim to increase the costs for Russia to execute its invasion playbook. Understanding and delineating the sequence of events Russia has historically used to initiate a coup and devising countermeasures to thwart these actions may prove critical in defending against the next Russian invasion.
Dr. Kevin D. Stringer is a retired US Army colonel, the chair of education for the US Irregular Warfare Center, and visiting associate professor at the General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania. With thirty years of commissioned military service, he was a Eurasian foreign area officer and strategist assigned to US Special Operations Command–Europe and US Special Operations Command.
Dr. Heather S. Gregg is professor of irregular warfare at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Garmisch, Germany. She is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Prior to joining the Marshall Center, Dr. Gregg was a professor at the US Army War College and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where she worked primarily with special operations forces.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons (adapted by MWI)