Ukraine in the Balance. Again.

Ukraine in the Balance. Again.

By Matthew Thomas in Security | April 30, 2021

Once again, Ukraine faces the threat of Russian aggression. Surrounded on nearly all sides, it faces a potential crisis of existence, as Moscow sees an opportunity to take on yet more ambitious objectives against its hapless neighbor. Unfortunately for Ukraine, nothing guarantees its security, and it is grossly, obscenely outmatched by its adversary. What exactly Russia intends to do remains a mystery, but one thing is clear: Russia plans to attack Ukraine. When, where, how, how far – these things can only be speculated, but Russia is undeniably gearing up for war.

Observations on Land

Between March and April, 110,000-150,000 troops (estimates vary) massed near the Russian border with Ukraine, as well as in Crimea. This is well beyond the number used for the annexation of Crimea or for the invasion of the Donbas. Many were pulled from units beyond the Urals, and the railway system accommodated the movement of large volumes of heavy equipment. On paper, this was called a “readiness check,” but the reality is that the Kremlin frequently uses the pretense of “exercises” to conduct major operations. Further, the deployment lasted for approximately five weeks, significantly longer than Russia usually conducts training exercises. It is unlikely that there is nothing to see here, even given the highly publicized drawdown of forces. Notably, much of the equipment brought to one of the deployment sites, 17 kilometers south of Voronezh, is being left there, ostensibly for the annual Zapad exercises.

The units deployed are also significant. Among these are field hospitals, signals units, electronic warfare, air defense batteries, tank and rifle battalions, multiple rocket launcher batteries, and short-range ballistic missile batteries. Taken as a whole, there is at bare minimum a clearly signaled threat to Ukraine, if not an outright indication of intent to attack. Furthermore, the locations of the key deployments, in Crimea, Rostov district, and Voronezh district were all within quick striking range, and in the case of Rostov district and Voronezh district, were near a high speed rail line constructed under the auspices of Russian Railways (RZhD), but with heavy involvement of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). Not long after the railway’s completion in 2017, military movements along the line were reported, and analysts noted the railway’s critical importance for military logistics near Ukraine and the occupied territory in Donbas.

Despite the drawdown of forces, Ukraine remains in an extremely precarious position. Firstly, Russia has demonstrated its capability to rapidly deploy over 100,000 troops from across the country, including from beyond the Urals, to the border. Secondly, the assets and equipment staged near the border remain there, as do some of the personnel. Lastly, the land component pales in comparison with what is happening in the maritime and air domains.

Observations at Sea

Russia’s intentions are more clearly observable at sea. Russia has announced new maritime exclusion zones around Crimea, as well as the Sea of Azov, which it has effectively annexed as an internal body of water. Moscow has successfully transferred naval assets from the Baltic Sea Fleet, the Northern Fleet, and the Caspian Flotilla into the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and many of the ships are manned with marine forces trained to conduct offensive amphibious operations. Naval aviation assets are present to provide support for these marines. With the Sea of Azov effectively blockaded, and the waters around Crimea closed off, Russia has Ukraine in a tight spot by sea. Furthermore, Western naval assets in the region are insufficient to prevent Russian attack, and given the conditions placed on non-Black Sea littoral states by the Montreux Convention, the role of Turkey, recently angered by Washington’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, will be a primary question mark in the coming weeks. Notably, Western countries have shrunk back in the face of Russia’s saber rattling in the Black Sea, seeking to avoid escalation. The United States canceled plans to send two destroyers into the Black Sea, removing that critical asset of power projection from the region.

Paul Goble, writing for the Jamestown Foundation, makes three key observations:

First, the Caspian Flotilla was used alongside FSB vessels for Russia’s aggressive activities in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait during the summer of 2018, wherein it attacked three small Ukrainian vessels passing through the strait. With the deployments of March-April, the Caspian Flotilla is back in theater

Second, the aforementioned FSB vessels are now directly supporting the Black Sea Fleet.

Third, the forces in the Sea of Azov can easily be used to support a land invasion of Ukraine.

Indeed, the presence of the marines on board these vessels in the Sea of Azov and around Crimea appear to signal intent to conduct amphibious landings at some time in the future. It is ultimately just a question of when.

