Chebarkul and Chukotka – a tale of two new divisions

In a previous post I had not discussed that alongside the three announced divisions around Ukraine, Russia’s General Staff also planned a fourth in Chelyabinsk oblast.  This division has at times been announced as part of “Russia’s response to NATO” though its location naturally tells us otherwise given it is right across the border from Kazakhstan.  First news of it came in late January 2016. Adding to the spread of divisions is the recent announcement on August 23rd from a Ministry of Defense meeting that there is another division in the works for 2018.  A press report from the recently held meeting revealed that the General Staff intends to form a coastal defense division on Chukotka.

I’ve compiled the history and background of these changes from a few news announcements, including posts from colleagues and other blogs on the subject, such as bmpd, eagle_rost, and one of the better takes out there written by Aleksei Ramm on Defence.ru

7th Armor Brigade’s T-72B tanks

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The 7th Independent Armor Brigade in Chebarkul (Chelyabinsk oblast) will be converted into a division – this unit is part of the Central Military District. This brigade is one of the two remnants of the 15th Tank Division, which was moved back to Russia form Czechoslovakia in 1991.  Later in 2004 the division was disbanded, leaving two regiments that would become the core of a new division, the 34th, headquartered in Ekaterinburg.  During the 2009 reforms, which led to the consolidation, displacement or disbanding of numerous units across Russia, all divisions were turned into brigades.  Hence the 34th was broken into two brigades, the 28th Motor Rifle which stayed in Ekaterinburg, and the 7th Armor in Chebarkul.  The region hosts a sprawling military base not far from the border with Kazakhstan.

The division’s structure will include the following elements: 1 motor rifle regiment, 1 self-propelled artillery regiment, 1 air defense ‘division’, a reconnaissance and an engineering battalion, along with several supporting units of smaller size.  It was not officially stated, but we should venture an assumption that the tanks of the 7th will be included in a tank regiment as part of the new division.  Suffice it to say, this does not match a six regiment Soviet division, though it looks close to the 2nd or 4th half divisions which also have two regiments.  In Aleksei Ramm’s view, because this unit only has one motor rifle regiment and an air defense ‘division’ in place of a full regiment, it is simply an expanded combined arms brigade.  It’s chief accomplishment is a larger staff and a substantially larger artillery compliment than a normal brigade would have.  There is no timetable for completing this unit formation, but I suspect late 2017 is a good date to go by given the timetable for the other divisions announced.

A recap of why Russia is recreating divisions: The concept is to have an organization with the staff and logistics base that would allow brigades to send tactical battalion groups to the front, making the division a  management rung  below that of the combined arms army, i.e. Military District -> Combined Arms Army -> Division HQ-> regiment or battalion tactical group.  Brigades are too small to take in battalions from other brigades and command or support them.  Hence divisions may prove the most useful tell of where the Russian military expects the need for task organized formations.  Russia’s force structure remains in an experimental state, absorbing the experiences of the last two years, but its becoming clear that brigades remain the force generating component while divisions are the task organizing command and support structure for expected contingencies.

Turning to the far east – a new division on Chukotka is a bit of a surprise since it is about as remote piece of real estate for a base as one can find in Russia.  This will not be a combined arms division, but likely a coastal defense unit integrating various missile fires and artillery units under one command.  The principal motivation was the decision back in July 2015 to create a unified coastal defense system from Primorye to the Arctic.  It’s objective is to effect “sea control” (or in reality sea denial) over the littorals by Kuril Islands, the Bering Strait, and defend Russia’s ballistic missile submarines stationed in the Pacific Fleet.  Of note, two of Russia’s new Borei-class SSBNs have arrived to start replacing the rather ancient Delta IIIs stationed there.

Abandoned military base at Gydim.  Photo from basov chukoka.

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According to the announcement the Pacific fleet had conducted a survey from April to June of this year of two Kuril islands for suitability to host garrisons, namely Matua and Paramushir.  It’s unclear how that statement connects to the formation of the division in Chukotka, except that it will likely extend coastal defense from the Kurils all the way to the Bering Strait.  Russia has already invested heavily in reinforcing the A2/AD systems on the Kuril Islands since that chain forms the outer boundary of the SSBN bastion in the Pacific.

Another photo of abandoned ‘Gydim’ an unofficial name of the military town by Anadyr where once nuclear warheads were stored, presumably in summer time, when it is more ‘cheerful’ (my implication is not that Gydim will be reactivated, or Anadyr will once more help host the division, but simply to speak to the efficacy of establishing bases in these remote regions).  Photo from Alexander Belenkiy’s blog.

