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.
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.
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.
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.
Below is a satellite shot of the facility being built.
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.
This could be another shot of a base being built for the division, complete with soccer fields.
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 August 2015 with a larger footprint being taken up by ground units.
Millerovo runway shot from March 2016 (Janes paid for AirBus sat footage)
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.
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.
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.
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.