Is a Russian military operation against Ukraine likely in the near future?

Following the November 25th Kerch Strait naval skirmish, in which Russia seized three Ukrainian boats,  Ukrainian leadership has issued warnings of a Russian buildup near Ukraine’s borders. These began in early December and have led to a media echo chamber of concerns that a Russian attack on Ukraine is imminent, in part bolstered by press releases from ISW. Actual evidence of Russian preparations for offensive operations, force movements indicating an unexpected buildup, or an imminent attack, is hard to come by. In this somewhat longer post I want to explore the existing evidence, what little there is, and examine a few conflict scenarios that may be within the realm of possibility in coming months.

Unfortunately this simmering conflict is subject to frequent false alarms, while actual points of escalation are rarely predicted, as was the case on November 25th. It is relatively easy to take a week’s worth of Russian troop movements, equipment deployments, drills, and MoD announcements, compile them together into a bullet point list of nefarious activities, and then declare them ‘data points’ indicating preparations for an invasion. As of today it seems Ukraine will not be extending the 30 day state of martial law, which casts some doubt on the urgency and immediacy of the anticipated Russian threat as presented earlier this month by Ukrainian authorities.

The more problematic element in all of this has been senior official Russian statements, which suggest a change in Moscow’s stance on dealing with Ukraine is afoot. Sergey Lavrov, Maria Zakharova, and Sergey Naryshkin, have issued statements expecting a possible Ukrainian ‘provocation’ and or ‘attack’ which could be interpreted as indications and warnings of Moscow preparing the information space, i.e. setting expectations of renewed violence in the coming weeks. However, they may also be a poor Russian attempt at getting Washington, D.C. to restrain Ukraine, or otherwise influence Ukrainian decision making to Russian benefit.

The Russian narrative offers cause for concern, because it is a form of signaling not dissimilar from official statements in the run up to the Russian conflict with Georgia in 2008. That said, it is likely some officials in Moscow believed Ukraine would try to use martial law as a cover for a military operation in the Donbas, especially given their experience with Saakashvili in 2008. Although real evidence is scant, I’ll try to unpack the different stories, and the likelihood of an upcoming Russian military operation against Ukraine.

Bottom line up front: Almost every year there is a sizable artillery duel that takes place after the holiday truce (clashes likely to resume between orthodox Christmas on January 7 and perhaps the old new year on January 14th), and so a notable escalation in violence is likely in January, but there is no evidence of Russian preparations for a major assault in Ukraine, certainly not in Crimea.  It is possible, but highly improbable. Most of the information available reflects planned modernization, expected force structure changes, and troop movements on the Russian side not indicative of unusual activity or preparations for an assault. However, as covered years ago on this blog, the long term force posture and structure changes to create three divisions along Ukraine’s borders, return earlier displaced brigades, and a focus on modernizing equipment in the Southern MD, mean that capacity and capability is there to engage in a high intensity conventional conflict with Ukraine at any time. Ukrainian leadership has used evidence from these long term trends to create the sense of an imminent tactical threat, but that is not the case, and they likely know it.

Expectations of an attack are based on three disparate sets of information, if we can charitably call them that, which are seemingly being woven together by various outlets, blogs, and sites like ISW who warn of Russian preparations for an imminent attack. The first is an alleged increase in Russian hardware in the Rostov region of the Southern Military District. The second is a series of disparate troop movements in Crimea, which in and of themselves do not speak to anything, but some believe are indications of a Russian operation against Ukraine’s Kherson region, presumably to seize the Crimea-Dnepr fresh water canal. The third involves statements by Russia’s MFA, Sergey Naryshkin, and others, that indicate Russian preparations for a conflict in the near future.

Issue #1 The Russian tank build up in the east and frightening Google photos of lots of tanks

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Poroshenko on Sky News earlier this month with google satellite imagery

 

Ukraine’s chief of general staff, Victor Muzhneko, stated that there is an increase in Russian tanks near the Ukrainian border, having grown from 93 to 250 within two weeks from mid-September. This information was spread by a Ukrainian run English-language blog run by Dylan Malyasov, which is a defense news amalgamator. The problem is that these are mostly T-62 variants (M/MV), which have long been retired from the Russian military, and are not in service with Russian trained separatist forces either. This tank last saw service during the Russia-Georgia War of 2008, and was considered obsolete decades ago. There is no Russian unit that fields T-62 tanks today, or T-64 tanks for that matter. The Russian armed forces use this tank for target practice during major military exercises, as was the case in recently held Vostok 2018.