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Some history offered by bmpd blog on Russian military presence in Chukotka: under Stalin in 1947-53 Chukotka hosted the 14th Army, but this unit was disbanded promptly after his death.  Subsequently in the 1980s the 99th motor rifle division was based here, although it was only manned at cadre levels.  That unit was eventually disbanded in 1994.  A Russian military base in Gydim has become a ghost town, like many other Soviet towns and bases sprawling across the country’s less inhabitable regions.  It is an attraction for photo adventurers who are drawn to abandoned buildings and Soviet military infrastructure.  Photos of what was left of Russian military presence on Chukotka are illustrative of how expensive, and arguably wasteful, establishing a sizable contingent there would be.

Although it may have a stronger rationale than the string of bases in the Arctic, this plan seems to entail burying substantial money into the snow.  Those stationed on Chukotka will be able to reflect positively only on the fact that they were not stationed on Novaya Zemlya.  More than likely this new coastal defense division will also be presented as ‘Russia’s answer to NATO’ and in Western press be characterized as militarization of the Far East.  In reality it will further integrate various artillery and missile units in the region, and perhaps extend the A2/AD layer north of the Kuril island chain towards the Bering strait.

Recommended: Aleksei Ramm’s piece here, BMPD piece on the division in Chebarkul and Chukotka,  also eagle rost. Russian defense policy is always a good read.

 

Klintsy near Bryansk

New Russian Divisions and other units shifting to Ukraine’s borders – second look with updates

Bill Gertz’s article alleging that there were “40,000” troops massing on Ukraine’s borders inspired me to take another look at where the three planned divisions, and other unit movements stand right now.  There is quite a bit of activity and leadership announcements as part of the Russian shift to what Shoigu calls the “southwestern strategic direction.”  Essentially, a containment ring is being built circumscribing Ukraine, including large unit formations in permanent garrisons to serve as a quick reaction force in the event of a conventional war.

Some plans dating back to 2014 have already been realized, most are in progress, and several announcements are only now getting under way with completion timelines set for late 2017.  I’m underlining dates because certain people misread the May post in this blog, and I suspect other blogs on this topic, and then said that all these announced units were already in position – they are not.

At the moment Russia does not have 40,000 troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, but principally Russia’s General Staff seems to have Ukraine in mind.  The changes in force posture are designed to deal with medium-long term scenarios rather than the current conflict.  This is a large force that can effect conventional deterrence by denial, and if need be compellence, in a future crisis with Ukraine.

The reason for moving the 20th Army HQ back, resurrecting the 1st Tank Army, and creating a host of new units on Ukraine’s borders is fairly straightforward.  During the chaotic reforms 2009-2011 numerous units were consolidated or cut from the Western MD.  Others were moved further south or east.  In 2014 Russia had to improvise a combined staff of 20th and 58th Armies to put together two task forces on Ukraine’s borders.  That may have worked in February-April 2014, but its far from optimal, and simply will not do in a contingency where Russian forces need to intervene again.  Ukraine’s military is far larger in size and more capable relative to the hollowed out paper force that existed in spring of 2014.

Russian staff likely fears a ‘Croatia scenario’ whereby  Ukraine cordons off the separatist republics and then builds up an army large enough to wipe them out in a few years.  With three divisions, plus several brigades, organized under two combined arms armies (CAA) headquartered nearby, they figure it will deter future Ukrainian leaders from such adventurism.  It also places Ukraine in a geographic vice, running from Yelnya to Crimea.  It is not feasible that Ukraine will build an army capable of attacking Donbass and holding Russian units on so many fronts.  The units required to attempt an ATO 2.0 (now with a real army) would leave no defenders for other vectors of Russian attack.  Each division will be a self-sustaining strike force, ensuring that Kiev does not feel confident in the ability to retake the separatist regions through force.

A breakdown of the plans:

1.)  10th Armored Division (presumed) in Bogychar (Voronezh oblast) – When 20th Combined Arms Army moved from Mulino in Nizhegorod Oblast to Voronezh, so did 9th Motor Rifle Brigade from Dzerzhinsk to Bogychar.  This began in February 2015.  I wrote in May of this year that 1st Independent Armored Brigade will likely assume the legacy of 10th Armored Division, a move announced in July 2015.

10th Armor served in Easter Germany during the Cold War and returned in 1991.  In 2009 this division was turned into the 262nd Military Storage and Repair Base during the Serduykov period of consolidation and knocking down units in Western MD.  That base has a large stockpile and it looks like the 1st Armored Brigade will be needing it to become the 10th Armored Division.  All the divisions are likely to have a classic Soviet six regiment structure.  This unit will take into 2017  to form. So, this is a case of there and back again for the Russian army. Between 2009-2016 the process flow has been: 10th Div -> 262nd Base -> 1st Bde -> 10th Div.

