There has been much noise regarding reports of some 90-120,000 Russian troops “on the Ukrainian border” (https://news.yahoo.com/ukraine-border-frozen-no-man-093931345.html). At least four satellite photographs of two Russian army basing sites have been published and presented as very new deployments to “Ukraine’s border.” The facts are a little different. No forces are stationed on the border. They are all at least 100 miles from the Ukrainian border, except for what in any scenario would be a secondary force–that based on Crimea. Almost all of the forces and equipment are permanently part of Russia’s Western Military District forces, beefed up because of the Ukrainian crisis sparked by the Maidan insurrection seeded and morally supported by the West, despite its violence. Putin would decide to invade only if there is a military provocation by forces on the Kievan side and would at most use any incursion to occupy Donbass in order to protect it from any further attacks along the South Ossetiyan/Abkhazian model.
You may recall there was a previous Western government and media ‘Russian invasion’ scare in April when maneuver were held involving similar deployments in these locations. You are less likely to recall that there was a similar Western scare before Russian-Belarusian training exercises in 2017. A July 2021 study comparing the 2017 maneuvers with what was emerging for the September 2021 exercises that generated December’s ‘war scare’ is instructive. It demonstrates that there was little to no reason to expect a Russian invasion this winter (“Russia Goes to War: Exercises, Signaling, War Scares, and Military Confrontations,” Center for Strategic and International Studies,” 28 July 2021, www.csis.org/analysis/russia-goes-war-exercises-signaling-war-scares-and-military-confrontations).
The deployed troops being focused on in media reports with highlighted satellite photos are located at some distance from the Ukrainian and Belorussian borders, the latter of which is no target of ‘Russian invasion.’ According to the photographs, there were two battle groups deployed at Pogonovo in Voronezh Oblast some 100 miles from the Ukrainian border as of early December. Pogonovo is located as shown below:
The photographs show another deployment at Yelnya in Smolensk Oblast some 100 miles from the Belorussian border (https://news.yahoo.com/satellite-images-show-buildup-russian-191302921.html?fr=sycsrp_catchall and https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/04/europe/russia-ukraine-military-buildup-intl-cmd/index.html). Yelnya is as shwn below:
The troops staged at Yelnya and Pogonova are not just likely remnants of the troops withdrawn from Donbass after they had been deployed in August-September 2014 and February 2015 several thousand Russian troops entered Ukraine to head off a Ukrainian army encirclement of the Donbass rebel forces. They are located at Russian military bases, and some have been there for years. Others have been deployed at the base after September’s quadrennial Zapad-2021 training excercises and some part of the equipment is leftover from the April 2021 exercises on Crimea and southwestern Russia near Ukraine.
Yelnya is part of the integrated nature of the Russian and Belarusian armed forces and is primarily there to defend Russia’s and Belarus’s borders against NATO and — given the Western-approved and in part Western-supported destabilization of the Aleksandr Lukashenka regime — perhaps to be a reserve against a major threat to that regime.
SAT PHOTOS OF YELNYA BASE
Pogonovo is a training base that serves as a firing range and staging area for training exercises in the WMD. Of course, such exercises could potentially be upgraded into an invasion in an adjacent area, but the likelihood of that depends on the number or troops, type of equipment deployed, and the local geopolitical situation.
SAT PHOTOS OF POGONOVO FIRING RANGE DEPLOYMENTS
Left out of Western news reports is the fact the Pogonovo is the central base for the winter training exercises of Russia’s Western Military District (WMD) (https://vrn.mk.ru/social/2021/11/28/voronezhskiy-obshhevoyskovoy-poligon-pogonovo-obnovili.html).
