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Russia’s Military Buildup and Fears of Major Conflict

Russia holds military exercise in Crimea|20210427-Ukraine-Russia-Sim-Tackv4

Russia’s large-scale military exercises on the Ukrainian border are unlikely to be the prelude to an invasion, but they do serve a purpose beyond training: They’re a message to NATO that the Kremlin does not intend to accept Ukraine’s current status as a pro-western state. More importantly these exercises need to be understood as Moscow preparing for a potential conflict in the future.  

Russia’s recent buildup of forces near the Ukrainian border, ostensibly a training exercise, has led to fears of the return of “Great Power Competition” between Moscow and the West. The development of new military facilities that could become permanent and new vehicle staging areas near existing military facilities has aroused particular concern among observers. But several key factors indicate that it is unlikely Russia is currently preparing to mount an offensive into Ukraine. Nevertheless, the posturing is likely an attempt to apply political pressure to a geopolitically significant region for Russia, which has been trading sanctions and diplomatic punches with Ukraine and the West in general. The threat of Russia exercising its military capabilities remains a dominant lever in Eastern Europe, where control over Ukraine and Belarus and Russian concerns over encroachment by NATO are at play. 

The government of Ukraine, backed by Washington and several European leaders, has drawn attention to an influx of thousands of Russian troops along various segments of its border, including the Russian-controlled territory of Crimea. The buildup of Russian forces comes amid high tensions in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, where local Russian-supported separatists continue to fight the Ukrainian armed forces despite many cease-fire efforts. Due to the sensitive timing and uncertainties in interpreting Russian intent, the U.S. Defense Department has condemned the Russian mobilization despite remaining relatively vague on the true nature of this buildup. 

Russia itself has played into that vagueness. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s 2011 Vienna Document requires any participating state holding military exercises involving more than 13,000 troops to invite foreign observers, a tenet meant to provide regional stability through the verification of military activities. However, Russia has circumvented this stipulation by claiming that its current buildup consists of thousands of small training exercises rather than one large exercise. This has allowed the Russian military to implement high-level restructuring and modernization through training, altering the regional military balance in its favor, without prying eyes. It also has contributed to uncertainty around Russia’s intentions for the event: Though the current activity lacks key indicators that would be present if Moscow was preparing for an offensive, its intentional skirting of verification measures still introduces a risk of misinterpretation by other states that could lead to a continuation of the cycle of military escalation between Russia and NATO. 

The Real Nature of Russia’s Buildup 

Claims of a Russian military buildup in March were backed by direct observations of military convoys and rail transports moving combat equipment toward the Ukrainian border region, raising concerns about a potential military offensive or increased material support to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Satellite imagery covering this region shows a heightened presence of Russian military equipment near the border, but it falls short of indicating significant preparations for offensive action or movement into Donbass. 

Most of the increased Russian presence remains concentrated around known training grounds in the border region. This backs Russian government claims that the movement is part of large-scale snap drills to test the readiness of Russian forces coming out of the winter season. The rapid influx of forces into the area as part of these exercises remains dramatic, however, with exercises occurring from Kaliningrad and Belarus all the way along the Ukrainian border to the Crimean Peninsula. One of the most notable individual exercises that has driven the narrative on this Russian buildup involved over 2,000 Russian airborne soldiers parachuting over the Opuk training ground in Crimea before fighting off an amphibious landing by Russia’s naval infantry. This is but one of several dozen exercises along the Ukrainian border, and those numbers add up to a significant temporary buildup of strength. 

More concerning to observers is the development of new permanent military facilities and staging areas. While most of the activity is focused around existing training grounds, some of the exercises have taken place at entirely new facilities that could end up permanently hosting increased Russian forces based in or rotating through the border area. While most of these facilities still appear to be for training, the expansion of training facilities in the Ukrainian border region indicates a higher number of Russian forces will be rotating through them at a sustained level of activity even beyond the current buildup. The development does not just cover training grounds: Since the latter half of 2020, satellite imagery shows that Russia has also constructed new vehicle staging areas near existing military facilities such as Klintsky and Soloti. These deployments, while predating the current flurry of exercises, form an important permanent expansion of Russian military power near the border. 

No Signs of Imminent Offensive 

The posture of these deployments, consisting of massing of forces and long-range transport of equipment, appears largely in line with Russia’s claims of snap exercises. Russia has conducted this type of exercise frequently over the past decade as part of its overall resurgence and military modernization, and their current scale is not unprecedented. 

Lines between military exercises and preparations for offensive action can be blurred, and at times exercises are even intentionally used to obscure such preparations, as was recently the case in Nagorno-Karabakh. To define specific deployments as preparation for war, however, many more indicators would have to be noted beyond simply massing forces. Russian forces preparing for imminent offensive operations in Ukraine would be expected to be deploying under more stringent combat conditions. Currently, observation of the massing of Russian forces does not show significant establishment of defensive structures such as trenches or revetments or concealment and dispersion of equipment – the absence of which would put Russian forces in a vulnerable position in an actual conflict scenario. Moreover, the deployment of supporting capabilities such as air defense and artillery units is largely focused along established training facilities rather than immediate proximity to the border from where their range could provide coverage into the depth of a planned offensive. 

This does not necessarily rule out the possibility of Russia’s deployments shaping into a potential offensive preparation. Military deployments can continue to evolve, and supporting units could still be moved closer to the border in anticipation of an advance into Ukraine, though current intelligence does not show these signs yet. The massing of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, even when not read as preparations for an imminent offensive, is still a notable development that impacts military balancing in Eastern Europe. 

Large-scale exercises are a staple of Russia’s peacetime military activity. The Russian military, like its Soviet predecessor, is still geared predominantly toward potential peer conflict, and this compels it to guarantee the preparedness of its combat formations all the way up to the highest echelons. In order for Russia to project a realistic military deterrent – or indeed even an offensive threat – Moscow needs to display the readiness of its forces to conduct the gargantuan logistical effort that would be required in mobilizing large military formations and their equipment to its western border. These theater-wide snap drills both broadcast that capability and provide military leadership with important feedback on the status of their forces. It is during these simulated deployments, which impose great stress on the military apparatus, that shortcomings are revealed to them. Conducting exercises at this scale provides an immediate picture of where equipment is improperly maintained, where logistical bottlenecks emerge, and how command structures across echelons can manage their part in coordinating these complex movements. 

The Ukrainian border region, together with Belarus and the Russian border with the Baltic states, are perhaps the highest military priority for Moscow when it comes to guaranteeing its territorial integrity. As one of the critical borderlands between Russia and NATO member states, where Russia has already been supporting local separatist groups in the Donbass region and has taken control of the Crimean peninsula, Ukraine presents a focal point in Russia’s military power projection. This warrants a significant force posture, high levels of preparedness, and, as a result, frequent and large-scale exercises. The culmination of these is the Zapad (Russian for “West”) exercise, which is organized every four years and is scheduled to occur again in September. The current snap drills are considered a preparation for Zapad, meaning the geopolitical tensions caused by the current exercises likely will only continue to build ahead of the main event. 

Military Restructuring on the Ukrainian Border 

Russia’s behavior is also informed by ongoing efforts to restructure its military formations in the region. As a consequence of Russia’s interventions in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine, Moscow has identified a need to roll out permanent adjustments to its military posture on this border. Since 2014, Russia has maintained more forces near Ukraine than it did before. Russia had been reducing the number of active formations on its western border, but persistent tensions with Ukraine and the West have led it to permanently increase its border presence.  

Since 2017, this effort has included the resurrection of the 8th Combined Arms Army in the Southern Military District’s Rostov region and the relocation of the 20th Guards Combined Army to the Western Military Districts Voronezh region. These are the main Russian combat formations that operate in the Ukrainian border region, where the Southern and Western military districts meet. As newly formed headquarters operating under a recently restructured Russian military, these commands depend on large, cross-regional exercises to learn how to interact internally and with other commands. For forces redeployed from other regions, these exercises also help establish familiarity with the Ukrainian border region. 

Similarly, the Crimean Peninsula since 2014 presents new terrain to many Russian troops. Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu only recently announced that a battalion of the 56th Airborne Assault Regiment will be based in Feodosia, for example. Forces permanently stationed in Crimea rely on exercises to increase their familiarity with the region, but perhaps more importantly, large-scale exercises allow higher echelons of the Russian armed forces to test their logistical ability to rapidly deploy significant numbers of forces into the peninsula. This is not a straightforward task, and it is one upon which the defense of the territory could depend in future potential conflict. 

The lessons Russia learned from its war with Georgia in 2008 and the eastern Ukraine conflict are also pushing forward the development of new operational concepts. One such adjustment, for example, is the rise of the “Battalion Tactical Group” in Russian warfighting. The use of smaller, self-sustained combined military units is a departure from older, Soviet-inspired thinking. The exercises in the Ukrainian border region, in the same way that they allow Russian forces to adapt to new terrain and organizational structures, help develop the effective application of these modern operational concepts. Overall, short of actual conflict, exercises such as the current one are Moscow’s primary tool to alter the regional military balance in their favor. 

Eastern Ukrainian Escalation 

The timing of the Russian deployments takes on more importance due to the continued diplomatic stalemate in the conflict in Donbass, where Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces have been engaged in sporadic but escalating hostilities despite a 2015 cease-fire agreement. Russia’s buildup along the border has been linked to this rise in fighting,but the Donbass conflict is still limited compared to fighting in previous years and likely will not return to large-scale warfare. Nevertheless, Moscow’s recent maneuvers could be seen as an attempt to pressure Ukraine into a diplomatic re-engagement with the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

There is currently no clear path forward when it comes to the implementation of the Minsk Protocol, which defines the peace process in eastern Ukraine, for as long as the peace process remains pending, fears of military escalation will continue to be associated with it. Ukraine’s leadership has been struggling to define its approach in negotiations as well, shifting between voicing a need to implement the agreements and claiming the Minsk Protocol has become irrelevant. For Russia, this doubt likely signals an opportunity to apply political and economic pressure tactics such as mutual sanctions and canceling treaties between the countries. Nevertheless, the raw power of Russia’s military remains one of its dominant components. 