Here  is a nice photo of the 262nd base in Bogychar.  It’s going to get busy with 9th Bde and a new division there.

262nd base bogychar

2.) 144th Motor Rifle Division in Yelnya (Smolensk oblast) – The plans for this unit were essentially announced back in 23 November 2014, and in September 2015 it was confirmed that a newly formed independent motor rifle brigade will return to Yelnya.  The 144th motor rifle division was once based here after being withdrawn from Estonia, disbanded in 1998, and converted into a military warehouse base.  A new unit will assume the legacy of the 144th and become the core of the announced division.

Early July of 2015 the MoD announced that this motor rifle division will be formed by second half of 2017 and be assigned to the 1st Tank Guards Army.  Second half of 2017 is optimistic since according to one paper the total military personnel expected by summer of 2017 is 6,000, of which 3,600 will be contract and officers.  It goes without saying that 6,000 is less than the 10,000 promised.  Not quite enough to fill six regiments of 3 motor rifle , 1 armor, 1 artillery, 1 air defense and the rest support units.  The expectation for 2016  is two battalions will arrive, and become two regiments in 2017, with plans to have an active tank field range by then.

The photo below is just north of Yelnya. It is a snapshot from Yandex.ru, which I checked, but the actual image I borrowed from an Infonapalm post.

Yelnya new base forming

3.) 28th Motor Rifle Brigade in Klintsy (Bryansk Oblast), this unit is in the process of moving from Ekateriburg (Central MD) to the town of Klintsy, with lead elements arriving May 30, 2016.  A widely shared government tender, issued June 28th of this year, has shown the planned structure of the base, for what looks like a newly formed unit designated to be the 488th Motor Rifle Regiment.  This may well be the base of the division since typical Russian units are organized as brigade/battalion.  Perhaps the division itself will be headquartered further north in Yelnya, but with regiments as far south as Klintsy.  The work is slated for completion in Summer of 2017, so more than likely this unit will be stood up piecemeal over the coming year.

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Which army gets what division? TASS news agency claimed that the Yelnya division will be assigned to the 1st Tank Army, but other sources suggested the unit in Klintsy, which forms the first regiment of this division,  will belong to 20th CAA.  This makes more sense, and it would be logical for the 10th Armored Division to go to 1st Tank Army, except for the fact that in the 1990s it was part  of the 20th CAA.  Back then the 20th was based in Voronezh and if Shoigu decides to ‘set right what Serduykov once set wrong’ then all must be put back in its place.

4.) 23rd Motor Rifle Brigade in Valuyki (Belgorod oblast) – This unit is moving from Samara in the Central MD as well, to a base planned to be completed by November 2016.  A government tender issued indicates that the construction is slated for 3,500 soldiers (size fits).  The brigade is composed of the following battalions: one armored, three motor rifle, two self-propelled artillery, one rocket artillery, two air defense and a host of supporting units.

This is the Valuyki base under construction.

Valuyki

Below is a satellite shot of the facility being built.

Vakuyki google earth image

5.) 150th Division near Novocherkassk (Rostov Oblast) –  This division was rumored to be based on the 33rd Independent Motor Rifle Brigade, but it is also said it will be formed anew without building off of an existing brigade.  This particular division will be named after the 150th Idritsk-Berlin Division, famous for raising the flag over the Reichstag in 1945.  The 33rd Bde belongs to the 49th Army in Southern MD, however the contract servicemen were moved from Maikop to Novocherkassk, so it resides in two locations at the same time.  According to the timetable, the housing for this division is being thrown up quickly using modular construction, but it too is not planned to be finished until sometime in 2017.  Whether or not the 33rd will be subsumed into this division is an outstanding question, my view is that inevitably Russia will have to consume that brigade if they are to come up with 10,000 soldiers to staff a six regiment division.

The thing is some news reports also suggested Millerovo as one of the locations for a part of this division, Novocherkassk and Millerovo are not that close to each other.  It is still unknown how spread out this division will be in Rostov oblast. This photo was widely circulated in April 2016 of a deputy minister inspecting housing construction for the division.  No timeline for when it will be ready, but given the photo’s date its safe to assume they’ve not materialized the division out of thin air between April and August.

Novocherkassk house inspection generals

This could be another shot of a base being built for the division, complete with soccer fields.