The April 2021 excercises were focused largely on Crimea and included more than 60 ships, over 10,000 troops, around 200 aircraft, some 1,200 military vehicles, the landing on the peninsula of more than 2,000 paratroopers and 60 military vehicles, with fighter jets covering the airborne operation. Russian Defense Minister described the rationale for the “snap exercises” to be rwady to respond to any “adverse developments” during NATO’s Defender Europe 2021 exercise held in Poland and on the background of escalating fire along the ‘line of contact’ in western Donbass (https://apnews.com/e6e8d6c0792517f753fc774713d1fe44#:~:text=The%20weapons%20were%20remaining%20at%20the%20Pogonovo%20firing,urged%20the%20Kremlin%20to%20pull%20its%20forces%20back and https://egyptindependent.com/russia-orders-troops-back-after-massive-drills-in-crimea/). The maneuvers required a redeployment of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 troops – two army groups and an estimated five airborne/air assault regiments – from Russia’s Southern, Western, and Central Military Districts into the Persianovskiy and Pogonovo training ranges near Ukraine and the Opuk and Novoozerne bases in Crimea. This was the largest redeployment of Russian troops than for any exercise since 2014 (“Russia Goes to War: Exercises, Signaling, War Scares, and Military Confrontations”). Ukraine’s defense minister raised an alarm that 120,000 Russian troops would be deployed (https://egyptindependent.com/russia-orders-troops-back-after-massive-drills-in-crimea/). Soon Russian withdrew its troops but left equipment at the Pogonovo firing range for the September Russian-Belarusian Zapad-2021 exercise held three months ago (https://apnews.com/e6e8d6c0792517f753fc774713d1fe44#:~:text=The%20weapons%20were%20remaining%20at%20the%20Pogonovo%20firing,urged%20the%20Kremlin%20to%20pull%20its%20forces%20back and https://egyptindependent.com/russia-orders-troops-back-after-massive-drills-in-crimea/). Indeed, the Russian government announced early in 2021 that it would be deploying 20 additional units to its Western Military District (WMD) for Zapad-2021 (“Russia Goes to War: Exercises, Signaling, War Scares, and Military Confrontations” and www.ft.com/content/eb18eb9e-a2bd-47d6-b5cc-338ca2095d4f).
However, the equipment left in place in spring and the redeployment of troops in late summer back to Pogonovo and perhaps elsewhere such Yelnya gives Moscow preponderant power near Ukraine’s border but at a sufficient distance to eliminate the element of surprise, given satellite and likely human intelligence capabilities in the region. In order to understand the unusual level of the August-September buildup under Zapad-2021 a recent study drew a comparison with the Far East Military District’s Vostok-2018 exercises. The latter used 60 military transport echelons for redeploying troops and equipment. With the preparation for September’s Zapad-2021, additional units deployed to Pogonovo (two brigades, each requiring at least 16 trains) increased the number of military echelons to 75 to 80. In addition, having left elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army at Pogonovo means that Russia has heightened readiness, and Pogonovo is only 60 to 70 miles from elements of the 20th CAA’s 3rd Motor Rifle Division, stationed in Boguchar and Valuyki near the border with Ukraine, and further south, the 8th CAA’s 150th Motor Rifle Division is also deployed near Ukraine’s covers Donetsk and Luhansk sectors. These two divisions altogether provide four motor rifle and three tank regiments which include some 400 main battle tanks and 700 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles (“Russia Goes to War: Exercises, Signaling, War Scares, and Military Confrontations”). This far more than would be needed to occupy and defend Donbass. As the mentioned study noted: “the scale of the Russian build-up near Ukraine this year suggested that Russian forces were prepared to undertake deep offensive operations, rather than be used simply as a deterrent” (“Russia Goes to War: Exercises, Signaling, War Scares, and Military Confrontations”).
Since it is highly unlikely that Russia would seek to seize all eastern or ‘left bank’ Ukraine, these April depolyments appear to have been signaling to indicate to Kiev the need to return to the Minsk 2 process, carry out its obligations, and to rein in the Ukrainian, especially illegal armed formations of the various Ukrainian neofascist froups such as the Right Sector, its Volunteer Ukrainian Corps, and Andrei Biletskiy’s Azov and National Corps, who routinely vilate the. Ceasefire and use weapons banned for use at the front under Minsk 2 (https://gordonhahn.com/2021/12/03/zelenskiys-theater-of-simulacra-as-coup-hoax-and-the-activation-of-bad-actors-in-and-around-ukraine/). Part of Putin’s calculus may be to create a neofascist revolt, prompting new elections, and Ukrainian society voting in a Rada that would support Zelenskiy’s stated goal of negotiating an end to the Donbass civil war. Zelenskiy has repeated that he is even willing to negotiate with Putin directly, apparently meaning even outside the Normandy Four format, to find a solution (https://vesti.ua/politika/press-konferentsiya-zelenskogo-onlajn-vesti-ua). This is deadly opposed by the neofascist, who threatened a coup of Zelenskiy negogiated autonomy for Donbass when he met with Putin in Paris in December 2019. Although Putin’s signal prompted a phone call from Biden, it produced little else, and much, but not all, of the Zapad-2021 deployments were returned to barracks farther to the east, as noted above.
