Recent satellite photos from Russia reveal an alarming sign that President Vladamir Putin is ready to pull the trigger at the Ukraine border.
It’s a sight that immediately has the hallmarks of war: Ballistic missiles being hauled across continental Russia in open-top railcars as forces gather on the Russia-Ukraine border.
But what is making military experts really sit up and take notice isn’t the missiles. It’s the little things.
Mobile weather stations, latrine units, bakeries. It seems Russian President Vladimir Putin means business.
Putin’s troop build-up has taken almost a year. Through that time, he has insisted Russia had “no intentions to attack Ukraine” – even as he threatened a “military-technical” response if NATO didn’t appease his demands.
Is it a bluff? Does he want to secure the pro-Moscow Donbas region? Does he want “regime change” in Kiev? Does he want Ukraine?
“Russia’s threat is particularly alarming for at least two reasons,” retired CIA analyst Philip Wasielewski told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“First, Russia could move its pre-positioned forces into Ukraine quickly.
“Second, an invasion would mark a significant change in international politics, creating a new Iron Curtain that begins along Russia’s borders with Finland and the Baltic States and moves south through Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and finally to East Asia along China’s southern flank.”
Analysts say the scale and variety of military equipment now assembled appears tailored for full-scale occupation.
A mass of social media video and photography is coming out of Russia and Belarus. Among the endless stream of tanks and trucks are military police and political troops. These are needed to occupy civilian towns and cities, manage prisoners of war and administer occupied territories.
Among the assembled equipment – and not usually associated with simple war games – are mobile weather stations, cable-laying gear, bridging units and armoured engineering vehicles.
It’s an enormous force.
An entire combined arms army has been repositioned out of Siberia. And units out of the Far East are currently offloading in Belarus.
Altogether, about 35 per cent of Russia’s total army – 60 out of 168 battalion tactical groups – are now stationed near Ukraine. And warships and combat aircraft are moving to support them.
If Putin’s military build-up was intended to force NATO to back down from its support for Ukraine, it failed.
That leaves the Russian leader out on a limb.
Failing to follow through on his threats would leave the strongman looking weak.
This may be why his vague “red lines” have suddenly been given greater clarity.
He wants NATO to remove long-range missiles – even though they don’t exist.
He wants NATO to reject the membership of former Soviet Union states – even though his own belligerence is forcing them into its arms.
But, in the background, he has been building a false narrative similar to China’s towards Taiwan. Ukraine has always been part of Russia, he says. Its independence is an insult to the fatherland.
He wants to forge a new Russian Union.
“The United States and its European partners cannot allow Russia to annex Ukraine,” Mr Wasielewski says. “Russian annexation of some or all of Ukraine would increase Russian manpower, industrial capacity and natural resources to a level that could make it a global threat. The United States and Europe cannot make this mistake again.”
“By inflicting heavy losses on the Ukrainian military, taking prisoners of war, and degrading Kiev’s defence capabilities, Russia could potentially … induce painful concessions,” says Foreign Policy Research Institute analyst Rob Lee.
“An additional benefit of such an operation is that it would likely be less costly and would not require Russian forces to enter cities, which would increase the risk of civilian casualties and make an insurgency more effective.”
A successful attack to the south could entirely cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea, giving Russia the Black Sea ports it covets. A push from the north to the Dnieper River could seize a large swath of productive territory.
Or Putin could take the lot.
“If fully committed, the Russian military is significantly stronger and more capable than Ukraine’s military, and the United States and other NATO countries have made it clear they will not deploy their forces to Ukraine to repel a Russian invasion,” Mr Wasielewski says.
Ultimately, he says, it’s about the destruction of an independent Ukraine “whose evolution toward a liberal democratic state has become a major source of contention among the Kremlin’s security elites”.
Risk versus reward
It’s winter in Europe. And that’s both good and bad for any potential invasion.
The ground in Ukraine is icy and firm – at least until March when it all turns into slush. And the trees and foliage are mainly devoid of leaves, making it harder to hide from aircraft, helicopters and drones.
But the longer Putin waits, the less sustainable his military mobilisation becomes.
“Mechanised attacks are not always as rapid as attackers hope,” Mr Wasielewski says.
“Two of the quickest movements of armoured forces in history – German general Heinz Guderian’s punch through the Ardennes and seizure of Dunkirk in May 1940, and the US and coalition advance from the Kuwait border to Baghdad in 2003 – each averaged approximately 20 miles [32km] per day. Movement against a determined foe in winter conditions with limited daylight could reduce that rate of advance significantly.”
Exactly how successful Russia’s Soviet-era idea of mobile combined forces warfare is will not be known until after the first shots are fired.
Armed and ready
The sight of railway trucks hauling Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles out of Siberia has been interpreted as confirming the imminence of invasion. These weapons would be a powerful deterrent against NATO intervention.
But the size of the force is enough indication in itself.
Putin has positioned some 60 battalion tactical groups (BTGs), along with their support units, against Ukraine. Each BTG comprises some 800 troops with associated tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and anti-aircraft units.
Inside Ukraine is a 15,000-strong separatist force, with unbadged Russian troops and special forces fighting alongside them.
A significant part of the Russian armoured units has been repositioned to the north of Ukraine this week. That’s the closest convenient route to Kiev.
Social media video and photography reveals combat units far beyond the advertised scope of the joint war games – they appear to have moved into Belarus to take up stations barely 20km from the Ukraine border.
Meanwhile, naval assault forces have centred on large troop-carrying warships in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Several more such ships are on their way from Russia’s northern Baltic and Barents Sea fleets. These could help seize the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.
“This will be the first time since World War II that Russia’s ground forces will face a modern mechanised opponent, and its air forces will face an opponent with a modern air force and air defence system,” Mr Wasielewski says. “Once combat units expend their initial stores of ammunition, fuel and food, the real test of Russian military strength will begin – including Russia’s ability to sustain the advance of a massive mechanised force over hundreds of miles of territory.”
Kiev and the River Dnieper are some 200km from the Russian border. It will take several days of fighting to reach them.
“Russia has built an excellent war machine for fighting near its frontier and striking deep with long-range fires. However, Russia may have trouble with a sustained ground offensive far beyond Russian railroads without a major logistical halt or a massive mobilisation of reserves.”
It may not be the quick, clean war Putin wants.
“If the invasion is not concluded quickly due to a combination of weather, logistics, and Ukrainian resistance, how might this impact Russian morale?” Mr Wasielewski says.
“Every Kremlin ruler knows that one of the quickest ways to end a Russian dynasty or regime is to lose a war,” Mr Wasielewski says.
The cost of high casualties would be broadcast far and wide via social media. And the effect of any failures on the ground is likely to be magnified.
“The ubiquitous presence of cell phone cameras and videos in today’s world will expand soldiers’ complaints beyond their units,” he says. “Therefore, the question for the Kremlin will be: The longer the war grinds on and society reacts to casualties and economic duress, how much are their initial objectives worth to them?”
Which is why Ukraine’s best tactic may be to prolong Russia’s advance into a slow, bloody grind. And that’s the purpose of thousands of Javelin anti-tank missiles being rushed to the front line by the US and UK.
“Once mechanised movement is ground to a halt by mud and supply problems, airborne and amphibious pockets can be eliminated, and Ukraine will have had enough time to mobilise and deploy its approximately 900,000-man reserve force,” Mr Wasielewski says.
“As weeks turn into months, international economic and financial sanctions should begin to take effect. The Kremlin would then be faced with a long war, on the battlefield and off it, with little end in sight.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel