Russia’s military build-up along its Western border. US media reported yesterday (09/04/2021) that an estimated 28,000 Russian troops are now present near the Ukrainian border. This means the Russian armed forces have deployed 28,000 men alongside hundreds of vehicles, platforms and the logistics such a deployment entails inside of 9 days.
This is actually slow by Russian standards: The Russian Western Military District alone counts 400,000 men on paper (roughly 40% of the total manpower of the Russian army). What has happened, here, is that units from as far away as Siberia have been transported by train to the western border: Every Russian Military District has contributed some units to this operation. The largest Russian troops and hardware concentration has been seen in Voronezh, where what looks like a giant staging point has been established. There, platforms such as the 2S3 Akatsiya and Msta-S SPGs; BM-27 Uragan and TOS-1A MLRS; T-72B3 tanks; BMPs; Iskander ballistic missile launchers’ S-400 and BuK SAMs and Redut-2US multi-purpose communication complexes have been spotted and identified.
Another military train arrived in Crimea yesterday (09/04/2011), loaded with military hardware. ToR SAMs were seen on flatcars.The Black Sea Fleet is being reinforced by gunboats and landing ships belonging to the Caspian Sea Fleet.
What does it all mean?
On the one hand, this could be a move both aimed at intimidating the Ukrainian leadership and at drilling units from all over Russia to deploy west fast (and for railway units to mobilise and transport all that hardware in a fast and efficient manner). In early March, Ukrainian president Zelinsky had signed a decree authorising the “de-occupation” of Crimea and Donbass. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced on the 19th of March that the country’s National Security and Defense Council had approved a strategy that is aimed at retaking Crimea and the Donbass and reintegrating those territories. Said plan is based on involving the international community and potentially in calling for UN peacekeepers to secure the front, then the reconquered territories (as well as temporarily administrate them) and finally the border between Ukraine and Russia. Soon after, Ukrainian military hardware and troops started streaming east toward the Donbass. Poking the bear could be in Ukraine’s interests! Kiev has a friend in Washington, right now: When Biden was VP, he wanted to arm the Ukrainian army. President Obama overruled him and settled for deliveries of less lethal weapons instead. Provoking Russia into lashing out (by launching an offensive in the Donbass) would play right into the hands of Ukrainian president Zelinsky: He would then play the Russian Aggression card and it would work!
Through that optic, one could guess or deduct this is simple Russian muscle flexing and deterrence. After all, the Russian military aviation (VKS) hasn’t been mobilised. If this was really a case for military deterrence, this strategy has worked as president Zelinsky announced yesterday that the Ukrainian army had no intention of launching an offensive in the East.
This strategy is a double edged one for Moscow, however: This latest deployment West has seemingly put NATO countries on edge, whether this is genuine alarm or glee at having an opportunity/excuse to move more troops and hardware East, no one knows. But one thing for sure is that Ukraine will now receive more western cash and hardware to reinforce its armed forces. Expect more US military assistance in Ukraine, both in deliveries of hardware and in training and mentoring of officers and troops.
In 2014, Russia took control over Crimea and saved the Donbass “republics” from being crushed by the Ukrainian ATO (anti-terrorist opération) without involving its aviation. So the fact that the VKS hasn’t been mobilised is not a factor reliable enough to take into account. Furthermore, the hardware deployed in Voronezh isn’t as random as it seems: It is the perfect combination of capabilities needed to assemble BTGs (Battalion Tactical Groups). These flexible Ad-Hoc Battlegroups were extremely successful in 2014 and 2015. The Russian deployment mirrors the one seen in 2014 in scope and speed and the Black Sea Fleet has seen an uptick in activity. Besides, the Russian leadership and media are currently pushing the narrative of “Protection of Russian citizens by Russia wherever they are”.
So is Russia about to launch an unprovoked attack against Ukraine? Probably not as there is always the fear of yet more western economic sanctions. The Russian army, however, is ideally deployed to launch an offensive into Ukraine on two fronts at a minute’s notice: Voronezh is roughly 3 hours drive from the Ukrainian border. The Russian units deployed in Crimea are already probably closer to the Isthmus of Perekop than that. It is clear Moscow would use any Ukrainian military operation near the Donbass or Crimea as an excuse to burst into Ukraine.
To do what exactly?
