KYIV, Ukraine – While Russia is not yet capable of mounting a full invasion of Ukraine, parts of its army have reached full combat strength and appear to be in the final stages of readiness for military action if the Kremlin orders it, according to an assessment by the high command of the Ukrainian army.
The Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, is of particular concern to Ukrainian officials. Over the past two weeks, Russia has deployed an additional 10,000 troops to the region, including infantry and airborne forces; more worryingly, it placed some commands at the highest level of readiness, according to the Army’s assessment.
Alongside recent efforts to build up forces near two Kremlin-backed separatist enclaves in Ukraine, the deployments mean Russia may soon be fully prepared to begin military actions along about 800 miles from the eastern and southern borders of Ukraine, according to the assessment.
The assessment was described in general terms by a senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity to divulge confidential information. It broadly aligns with recently released satellite images showing a major military buildup in Crimea over the past few weeks.
But it’s not just Crimea. Along much of the Ukrainian border, analysts see what they describe as an almost classic example of a modern military making final preparations for war. They cited the arrival of logistical infrastructure such as hospitals and communications units, electronic equipment to disrupt enemy communications, air power and additional troops to man the equipment that was deployed earlier.
“What annoys me is how they’re going through this,” said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “It’s according to the book. You know what is coming next and it shows.
The Kremlin’s ultimate intentions remain unclear, the Ukrainian official said, echoing the resolve of US officials who say Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has yet to decide whether or not to attack.
Russia has about 130,000 troops massed near the Ukrainian border, according to US and Ukrainian officials. The Kremlin has repeatedly said it has no intention of attacking, and Mr Putin – while claiming the US is trying to incite Russia into war – has been less strident in his language in an appearance this week, leaving the door open for future diplomacy. .
The Ukrainian military’s assessment of Russian capabilities diverges from that provided by the Pentagon last week, which said Moscow had deployed enough troops and military equipment to mount a full invasion. But this brought the Ukrainian military leadership closer to the American position.
And the assessment painted a dire picture of Russia’s combat readiness in Crimea, an area that has attracted less attention than Russia’s buildup of troops in the east and, more recently, its displacement from forces in Belarus on the northern border of Ukraine.
In addition to the tens of thousands of troops already stationed in Crimea, Russia recently deployed two additional battalion tactical groups – combat-ready forces of up to 1,000 troops plus tanks, armor and artillery. This includes a group of airborne troops and another that arrived with 10 trains of equipment and armor, the senior Ukrainian official said.
Ukrainian military officials believe additional forces are on the way, including a subdivision of National Guard troops, which could be deployed to hold the territory in the event of an invasion.
In addition, several units deployed in Crimea have been placed at the highest military readiness of the Russian military, the official said, including maritime forces based near the Kerch Strait, which separates mainland Russia from Crimea, and at the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Troops in other locations were placed on the second highest level of alert, the official said.
Satellite images released by Maxar, a space technology company, this week confirm a buildup of forces in Crimea. They show the addition of numerous tent camps in areas near military equipment, an indication that troops had arrived or were on their way.
The senior Ukrainian official said any incursion could start with localized action and, if successful, could induce the Russians to expand the conflict zone. “Right now they’re doing everything they can to freak us out and freak out the West,” the official said, calling it a “real game of poker.”
The Crimean troops are reinforced by Russian naval forces deployed in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, a small strategic stretch of water on which Ukrainian and Russian forces have clashed on several occasions in recent years. Last April, Russia sent its Caspian Flotilla to the waters around Ukraine for exercises and left several large landing craft behind.
Ukrainian officials are now monitoring the movements of six Russian landing ships capable of deploying tanks and thousands of troops that Russia has sent from its Baltic and Northern Fleets for exercises in the Mediterranean for any signs that indicate that they could continue into the Black Sea.
“It’s a huge assault group,” said Ihor Kabanenko, a retired admiral in the Ukrainian navy. “We don’t have enough capabilities at sea to respond adequately to such a Russian deployment.”
Beyond Crimea, military analysts say it may only be a matter of weeks before the growing troops deployed along Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern border are ready for action. ‘action.
Until now, these forces may have looked threatening, but they lacked the supply lines and other logistical infrastructure needed to fight.
Satellite images showing rows of tanks that regularly appear in newspapers were most likely intended to send a message and force a conversation, said General Philip M. Breedlove, who was previously NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
“You’ve seen the pictures of the trucks lined up,” General Breedlove said. “It’s not a tactical or offensive formation. It’s a formation for show.
All that has started to change in recent weeks with the arrival of cruise missiles, fighter jets and Iskandar-M helicopters, according to satellite images, Ukrainian and Western intelligence assessments and the military’s own announcements. of Russia.
In some areas where Russia still does not have enough personnel to man the equipment, more troops appear to be arriving daily, officials and analysts said. And it remains to be seen whether the Russian military was able to muster enough reserve forces for any prolonged military campaign.
In the coming weeks, Russia will likely conduct a series of military exercises designed to test the readiness of its forces, said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the NAC, a research institute based in Arlington, in Virginia. After that, the troops only need to get into their vehicles and head towards the Ukrainian border, he said.
What a military operation might look like at this point is hotly debated.
In late January, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russia had deployed enough forces to invade all of Ukraine and suggested that the fighting could even spread to the streets of Kiev, the capital, which Mr Kofman agrees with.
“The Russian military is positioning itself to be able to conduct a full-scale military operation against Ukraine, and its posture of strength indicates that if ordered, it will conduct a multi-axis attack,” Mr. Kofman.
According to Ukraine’s assessment, Russia would not be able to sustain an invasion on different attack points for more than a week due to a lack of supplies, including ammunition, food and fuel. deployed to front-line positions, nor does it have sufficient reserve forces.
In most areas there are sufficient forces available for smaller, localized assaults that could be used as a diversion from a main attack coming from the east or south where forces are stronger, depending on the assessment. .
For weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has tried to downplay the seriousness of the Russian threat, though he now seems increasingly worried.
“It won’t be a war between Ukraine and Russia,” if ongoing diplomatic efforts fail, Zelensky said last week. “It’s going to be a European war, a full-fledged war.”