The build-up

More than three weeks ago I wrote a short post on this blog about the movement of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine. There I linked the deployments of the 1st GTA elements to Pogonovo to a training cycle noting that this development was nevertheless ‘slightly concerning’.

Since then, I have been looking for evidence that would either confirm or deny the hypothesis that Russia is building-up forces near Ukraine and that the war is a real possibility.

Having analysed all the evidence that has appeared since early November, and over the last few days, in particular, I must admit that the build-up is indeed occurring and that it is aimed at Ukraine. Russia seeks to create (army) groupings at selected axes, which will ultimately be able to conduct high-tempo operations against Ukraine. There are a few reasons why I think this is the case:

  • Over the last weeks, the Russian presence near Ukraine has increased and there are no indications the prepositioning of forces will cease;
  • There has not been a day where we did not see additional trains or military convoys moving towards Ukraine or Crimea. As I rely on OSINT only, I can only assume I pick up a fraction of movement that is really taking place;
  • The Russian Armed Forces have tightened up their op-sec. Some movements are occurring at night, which makes it almost impossible to identify units. This wasn’t the case in March-April;
  • The emptying of storage facilities presumably to create new units or populate existing ones with new equipment is a very ominous sign;
  • It appears that logistics (sub)units were activated; and
  • In recent days there has also been a sharp increase in anti-Ukraine and anti-NATO rhetoric coming from Moscow.

This year has been particularly busy for the Southern Military District. It was very heavily engaged during the March-April exercises. Some units have not returned to their home bases (I mean equipment – see Novoozerne) whereas some have been gone since August (ie the 136th Motor Rifle Brigade).

Forces in the SMD practised ground strikes, EW capabilities, bridging capabilities, CAS for special forces. Also, very busy have been Russian forces in Transdniestria and they have been exercising almost all the time for the past six months.

A particularly noteworthy was a C2 exercise that was held in the WMD that involved 1,500 personnel.

In the WMD a BARS (Боевой Армейский Резерв Страны – Combat Army Reserve) exercise started on the 22nd of November.

I am certain that someone will argue that these exercises are not related to Ukraine and fall within a routine training schedule. This may very well be the case. It will be challenging from analytical and OSINT points of view to discern what could be related to Ukraine and what could not.

However, this year Russia may have practised operations against Ukraine. Whereas people’s attention in days leading to Zapad-2021 was focused on Belarus and Western Russia in general, in the SMD the Russian forces prepared their forces for the conduct of “strategic operation”* in the south-western strategic direction**. The drill altogether involved 10,000 servicemen, which generated around 12 BTGs plus additional logistics support (also 10,000 men). Of course, these events could have been Zapad-related. For instance, the SMD could have covered the left flank of the 1st GTA or it could have provided second-echelon forces for the WMD.

However, I think it is also possible that SMD forces in August and September practised their own operations with little warning. Remember the first Russian units began arriving in Belarus in anticipation of Zapad around 50 days before the drill. In the SMD, on the other hand, “a massive distribution of missiles and artillery ammunition” on 26th of August and by the 3rd of September military operations across various domains were in full swing.

It does appear that since March-April the exercise tempo of the units in the SMD has been increased and directed at practising operations against Ukraine.

The current trajectory of events is very bad. It does not seem it will improve much in the very short term. I will nevertheless monitor the situation closely to further confirm or deny that the Russian posture is becoming increasingly belligerent.   

*Strategic operation is a joint operation that integrates operational formations from different branches and arms to project power across the theatre of military action with the intent of attaining strategic effects. Click here for more (p.4)

** This includes Ukraine and the Black Sea NATO countries.