Separatist forces use T-64BV and T-72B1 variants, which are different main battle tanks, but can perform the same missions and are comparable in their performance characteristics. The T-62 is a completely different design, using different caliber ammunition, sights, fire control, and so on – so it is not possible for someone trained on a T-72 to just jump into this tank and ‘invade Ukraine.’ At this point the same can be said of T-64BVs being supplied to the two separatist corps, doubtfully anyone in line Russian units is current and certified to operate either T-62s, or T-64s. Russian forces use more modern T-72BA or B3 variants almost exclusively, with select units fielding T-80Us or T-80BVM.

Here is a quick slide of T-72B3 use by Russian forces in Ukraine 2014, T-64BV manned by separatists, and a T-62M

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Below we can see the alleged tank build up near Ukraine’s borders. Note the rest of the vehicle park at the base, and the contingent, remains the same after the arrival of these tanks, which suggests that they are here for storage and not a force addition.

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August 16 – clearing for tanks
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September 23 most of the tanks have arrived
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September 30 – about 250 tanks there

The main force currently being supplied with refurbished Russian T-62M tanks is the Syrian Army, particularly the 5th Corps. These tanks are coming out of Russian reserve storehouses with T-62s and BMP infantry fighting vehicles. During Vostok 2018 there was news of T-62s being activated and shipped east, but in reality several batches of these vehicles were loaded and shipped West in October. Ukraine’s alleged tank build up is almost certainly a series of old T-62s taken out of the Central Tank Reserve Base in Ulan Ude, which were tracked through social media (you can get a more detailed story on the T-62 shipment from DFR Lab) as arriving at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, which is where Muzhenko’s photos are from. Subsequently these tanks tend to show up at the port of Novorossiysk for shipment to Syria via the ‘Syrian Express.’

Storage base in Ulan-Ude, before September and after September of this year. A number of tanks have moved from the lot, indicating that some of the vehicles likely came from this base.

T-62M tanks heading west from Central Military District and same ones arriving at Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, some are likely destined for Syria.

The recently arrived tanks near Ukraine’s borders are most likely being stored in Rostov region near the port for shipment, or may be used in training, but the story that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine with ancient tanks that they themselves don’t use and don’t train on stretches the imagination beyond the realm of the possible. It is equally possible that these tanks are there to establish a new reserve structure. Russia has been lacking mobilization force structure, and at best has developed a territorial battalion type reserve system for infrastructure defense. Operational reserve capacity comes out of active units which force generate units from active servicemen rather than mobilize reservists. Therefore one possible explanation is that these older vehicles are designed to park equipment for some nascent reserve force structure.

What’s frustrating is that Ukraine’s military leadership doubtlessly knows all of this, which makes it hard to understand why Muzhenko would use google earth satellite images of old T-62 tanks to push this story in the media. Any military analyst who studies the Russian armed forces could likely tell you this information. Yet Petro Poroshenko went on Sky News with these very same images of Russian tanks, as though they were legitimate evidence of Russian preparations for an invasion.

My personal interpretation of the Ukrainian claims is that this is an information campaign to justify and defend Poroshenko’s controversial decision to institute martial law in advance of Presidential elections, where his chances of winning are quite tenuous. This is a cynical, but optimistic view, because the alternative suggests that Ukraine’s armed forces don’t know much about the Russian military, and use dated google earth images to hunt down old T-62 tanks that are neither here or there to anything. Ukrainian force posture doesn’t suggest that they themselves expect a Russian offensive either, and the temporary state of martial law has ended as scheduled, so this seems to be mostly a large information wave with little substance to substantiate it.

However, the Russian Rostov region is seeing a steady build up of forces as part of the formation of the 150th division in the reestablished 8th Combined Arms Army (Southern MD). This will prove a decade long process. Other units that have been announced as far back as early 2015, include the 144th MR Division and 3rd MR Division in 20th Combined Arms Army (Western MD), some shifting of brigades, and steady addition or maneuver regiments to only partially filled divisions in 1st Tank Guards Army headquartered in Moscow. The 144th Division is somewhat lagging here in formation. The 150th division is a 2×2 motor rifle and tank regiment configuration (+2 supporting regiments), which is almost filled now in its maneuver regiments. Supposedly the last motor rifle regiment is being formed as of this month. There are also interesting force structure changes afoot in the Russian VDV, creating much larger air mobile formations, which were partially covered during experiments in Vostok-2018 exercises.

