Source Atlantic Council
WASHINGTON, U.S.--For weeks, the eyes of the world have been on a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, as Western officials struggle to decipher Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intent: beef up his attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, or bluff his way to key concessions?
Amid a flurry of diplomatic talks, fiery rhetoric, and movements of heavy materiel, we wanted to separate the signal from the noise. So we reached out to our military fellows at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, who are active-duty officers with the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, for a sense of what they’re tracking most closely, and what indicators we should all be monitoring to divine Putin’s intentions.
Pay attention to cyberattacks, military exercises, and evacuations of non-combatants
Through the beginning of January, the Russian military had deployed tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of pieces of armour to its border with Ukraine. That’s a threatening force to be sure, but not a combined armed force that would be able to fight the type of high-intensity, multi-domain conflict that we would anticipate between Russia and Ukraine.
Over the past week, however, Russia has addressed these shortcomings, setting the conditions to execute a multi-domain attack on Ukraine should that be Putin’s decision.
First, Belarus and Russia announced a large-scale joint military exercise, called Allied Resolve 2022, near the Ukrainian border. This type of exercise can serve two major purposes.
Additionally, Russia recently deployed other critical combat capabilities to the region, including thirty-six Iskander-K medium-range ballistic-missile systems, as well as critical combat enablers such as ISR-collection and electronic-warfare platforms, and combat sustainment units and capabilities, including munitions, medical support, and security services.
Late last week, we also saw cyberattacks on Ukrainian government websites that were tied to a hacker group linked to Belarusian intelligence. It’s unlikely that the purpose of this attack was simply to deface Ukrainian government websites.
Another major signal of imminent military activity is the New York Times report that Russia is slowly evacuating its embassy in Kyiv. Though Moscow has denied the report, it is likely that Russia has begun to reduce its footprint of non-combatants within Ukraine.
The reported cyberattacks in Norway and drones spotted near Swedish nuclear plants are similarly troubling. Though there are no established links between these events and the ongoing Ukraine crisis, it is likely that these actions are a part of Russia’s larger hybrid-warfare campaign targeting the United States and its allies and partners in the region.
The bottom line is that Russia has already deployed the combat forces and systems, enablers, and sustainment capabilities to fight a multi-domain conflict. It has begun hybrid warfare activities that will support possible military action.
—Lt. Col. Tyson K. Wetzel is the 2021-2022 senior US Air Force fellow at the Scowcroft Center.
Keep your eyes on Russia’s reserves
Russia has roughly a million active-duty soldiers and about 250,000 reserves. Its army has about 280,000 troops. Ukraine has about 250,000 active forces and another 250,000 reserves. Roughly 180,000 of its active forces are in the army. Given the relative size of the two militaries, Russia is going to need to call up reservists out of civilian life if it is serious about invading and occupying all or most of Ukraine. That’s going to have an economic impact and cause discontent among the public, so Moscow is unlikely to do it unless it’s serious.
Moving active forces around is one thing; that’s par for the course. The United States moves its own active-duty units around the country constantly during exercises. Pulling people out of civilian life, moms, dads, teachers, first responders, and deploying them for an unknown amount of time is a very different level of commitment. There are unconfirmed reports in the news that this is happening, but that could be deliberate disinformation by the Russians to give the world the impression that an attack is imminent.
The move of Russian amphibious ships from the Baltic Sea toward the Black Sea is another overt action that does not make much sense militarily unless Russia is trying to convince NATO that Moscow plans to invade. It would be much easier and less detectable to move the forces onboard those ships internally by rail than to have them travel through the English Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, and Bosporus, all of which are controlled by NATO allies. Amphibious assaults are among the most complicated and costly of military operations, and the Russians have never mounted one in their history. With the large land border Russia shares with Ukraine, such a risk makes no sense.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine eight years ago and occupied close to 7 percent of its territory, Ukraine has benefited from billions of dollars in US defense aid and is much better prepared for a Russian offensive than it was in 2014. The Russians are sophisticated opponents, but the Ukrainians are competent and they do not have any other security concerns that will divide their attention and their forces from resisting a Russian invasion.
Russia knows all of this. Yet rather than try to quietly engage in a military buildup and regain some element of surprise, it is telegraphing to everyone that it plans to launch a challenging mid-winter offensive that risks its mechanised forces getting bogged down in a March thaw if it does not achieve rapid success.
I think Russia is testing Western resolve given how few ramifications it suffered after its military invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and in light of the recent Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan. This suggests to me that Putin will stop short of a full-scale invasion and use this most recent provocation to try to divide the United States and its allies.
—Col. John B. Barranco is the 2021-2022 senior US Marine Corps fellow at the Scowcroft Center.
Look out for sub-zero temperatures and medical prep
Russia will want favourable weather conditions for moving around heavy armour, which is why we should be looking for weather reports that the ground is fully frozen and a good stretch of sub-freezing temperatures. Weather conditions in Ukraine are not optimal for a Russian ground attack with heavy forces right now, and there is a short window before the normal March thaw.
We also haven’t seen any evidence that Russia is making final medical preparations for a ground invasion. If it intends to attack Ukraine with a heavy force, the presence of large amounts of medical equipment and manned mobile field hospitals will be an indicator.
—Col. Benjamin G. Johnson is the 2021-2022 senior US Army fellow at the Scowcroft Center.
Watch the waters around Odessa
Russia appears to have recently rerouted amphibious forces loaded with equipment and personnel from the Northern and Baltic fleets to the Black Sea. This mirrors its actions in March and April 2021, when the world was similarly concerned about an invasion of Ukraine and the naval deployment provided reinforcements and resupply.
The Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa is a strategic prize second only to Kyiv. Russia may attempt to blockade Odesa at the beginning of a conflict and hold that position until its ground forces can assert control there. Russian naval incursions into Ukrainian territorial waters around Odessa could be a sign of Russia’s intent to escalate.
The question remains: Has Russia lost the element of surprise, or do its current moves constitute an attempt to preserve it? Russia has conducted a large buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border twice in less than a year. Any military strategist knows how critical the element of surprise is to success. If you don’t have any surprises, then the only substitute is overwhelming odds. And Russia has neither. If Russia were to attack this winter, it would have only a minimal level of surprise.
However, there is an alternate view to consider: that Putin is the boy who cried wolf. Each time Russia conducts a large exercise, it gives the Russian leader a platform to push his agenda with NATO while simultaneously sending a message to his people about the need for further action.
—CDR. Daniel Vardiman is the 2021-2022 senior US Navy fellow at the Scowcroft Center.