However, what is crucial to mention is that most of the 92-120,000 troops being cited by the West as being ‘on’ the Ukrainian border in December have been there ever since Maidan, the Crimean annexation, and the Donbass revolt in 2014. These forces include two army group formations (20th and 8th CAAs) near Ukraine. Excluding some 10,000 forces of the 22nd Army Corps added in Crimea after 2014; this amounts to some 40,000 in the WMD. The 58th CAA’s 25,000 troops bring the figure to 65,000. With the deployment of the 41st CAA and leaving of equipment at Pogonovo after April and September’s exercises means Moscow places at least some 90,000 ground force personnel near Ukraine. MD exercises, including perhaps this winter’s exercises, use perhaps as many as four airborne divisions already. Three are permanently stationed in the WMD; that brings the WMD to 105,000. Adding one from the Southern MD would bring the available forces to some 110,000 (“Russia Goes to War: Exercises, Signaling, War Scares, and Military Confrontations”). So if the high end estimate of 120, 000 is accurate, this would mean only 15, 000 more troops than previous circumstances brought the WMD to as of April. This is not an invasion surge, though it is potentially invasion capable. But it would fulfill the latter capability only if the goal was to seize Donbass. Amarch to the Dnepr against Ukraine’s 250,000 armed forces would be a bridge too far for an invasion force half the size of the defending force. Military science dictates any offensive force exceed a defensive force by at least several factors.
The decision to leave additional forces in place Yelnya and Pogonovo after the 2021 exercises and thus almost double Russian forces in the WMD, in addition to being preparation of winter training exercises, could be a response to the NATO Steadfast Defender 2021 exercise specifically and/or the increased U.S. and NATO military presence in Ukraine and Poland over the last few years and not just to the ongoing crises in Donbass and Belarus.
The 110,000 is not much more than the 90-100,000 in the area during the April exercises which did not lead to an invasion. All else being equal, any additional forces beyond 90-100,000 is an indication of either an impending exercise or a ratcheting up of the signaling threat. Keeping in mind that NATO activities near and in Ukraine (building a new base, arms, exercises) and Moscow’s close relations with China, Kazakhsta, and Mongolia in the Far East, it is quite logical to deploy more forces west. A less logical actual invasion would see troops leaving these bases en masse and heading to the Ukrainian border several hours away for mechanized ground forces.
December’s buildup is not so much of a sudden buildup as billed in the West or a surprising redeployment of 100,000 troops rapidly to Ukraine’s border. Half to three-quarters of the troops currently near Ukraine’s borders are either permanently stationed in the WMD, some since 2014, and others left a Pogonovo and perhaps at Yelnya as well after the snap April and quadrennial September exercises. Putting aside the winter training exercises, this appears to be another attempt to repeat the signaling of April and undertaken for precisely the same reasons. Thus, it looks like these deployments will continue to one degree or another, with limited deployments and redeployments before and after exercises, becoming a cycle of the same threat signaling on an almost routine basis. This comes, as NATO continues building up the Ukrainian army, with more weapons and training. If NATO builds up forces and activity in and around Ukraine, Russia will do the same, and NATO will follow suit again to be countered by Moscow and so it wull go until something gives on the war or peacemaking front. In leiu of provocation by Kiev or others against Donbass, there be no Russian invasion of Ukraine will occur this winter.
On the political optics, it needs to be recalled that initially Ukrainian officials rejected the US information that a Russian invasion would occur this winter. Then the Ukrainians suddenly got on board (https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2021/11/20/russia-preparing-to-attack-ukraine-by-late-january-ukraine-defense-intelligence-agency-chief/). However, after the 7 December telephone conversation between Biden and Putin, Biden told Zelenskiy that there was a statement by Putin that no invasion was planned and none would occur, and administration officials started to say that Putin had not ‘yet’ made a decision to invade. Putin has no intention or desire to invade. The Biden administration is collapsing, with sinking popularity ratins, a collapsing economy, a fumbling foreign and military power, and its dram of an authoritarian revolution from above falling into tatters. Perhaps, it seeks a heroic narrative that Biden faced down the ‘Hitler of today’?
The What is Putin Up To?
A Russian invasion was never planned for this winter, and Joe Biden did not ‘force Putin to back down.’. Putin is playing brinksmanship-like military diplomacy to resolve the Donbass crisis on terms that neither Ukraine nor any other post-Soviet state will enter NATO and the Donbass receives autonomy within Ukraine. The last two months have seen Putin execute a carefully pre-planned diplomatic combination of moves designed to get Washington’s and NATO’s attention and finally negotiate on NATO expansion and other security issues related to Europe, especially the post-Soviet, non-NATO member states. The combination consisted of three moves sequenced forward in the manner of a good chess player. First, Russia increased the deployment of troops and equipment near Ukraine as detailed above. Second, Moscow proposed a treaty with the U.S. and a treaty with NATO for discussion, not as an ‘ultimatum’, as some hawks claim. Third, after the proposed draft treaties were handed to an American representative, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (who ironically stands near the center of the Clinton-Obama-Biden Russiagate-tied coup plots and violations of US law and may be indicted), Putin gave a speech at the end-of-year collegium of the Russian Defense Ministry, highlighting Russia’s consternation over NATO expansion, including its deepening involvement in Ukraine, even as NATO policy holds that one day Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members should they choose to do so. He hammered home the same points in his annual marathon press conference on December 23 (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67438).