The threat of Russian military action also plays particularly strongly with regard to Ukraine’s stated intent to join NATO. Existing NATO members are not in agreement on this topic, with many fearing the consequences of adding Ukraine – and its active conflicts in Donbass and the disputed Crimean Peninsula – to the organization’s collective defense responsibilities. Russia’s saber rattling on the Ukrainian border both reinforces those concerns and, for its more hawkish member states, increases the need for a stronger NATO posture. The United States, as a leading actor within NATO, has increased its rotations of military forces in Eastern Europe since 2014 in response to Russia’s military activity, and the new Biden administration has come out in support of Ukrainian NATO membership. 

Hypothetical Peer Conflict 

Much of Russia’s military reasoning, as well as its interpretation by Western militaries, is defined by exactly this broader perception of competition between NATO and Russia. Ukraine’s shift toward NATO – even without formal membership, it has started to integrate into the organization’s structure through joint training and even participation in NATO operations – boosts Moscow’s perception that its potential adversaries are encroaching on its borders. This perception has long troubled Russia but especially since its brazen actions in Ukraine since 2014, the prospect of conventional conflict between Russia and NATO has never been out of the picture.   

The same perception exists in the West, where the United States and most European militaries are returning focus to conventional warfighting capabilities. While these shifts are largely informed by the perception of a Russian military threat, growing tensions with China play a part as well. The overall return of “Great Power Competition” has also reintroduced the military realities that come with it. In NATO, the United States has led a shift back toward conventional capability, exemplified by its resumption of large deployments to the Baltics and plans to establish forward positioning of equipment and forces in Poland. These training deployments, in which many European NATO partners have also become involved, are effectively the NATO doctrine’s equivalent of Russia’s mass logistical movements witnessed throughout recent exercises. NATO’s main defensive strategy relies on rapid deployment of forces toward its eastern borders, which includes a challenging bulk deployment of U.S. forces across the Atlantic Ocean. Demonstrating and testing this ability helps ensure NATO’s logistical readiness to engage in a conflict with Russia. 

In addition to this refinement of NATO’s deployment methods, European members of the alliance have started to refocus on conventional warfighting by adjusting the scale of their activities and shaping their capabilities. For example, France, arguably Europe’s most significant military power, has announced a return to division-level exercises as of 2023 as a response to its “Hypothese d’engagement Majeure” (“Hypothesis of Major Engagement”). This level of activity in Europe is not lost on Russia and reinforces what it sees as a need for vast military exercises to maintain its own standards of military readiness in case of actual peer conflict. 

Self-Fulfilling Exercise 

Clearly, the way in which mutual preparations for potential conflict play off each other and inform further preparations provides a cyclical process toward greater tensions and possibly military escalation – effectively a return to Cold War dynamics. Policymakers in both Russia and NATO are caught between risking further escalation by assuming a stronger military posture and limiting escalation but being left unprepared if conflict does emerge. This dynamic has always been present at some level, though it can be argued that Russia’s actions in 2014 – through the military annexation of Crimea and its direct involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – accelerated this principle as Western policymakers and military planners were suddenly confronted with the fact that military expansionism can still occur in the European theater.  

Within this tense context, periods of large-scale exercises automatically result in great temporary instability. The difficulty in assessing military mobilization as exercises or offensive preparation casts significant uncertainty over both sides and always carries a risk of misinterpretation. On top of this, the organization of these vast military exercises brings longer-term effects beyond the extent of the exercises themselves. Increasing levels of readiness, and shortening of deployment timeframes, can raise the level of uncertainty associated with military movement as perceived by the opposite camp. 

This means that, far from impressing its adversaries and forcing them to back down, Russia’s major military deployments such as those over the past month may in fact strengthen their resolve and bring both sides closer to direct conflict. On the opposite side of this equation, Russia’s continued military posturing could easily lead to radical actions by NATO or the United States, particularly with respect to Ukraine’s potential NATO membership or NATO’s overall military disposition in Eastern Europe. While the end of these exercises will likely allow the return of some level of calm, the anticipated return of such Russian mobilization in the future will continue to gradually push NATO closer to such considerations. 

Editor’s note: A graphic for this report has been updated to more accurately reflect Russian deployments near the Ukrainian border

Sim Tack is a geopolitical and military analyst at Force Analysis. His activities are centered around intelligence-driven approaches to the study of armed conflicts and military capabilities, as well as other resources of power that support foreign policy behavior. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute. 

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