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Surprise resort trips and empty hotel rooms reveal how Russia’s plan for an easy victory in Ukraine fell apart

Ukraine Kyiv hotel missile attackA destroyed hotel in Kyiv after a Russian missile attack on December 31, 2022.

Yevhenii Zavhorodnii/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

  • Months before invading, Russia launched an unconventional warfare campaign against Ukraine.
  • The goal was to destabilize Ukraine’s government and undermine its response to the Russian attack.
  • The Kremlin assumed its plan would work and and still launched the invasion when it didn’t.

When the Russian military launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, almost everyone thought the smaller country was doomed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisers expected a lighting campaign lasting between three days and two weeks. Even US intelligence assessments foresaw a quick Russian victory.

Fourteen months later, and after heavy casualties, Ukraine still stands, having imposed grievous losses on Russia and forcing it to retreat from much of the territory it seized early in the war.

The world has focused on the military forces that Russia has flung at Ukraine, but in the months before the invasion started, Russia’s plan hinged on a network of spies.

A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, shows how Russia set out to undermine Ukraine and set up an easy victory — and how Moscow struggled to adapt when that plan fell apart.

Resort trips and hotel rooms

Russian tourists Egypt Red Sea resort Sharm el-SheikhRussian tourists in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in September 2021.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s intelligence services began efforts to set conditions for victory long before Russian troops crossed into Ukraine. In the years before the invasion, Russian operatives had penetrated Ukrainian security services and other agencies and recruited assets, according to the report.

Russian spies intended to use those assets to gain insight to Ukraine’s security structure and to use their networks to undermine Ukrainian defense efforts by paralyzing decision-making and convincing local forces not to put up a fight, paving the way for incoming Russian troops.

In July 2021, Russian leaders appear to have ordered the FSB — the main successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB — to prepare plans to occupy Ukraine by outlining how Russia had penetrated Ukraine’s government and deciding how to use that access in the invasion and occupation, according to the RUSI report.

When that was done, Russian handlers needed to relay instructions to their agents in Ukraine. “This required meetings,” the report says, and in fall 2021, the Ukrainian agents “began to go on brief holidays at short notice to resorts in Turkey, Cyprus and Egypt” — all places regularly visited by Russian tourists — “where, coincidentally, they would meet with their handlers.”

While Russian intelligence services ramped up operations, the US intelligence community started declassifying intelligence about Russian plans. In an unprecedented move, the US revealed Russia’s intentions and informed Kyiv about the Russian intelligence operations inside Ukraine. Russia’s intelligence services may have penetrated Ukraine, but the US had penetrated Russia.

Turkey Bodrum tourism yachtThe Turkish city of Bodrum, a popular tourist destination on the Aegean Sea, in June 2021.

BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s military planning for the invasion assumed those destabilization efforts would work. “The whole logic of the employment of forces was premised on the success of Russia’s unconventional operations,” the RUSI report says.

That precondition wasn’t achieved, but Russian leaders decided to forge ahead, which, the report adds, “may be understood as a strategic error of judgment by Putin personally.”

Much of Russia’s planning focused on the occupation, particularly the occupation of Kyiv, which the Russians expected to do within three days of the attack. Once Russia’s military secured the city, its special-operations forces would begin what the report calls “repressive operations.”

Indeed, “the Russians were so confident that they would succeed in hours that their support apparatus had rented apartments around the key sites from which their special forces were supposed to operate in Kyiv,” the RUSI report says.

One task for Russian special operators appears to have been the assassination of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and some of his closest advisers — a mission that Russia reportedly tried to carry out several times. The Kremlin even compiled a target deck full of unwanted people to be “liquidated” once the Russian forces were in control of the country.

Those plans fell apart with the rest of the invasion. Russian paratroopers sent to seize a major airport near Kyiv were quickly stymied and took heavy losses. Other Russian troops got stuck on their way to Kyiv, likely leaving some hotel managers wondering about those reservations.

Preparing the battlefield

Ukraine military Hostomel airport Antonov An-225A member of the Ukrainian military in front of a destroyed Antonov An-225 at the airport in Hostomel in July 2022.

Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images

What Russia’s intelligence officers and special operators were doing is operational preparation of the battlefield — sometimes called operational preparation of the environment — a rather obscure mission in which a small number of intelligence officers or commandos (sometimes just one) deploy into a conflict zone to prepare the environment before a larger military force arrives.

For example, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Delta Force commandos deployed into the country and prepared targeting packages for precision strikes while also trying to locate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The difficulty of the mission varies depending on the target and what kind of access that spies and operators have to it. It’s been easier for US operators to penetrate past targets, like Bosnia or Iraq, than it will likely be against a hard target like Iran, Russia, or China.

For the Russians, Ukraine proved to be a very hard target indeed.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.

Read the original article on Business Insider
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