The two treaties are a grab bag of post-Soviet Russia’s security grievances. They cover such disparate issues as intermediate nuclear forces, conventional forces in Europe and near Ukraine, and a proposed neutrality for all the remaining non-NATO member, former Soviet republics. The message is that Moscow still wants a comprehensive, written European security agreement, an instrument of international law codifying the end of NATO expansion and a return to more robust agreements on INF and CFE issues. These latter treaties were left to languish since withdrawals from them and the positioning of nuclear missile defense systems in post-communist countries and the deployment of NATO forces in several post-Soviet states. A key stipulation is a legally-binding agreement of non-interference in the domestic politics of OSCE member-states–a measure designed to put an end to Western-backed political instability and color revolutions in states neighboring or allied to Russia caused by democracy-promotion . What might constitute ‘interference’ would presumably be left to negotiations (https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790818/?lang=en and https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790803/?lang=en&clear_cache=Y).
The fact is that these two proposed treaties would need to be broken up into at least four, each covering one of the issues mentioned above and contained in the two draft treaties. Mosow’s ‘everything bu the kitchen sink’ approach to designing these treaties is a clear indication that these proposed treaties are a list of Russia’s opening positions for talks on a grand bargain for European security covering all the military-political issues in the Russian-NATO relations and those of the security of the ‘in-between’ or cleft countries. These treaties flesh out then Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev’s proposal to negotiate a new European security architecture offered over a decade ago. But again these two treaties need to be broken down into at least four treaties. I would add a fifth covering specifics of non-interference in the domestic politics of OSCE member-states.
In his speech to the collegium of the Russian Defense Ministry, Putin delivered an atypically animated pair of speeches to open and close the meeting in which he addressed NATO expansion in emotional rather than any systematic fashion. He threw in the possibility that the West could encourage Ukrainian neo-fascists to penetrate Western regions of Russia. (This is something some neo-fascists, such as founder and former leader of the neofascist organization Right Sector and now advisor to the Chairman of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, have expressed a desire to do. A good candidate to execute a provocation would be a unit from Yarosh’s Ukrainian Volunteer Army, perhaps its Sheikh Mansur Chechen battalion, http://www.facebook.com/dyastrub/posts/4662891340454380). Defense Minister Shoigu upped the ante in his own speech claiming that more than one hundred private U.S. military mercenaries were in eastern Ukraine preparing a provocation using an unidentified chemical agent. This sparked fears in the West that Russia was preparing a casus belli to invade Ukraine (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67402).
It seems to me that this entire combined gambit is designed to bring the specter of the costs that would ensue in to sharp relief for Western decision-makers should the Kremlin be pushed to intervene in Donbass again or in Belarus because of a formal or informal (neofascist battalion) Ukrainian provocation or continuing Western military support for Kiev or Western actions leading to the overthrow of Lukashenka in Belarus. That specter, it is hoped, would create some willingness to talk to Moscow.
Putin also threatened that if conditions continued to deteriorate along the line of contact in Donbass and NATO continued to upgrade its support for Kiev and activity in Eastern Europe, Moscow would counter with a “military-technical” response. Deciphering this is a complex endeavor. Hypothetically, it could include anything from cyberattacks to new troops deployments west. New deployments could be transforming the Pogonovo and/or Yelnya bases into much larger permanent bases, creating a new permanent base elsewhere in the western region, and/or increasing deployments on Crimea. The last would be a message to Ankara as a response to Turkey’s sale of combat drones to Kiev and their deployment against the Donbass rebels.
One thing is for sure, if there is not at least some progress in Russian-NATO and/or US-Russian talks and atmospherics, which is unlikely to occur during a Biden presidency, we will continue to creep to a war in Eastern Europe. Just as there are sure to be some in Moscow who would like to see Russian troops in Donbass, even in Kiev, there are sure to be some in Western government, NATO, and think tank offices thinking along the lines recently expressed by Yarosh: “(W)e have gained an invaluable experience that will allow us to destroy so much of the enemy’s vitality and burn so much of their technology that it will eventually cause an internal revolutionary explosion inside the Russian Federation that will lead, in turn, to self-elimination of the Empire” (www.facebook.com/dyastrub/posts/4636833736393474).
*The study cited in the first parts of this article and published by CSIS, “Russia Goes to War: Exercises, Signaling, War Scares, and Military Confrontations”, was funded by the Russia Strategic Initiative, U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.