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6.) Millerovo Airbase (Rostov Oblast) – The airbase has been around for years. Close to the Ukrainian border, and well positioned to provide air support to the ground units in the region. In December 2014 Millerovo saw the restoration of the 31st Fighter Regiment with Mig-29 variants.  Following October 2015 the unit is being upgraded to much more capable Su-30SM, a heavy multirole fighter.  The 31st has received 20 new Su-30SMs, which is no small feat given they’re in high demand across the air force and aerospace forces.  Today the base likely houses ~60 fighters, including 20 Su-30Sm, 32 Mig-29, and a mix of Su-27 variants.

During various times the base has hosted a fair bit of ground equipment.  There is a motorized battalion assigned to it but at times satellite footage shows it hosting a decent ground contingent.  I’ve also noticed what looks like a 3D low bandwidth surveillance radar planted there on google earth, a Nebo 55G6 (Tall Rack).  No doubt has a good look over Ukrainian skies, and decent visibility on ‘low visibility’ aircraft.

Millerovo March 2014 – fairly clear.

Millerovo wide shot March 2014

Millerovo August 2015 with a larger footprint being taken up by ground units.

Millerovo wide shot August 2015

Millerovo runway shot from March 2016 (Janes paid for AirBus sat footage)

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7.) Rostov region bases – The region is packed with military bases, but a few in particular are quite vast, including staging bases for units arriving to the region and going on rotation.  Some call this Rostov One.  I’m unsure of where the title came from.

Large base/staging area between Golovinka and Vodino – this is about one third of it in the shot from google on October 2014.  The base is so large that it would take three images to do it justice.  This area was setup promptly during the start of conflict with Ukraine for self explainable reasons.  Nothing was here in late 2013 except green fields according to google earth.

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Up close you will find a variety of units camped out there.  In this shot we have towed artillery, but there’s plenty of MLRS, and various armored vehicle types as well.

Up close of Rostov one

Persianovsky, northeast of Novocherkassk is one of many bases in the Rostov region, which hosts training fields, and numerous military equipment storage areas.  This facility has been mentioned in recent articles, erroneously, because a look on google earth shows its been here for years and has not substantially expanded.  I don’t quite understand why it is making headlines.

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Conclusion: There has been a large force shift in the southwestern direction for Russia, and incidentally, nothing comparable to speak of in the Baltic region or Kaliningrad. Today most of these plans are progressing, although some announcements are only now being realized with construction tenders.  Most of the units are at least a year out from being stood up or completing their transfer to the region.  By the second half of 2017 many of the units should be in place, though likely not at full strength.  Russian leaders speak of these divisions frequently in the press, framing them as a  response to “NATO’s build up”, but its quite clear these plans long in motion before any of NATO’s recent initiatives and their purpose has little to nothing to do with the Alliance.

This is a network of garrisons designed to deter Ukraine from believing it could win a limited conventional war some years down the line.  The concept is centered around creating strike groups under the organizational framework of divisions.  Each formation is designed to handle an assault in their sector, taking in other units as necessary and supporting them in the fight.  With two CAAs, Russia intends to ring Ukraine sufficiently so as not to be concerned with the question of what a mid-long term high end fight might look like should a different leader arrive in Kiev and choose to retake the separatist regions by force.  The revival of these forces in Western and Southern MD is a permanent insurance policy for Moscow.

Special thanks to the other blogs that compile news and information, in particular for this blog: BMPD and Russian Defense Policy.  Some Ukrainian sources were helpful as well.

Russia’s New Divisions in the West

On January 12th Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced the formation of three new divisions.  These are not a response to U.S. force deployments in Europe, NATO’s exercises, or the prospect of new multinational battalions in the Baltic states.  The thinking in Russia’s General Staff appears to be about a Ukrainian and Belorussian contingency, namely a second and more intense war with Ukraine or perhaps a color revolution in Belarus.  The map of where these new units will be formed is quite telling: Yelnya, Bogychar and Novocherkassk.  While NATO is busy discussing deterrence, reassurance, resolve, Russia has Ukraine on it’s mind and is implementing long discussed plans to permanently base units on Ukraine’s borders.

From Vedomosti:

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What we know about the new divisions is that they be formed on the basis of existing brigades, likely not composed of new units but generated from forces already deployed in the Western Military District.  The divisions are promised to number 10,000 strong and were announced piecemeal between 2014-2016, formations to be based largely on garrisoned or newly formed independent brigades already in those regions.

1.) Bogychar, Voronezh Oblast.  This division will likely be formed on the basis of the 1st Independent Armored Brigade (not to be confused with 1st Tank Army), which will assume the legacy of the 10th Armor Division a unit that during the reforms was converted in 2009 into the 262nd military base.  The 9th independent motor rifle brigade may contribute units to this division because in February 2015 it shifted elements to Bogychar from Dzerzhinsk.  The plans for this division were first revealed in July 2015.  In September 2015 plans were also announced to build a military garrison in Belogorod for a yet undisclosed unit to be housed there, close to Ukraine’s northern border.