Issue #2 Russian build up in Crimea for an invasion of Kherson

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The dried up canal on the Russian side of the Crimean border

There is another concern out there, based on sighting of Russian troop movements near the Crimean border with Kherson, that Russia might conduct an offensive operation from Crimea. At least this is ISW’s thesis on the basis of a few troop trucks, some APCs, and artillery being moved towards the border – which is not at all uncommon. Basically, we have a story of an overturned Russian truck as part of a military convoy on the way to the border, with a field kitchen. What’s naturally missing from this equation is a concentration of armor, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery, large volumes of ammunition, etc. moved about on flatbed trucks, i.e. there is no evidence of the sort of hardware one would expect in support of an offensive operation or the formation of battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s borders in Crimea. The Army Corps in Crimea has a dearth of maneuver elements, so units would have to cross into the peninsula via bridge from the rest of the Southern Military District (presumably 58th Army), concentrate, and deploy – which nobody is seeing happen. More than likely Russian troop movements are indicators of preparations for an artillery duel – exchanges of indirect fire that typically escalate in January/February.

Partly responsible for the confusion are two planned force additions to Crimea. First we have the formation of the 171st independent air assault battalion in Crimea, which was announced December 2, 2017. This battalion is technically part of the 7th VDV Air assault division, but will create a permanently based unit in Crimea with air mobility, and add to the ‘elite infantry’ stationed there which can serve as a rapid reaction force. However, VDV units have been rotating through Crimea for years now, so this is less of a force increase and more institutionalizing that which has already been taking place.

171th VDV Regiment
171st Independent Battalion receiving its honorary title, establishing it in Crimea

The second tidbit of information regards the deployment of a 4th S-400 battalion to Dzhankoi in Crimea, which likely completes the rearmament of the 18th and 12th air defense regiments based there (31st air defense division within the 4th Air and Air Defense Army of the Southern Military District). The first S-400 battalion was deployed January 2017 in Feodosia, the second January 2018 in Sevastopol, and a third in September 2018 in Yevpatoria. The S-400 replaces the older S-300 systems deployed to Crimea, and is part of a general wave of modernization which prioritized the Southern Military District. Alongside S-400 deployments one can find Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters, and Su-34 bombers steadily replacing Su-24s and older Su-27s in the Russian Aerospace Forces and naval aviation units assigned to the Black Sea Fleet.

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The 2nd Russian S-400 battalion set deployed to Crimea early this year

There is cause for concern that long term Russia may need to resolve the fresh water crisis in Crimea, but no way to know how this situation will play out in the coming year. In May 2014 Ukraine blocked off the water supply from the Crimea-Dnepr canal that links the Dnepr river to the peninsula. Although Russia was able to quickly build an ‘energy bridge’ to supply power, and Kerch strait bridge officially opened May 2018 to commercial traffic, the water problem remains a potential cause of conflict (Jane’s here briefly summarizes the issue: Ukraine supplied 86% of Crimea’s water, and this summer there was an acute water shortage in about 20% of the peninsula). The fresh water issue is problematic, but I’ve found it to be overly spun as the next “land bridge to Crimea” narrative. The only sort of offensive military operation that makes sense is a thrust to the Dnepr river, which seizes the entire canal, and the southern half of Ukraine’s Kherson region. There is no way to take part of the canal since it is easily blocked at any point south of the river itself. In scope, this is about a 65-70km push, which is equivalent to depth of territory seized in the Donbas region. Kherson may be relatively easy to cut off, but it would require a substantial number of forces to effect this kind of operation and earn Russia an entire new host of problems.

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Basic map with the path of the Dnepr-Crimea canal indicated
Kherson vector
~65km from the Crimean border to the Dnepr river to get to the starting point of the canal (beyond which it cannot be blocked)

Taking Kherson, like taking most any other Ukrainian region, is well within the realm of Russian military capability, but it would mean inheriting a new region which is also dependent on other parts of Ukraine. One of the obvious challenges Russia has faced in taking pieces of Ukraine is that it may seem easy to to dismember a country on a map, but in reality a state is full of integrated pieces that depend on each other for electricity, water, road networks, trade, supply of food, etc. Resolving the fresh water problem in Crimea by taking another region that would itself bring new supply challenges, and while it could probably be done relatively quickly, it would also require a substantial force build up and subsequent deployment. There are no ‘separatist’ or other volunteer battalions ready to take over internal security, man block posts, and create an entirely new line of control with Ukrainian forces. Also, there is the small matter than absent a ‘Kherson People’s Republic’ movement, there are no proxy forces behind which Russia can mask its invasion, and so this would have to be an overt, outright, and bloody business from the very start.