Observations in the Air

In creating its area denial zones around the Crimean peninsula and the Sea of Azov, Russia has historically placed great significance on the air domain. This time is no exception. Moscow has been updating its anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems, and is presently focusing considerable effort to upgrade its anti-drone capabilities. If the Kremlin is planning an attack on Ukraine, the anti-drone systems will be a crucial component to preserving its other assets, as the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been acquiring Turkish Bayraktar combat drones, which are among the most dangerous assets in Kyiv’s arsenal. In March, the Russian naval forces in the Black Sea conducted exercises to simulate anti-drone operations. However, Russia’s anti-missile and anti-aircraft upgrades may be more daunting, and are perhaps no less clear a signal of intent.

Russia has been busy upgrading its early detection radar systems, and will be replacing its old systems on Crimea with the new Yakhroma early-warning missile defense radar this year. Notably, this same system is also planned for Russia’s area denial posture in Kaliningrad, and when installed in both locations will give Russia vastly improved intelligence gathering and early warning capabilities over not only its own territory, but over Belarus and Ukraine as well. Beyond radar, Russia is establishing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities on Crimea that mirror, or even exceed its capabilities at Kaliningrad. This reflects a clear strategic decision to focus on the use of missiles and related assets in the Ukrainian theater, possibly targeting crucial military infrastructures such as airfields and headquarters buildings. Indeed, between missiles, drones, heavy lift aircraft with troops, and electronic warfare capabilities, Russia is poising itself to be able to knock out Ukraine’s air defense system and infrastructures.

Finally, electronic warfare capabilities round out the layers of Russia’s area denial posture. Moscow uses multiple onshore and aircraft-mounted signals jamming systems to diminish the capabilities of foreign radar systems, radio communications, and other critical systems for general awareness and intelligence gathering alike. Through the use of electronic warfare capabilities, anti-missile and anti-aircraft capabilities, and anti-drone capabilities, Russia intends to make Crimea into an area-denial zone. Yet, as we can see with the A2/AD posture on Kaliningrad, these capabilities can easily be used for offensive operations, and indeed likely will be. Furthermore, Crimea has received such special attention from Moscow in developing its local A2/AD posture there that it may even rival Kaliningrad in strength.

What Has Putin Achieved?

Russia under Putin is an opportunistic actor. Moscow acts when it senses weakness. While the press tout the putative achievement of the drawdown of land forces, Russia’s other moves in the maritime and air domains are ignored, the assets that remain where land forces deployed are ignored, and the lessons from Moscow’s military logistics success are ignored. As Glen Grant, senior expert for Baltic Security Foundation, points out, Moscow has successfully:

• Sealed off the Sea of Azov,

• Intimidated the U.S. into removing its naval assets from the region,

• Blackmailed the U.S. into holding a summit, something that has not occurred since about a year and a half into the Trump administration,

• Rehearsed en-masse military mobilization on the Russian rail system,

• And conducted dry runs for heavy-lift aircraft and parachute teams, amphibious assault forces, and artillery battalions.

Russia has done all this and more while applying yet more pressure on Ukraine - and on the West as to how to respond. Furthermore, assets remain in place near the Ukrainian border and on Crimea, and the naval forces have not been drawn down at all.

How Will the West Respond?

At this critical juncture, it is clear that it is less a matter of if Russia will attack Ukraine, but when. Russia knows the track record of the United States in Ukraine, and that Biden, while more or less in charge of President Obama’s foreign policy was extremely hesitant to confront Russia and refused to give lethal aid to Ukraine. Russia knows that Germany and France, as opponents to Ukrainian integration into NATO and key European interlocutors with Russia will more soon sacrifice Ukraine than lose their special relationship with Moscow. Indeed, Berlin and Paris have already been crucial in drafting plans for peace that disadvantage Ukraine and give Moscow most of what it wants. As Ukraine is not a NATO member, and is valued less than Moscow by some Western members, NATO will not come to Ukraine’s aid. Some Western countries will likely provide aid, but not in the form of anything useful. As Grant points out, Ukraine can ask for, and perhaps expect to receive, ammunition, supplies, and even some equipment. But it cannot expect to receive help fighting, nor can it expect to receive enough of the aid it receives, nor can it expect to receive it on time. Furthermore, Grant notes, the Ukrainian army is unprepared to use much of the equipment it could receive, having little to no experience or training with foreign weapons systems and maintaining an outdated structure of command. As such, this aid is wasted and almost completely useless, but it is all that can be expected of Western leaders who will pat themselves on the back for what they have given to Ukraine and bloviate about their solidarity with Kyiv as they let Moscow run roughshod over it. This presents Moscow with an opportunity to strike, and strike it probably will. The West is woefully unprepared for this crisis, and may talk tough, but will demonstrate its apathy in what action it takes.

Cover photo: Russian tanks conducting maneuvers in Crimea. Source