2.) Yelnya, Smolensk Oblast.  The plans for this division were announced back in November 2014.  In September 2015 it was said that a newly formed motor rifle brigade will return to Yelnya, where there once used to be the 144th motor rifle division withdrawn from Germany.  That unit was disbanded in 1998 and converted into a military warehouse base.  It’s possible the new unit will assume the legacy of the 144th and become the core of the announced division. Early July of 2015 the MoD announced that this motor rifle division will be formed by June of 2017 (optimistically) and be assigned to the 1st Tank Guards Army.  It’s structure will be a classic 6 regiment build, 3 motor rifle, 1 armor, 1 artillery, 1 air defense and the rest support units.

3.) Novocherkassk, Rostov Oblast.  This division is likely to be based on the 33rd Independent Motor Rifle Brigade shifted from Maikop to Rostov.  This particular division will be named after the 150th Idritsk-Berlin Division, famous for raising the flag over the Reichstag in 1945.

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4th Kantemirovskaya Division training

The Return

The steady change in force posture 2013-2016 is an important overall development among Russian ground forces.  During the 2008-2012 Serdyukov military reforms, Russia reduced the number of armor and motor rifle battalions from 50 to 22 around Moscow in the Western Military District.  Most forces from Ukraine’s borders were almost completely withdrawn during the reforms, such as the 10th Armor Division that may be restored in part in Bogychar, Voronezh.

Since 2013 Russia has seen the partial return of disbanded or relocated units to the Western Military District largely based South West of Moscow near Belarus and Ukraine.  Additional brigades were created for the 20th Army, then the 1st Tank Army was formed, and following the war in Ukraine some units were brought north from the Southern Military District.  According to Sergei Shoigu’s announcement this year 30 military units have been brought back to the region, though their basing seems largely distant from NATO’s borders.  The recent history of the Western Military District can likely be divided into two periods 2009-2013, a time of demobilization and relocation of units away from Russia’s Western borders, and 2013-2016 the return of heavy ground forces in part driven by the conflict with Ukraine.

The most logical reason for bringing these units back is the Russian experience of having to put together Battalion Tactical Groups in early 2014 when deploying on Ukraine’s borders.  This was an improvised effort, combining the staff’s of 20th and 58th armies to plan out the deployments, which put together several powerful strike groups on Ukraine’s borders.  Despite their success, the process exposed two obvious problems for Russia’s Western MD.  First, Russia lacked permanently based units near Ukraine’s and Belarus’ borders, fully equipped with supporting elements allowing them to sustain a deployment.  The second was the absence of a larger formation that could take in battalions from other military districts and command them in the field, i.e. no divisional structure.  This made rotating units from Central MD and Eastern MD in the fight harder from a command perspective.  With three new divisions, Russia can now send battalion sized units to those commands, have them sort out logistics and support, or in a larger war serve as the center piece in a task organized strike group.

There and back again: divisions to brigades to divisions

What does this mean for the Russian army as a whole?  The return of divisions could be seen in line with the general walking back of Serdyukov’s reorganization, given the return of air regiments and divisions in the Air Force, back from air bases.  Similarly Shoigu restored the 4th Kantemirovskaya Armor Division and the 2nd Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division, although both are honorary division names brought back for their historical legacy.  In reality these are half divisions in the Western Military District formed around two regiments each, composing the 1st Tank Army (announced though yet to be created).  However, thinking that divisions are back in the Russian military and brigades are out is an incorrect assessment.

Russia is not sticking wholly with brigades or switching back to divisions, instead looking at a mixed force structure.  In some ways this may be reminiscent of the U.S. Marine Corps which has brigades and battalions, divisions and regiments all within one service.  A very ‘hybrid’ organization in the parlance of modern military discourse, i.e. an eclectic mix of formations and groupings.

One of the unanswered questions is whether these divisions will truly be based more on a Soviet division structure, composed of four combined arms regiments and a much larger combination of supporting units.  If so, it will take quite a bit of equipment and existing units to form them.  Alternatively, they are likely to look like the 4th and 2nd division, formed around two regiments and a host of supporting units.  These would be in effect expanded brigades, with division level command staff and larger supporting units (artillery, air-defense, etc.)

Thanks to a number of sources: BMPD, Vedomosti, Gazeta RU, Topwar.ru, EagleRost, Defence.ru and others.