Russia could build up forces in Crimea relatively quickly, combining an air mobile airborne operation with a ground assault, but there would be indications and warnings. Unlike in February-March 2014, the West has a lot of technical and human resources now focused on the Russian problem set. Ground force movements, airborne unit shifts, forward deployment of several battalion tactical groups in Crimea, etc. These are regularly recorded by people, spotters, social media, and traditional news. Right now there is no evidence of such troop movements, though one should not discount a military solution to the water issue in 2019, but the entire scenario remains in the realm of low probability events.

Issue #3 Russian warnings and threats

Finally, Russian press statements by Lavrov, Naryshkin, Maria Zakharova are perhaps the most alarming, since they indicate a readiness of Russian forces to see through an escalation with Ukraine in the coming weeks or months. This of course brings us into the realm of political analysis and out of the world of military analysis. These warnings indicate the expectation of a conflict, with Russia positioning Ukraine as a the provocateur, something that’s become rote in Russian political statements. The messaging is probably not meant for domestic audiences, or Ukrainian audiences, but for the West, which Russian elites believe can heavily influence Ukrainian decision making. As such, they represent a pattern of thinking reminiscent of the run up to the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, reflecting the Russian perception that they can threaten the potential risk of escalation in order to get the United States to lean on what Moscow sees as Washington’s client state.

Russians do see Poroshenko as a provocateur, expecting him to “pull something” in the run up to the election, and engage in military posturing. Like many policymakers in the West, they are subscribers to diversionary war theory, which has little empirical basis, but is very much in vogue with political decision makers. Moscow thinks that Poroshenko needs Western attention on Ukraine, and the cheapest way Ukraine can achieve that is with a narrative that draws attention to the ongoing ‘Russian threat.’ Hence warnings of imminent danger tend to crop up every fall around November-December time. Putting aside the likelihood that Russia itself will execute some of the more dire plans discussed above, there is little incentive for Russia to launch any attack during the election as it would only benefit Poroshenko’s cause, in every scenario. That doesn’t mean it wont happen, because bounded rationality leads to outcomes akin to November 25th, i.e. one should not ignore the likely outcome of a chain of events that results in a conflict spiral between these two actors, but there is no sign that Russia intends to intervene in Ukrainian politics via overt military means.

There is a strong possibility of miscalculation, with January 2019 being different than previous artillery duels and skirmishes that have followed the last major operation in February-March 2015 (Battle of Debaltseve). Ukrainian forces have been slowly gaining ground in the ‘grey zone’ that exists between the two sides respective positions along the line of control in the Donbas. These steady gains are often referenced as the ‘creeping offensive’ to retake lost territory, leading to artillery duels with Russian backed separatists. Separatist units are organized and supported with logistics, technical capabilities like EW, air defense, and other equipment, by a contingent of Russian regulars in Ukraine stationed further behind the line of control. The daily exchanges of indirect fire often flare up after the holiday truce in January, particularly when one side decides to creep into the no man’s land between them, and shift the battle lines.

Russian controlled separatists have also played this game with Ukrainian forces for several years now, making small shifts in the line over the years. It’s what keeps this a hot war rather than a frozen conflict. However, there is a sense that Russia is spoiling for a fight – just one person’s opinion. Russian public statements are designed to paint them as the reasonable party seeking to deter potential Ukrainian adventurism, but in truth, it feels like Moscow is looking to bloody Ukraine at the first available opportunity.

It could be vengeance for Ukraine gaining autocephaly, splitting from the Russian orthodox church, or it could be that Moscow wants to show that it is unconstrained and feels free to use the military toolkit. The November 25th naval skirmish with the Russian FSB border guard service demonstrated that when pressed to make decisions in the moment, the Russian leadership turned what could have been a minor incident into a serious clash, overt, heavy handed, with disproportionate use of force. This is at best personal inference, but it is unlikely that Russia is planning an offensive operation to seize Kherson. It is more probable that Moscow is spoiling for a fight with Ukraine, with the intent of handing Ukraine and by proxy, the United States, a small but politically consequential military defeat.

 

 

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