An Ukrainian military provocation or offensive in the Donbass could actually be a great excuse for Russia to go onto the offensive in Southern Ukraine (from Crimea proper)! For its water needs (drinking water/industry/agriculture/irrigation), Crimea depends on the North Crimean Canal linking the peninsula to the Dnieper river in Ukraine. This canal represents 85% of total Crimean water supply. Canal which the Ukrainian army dammed back in 2014, depriving 1.9 million civilians living in Crimea (including 600,000 Ukrainians and Tatars) of drinking water. This is in direct breach of International Humanitarian Law (IHL, also called the law of armed conflicts) but nobody talks about it. “”The IHL contains rules protecting the access to water for the civilian population. Most importantly, in the conduct of hostilities, it is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population, including drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, both in international and non-international armed conflicts. This rule is closely connected to the prohibition of starvation as a method of warfare, which inherently includes a prohibition of deprivation the civilian population of water. Water itself is also protected as a component of the environment by the prohibition to use methods or means of warfare that are intended or expected to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment, applicable in international and arguable also in non-international armed conflicts.””
Since 2014, water in Crimea has had to be rationed, impacting everyone and everything on the Peninsula. In February 2021, Ukrainian authorities estimated that only 2.8 million cubic meters of water remained in the Crimean reservoir: Not enough to last the summer. An Ukrainian offensive in the East (Donbass) would be a great opportunity for Russia to burst out of Crimea and make a run for the dam on the North Crimean Canal (16km from the border) all the way to the Dnieper river (60km). Such a move would not only secure the Peninsula water supply, it would also simultaneously threaten to cut off Ukrainian supply lines to the Donbass and threaten Mariupol and Berdyansk from the rear. An operation to take those two ports is not out of the question as it would turn the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake and secure the Crimean bridge.
An involvement of the Black Sea Fleet to blockade Odessa is not out of the realm of possibility: The BSF did install a naval blockade against Georgia in 2008. It is doubtful the Russian army would push any further beyond those lines: Those areas/towns have a high proportion of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. It is seen by Moscow as friendly territory. Going any further would mean military operations on soil occupied by a majority of ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers: Extremely unfriendly territory with a high risk of resistance, insurrection and a need for policing and pacifying. Not something Moscow would wish for.
In short, a renewed conflict in the East could both benefit and harm both Ukraine and Russia. The harm is obvious for both, in terms of human losses and economic damage. The win would be for president Zelinsky to manage to look like a victim in the eyes of the international community, bringing in military and financial support. It would also make him look good on his domestic political scene and could make the Ukrainian people temporarily forget that this reformist president had failed to reform anything.
As for president Putin, he would have fulfilled his promise to restore water supply to the Crimean population, reinforcing the “self-defence” and “humanitarian” nature of the Russian operation. This would also match the so-called “Putin Doctrine”: A blanket assertion that Moscow has the right and the obligation to protect Russians anywhere in the world. Vladimir Putin said himself in 2014: “I would like to make it clear to all: This country will continue to actively defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots abroad, using the entire range of available means — from political and economic to operations under international humanitarian law and the right of self-defense”. The Putin Doctrine is based on the assumption that “Russia is the country on which the Russian world is based and is therefore the main guarantor of the safety of the Russian world”. This would also give Vladimir Putin a temporary popularity boost which would decay soon after (as soon as additional international sanctions bite, hurting Russian citizens’ comfort and livelihood).
Both Russian and Ukrainian strategies have wider implications, with a large scope for incidents, accidents and escalation. President Zelinsky’s will to internationalise the conflict could drag NATO into a war. On the 9th of April 2021, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement: “Two US Navy warships will enter the Black Sea next week and remain there until May 4” The Russian reply was instantaneous: “The United States and some NATO countries want to violate the Montreux Treaty in order to have a permanent military presence in the Black Sea. It is Russia’s duty not to allow this”. It is never a good idea to have two (semi) hostile fleets building up so close to one another. A potential Russian offensive in Ukraine would also put everyone on edge. It would have to be fast and efficient to avoid any escalation: A decisive and limited strike could deter NATO and put the Organisation in front of a Fait Accompli. A longer campaign or an operation that drags on for too long, inflicting too much damage and too many losses would give the alliance no room to manoeuvre but to honor all its recent promises of helping Kiev… Whatever the cost.