And Putin’s itching for a fight.
- By Andrew S. Bowen Andrew S. Bowen is a columnist for the Interpreter, an online Russian language translation and analysis journal, and a researcher at the political risk consultancy Wikistrat. Follow him on twitter at @Andrew_S_Bowen.
As Malaysia Airlines’ 298 passengers died over the skies of eastern Ukraine, so did the last trace of hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin would back down from his support of eastern Ukraine’s separatist rebels or agree to a negotiated settlement to the seven-month-long conflict. Since the deadly incident, it is no longer in doubt whether or not the future of eastern Ukraine — or Novorossiya (New Russia), as pan-Slavic nationalists call it — will be decided by force. The only question remaining is how deadly the fight will be.
At the moment, the government in Kiev is ramping up its fight to reclaim Ukraine’s restive eastern regions. At the same time, thousands of Russian troops are amassed along Ukraine’s eastern border, and not just the elite Airborne or Spetsnaz troops that took over Crimea in February, but also units designed to fight conventional wars and armies, like Ukraine’s. The result could be explosive.
There was little Ukraine could do to stop the "little green men" who invaded Crimea. By the time Kiev had realized what was going on, Russia’s most elite and best-trained Naval Infantry, Airborne, and Spetsnaz troops (including the new Senezh unit, which seized the Crimean parliament) had prevented Ukrainian reinforcements from entering Crimea. But the separatist militiamen in eastern Ukraine, despite being equipped, trained, and funded by Moscow, are a different story. There, Kiev retains a vast advantage in firepower, materiel, and troops, along with the implicit backing of the international community against an increasingly fragmented and uncoordinated separatist movement.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has shown he is willing to use every available resource to retake the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk from the separatists. But does he have the force and commitment necessary to do so?
The best estimates place Ukraine’s military strength at around 35,000 ground personnel, although only about 10,000 to 12,000 are able and ready to conduct offensive combat operations at any given time. So far, Kiev has committed six mechanized brigades, a tank brigade, and various special-forces units (such as the Interior Ministry’s "Snow Leopard" brigade) to retaking the east. That’s in addition to the one airborne and three airmobile brigades that have carried out much of the fighting and borne many of the casualties, such as on June 14, when separatists shot down an Ilyushin-76 transport plane, killing 40 paratroopers of the 25th Airborne Brigade and nine crew members. Additional forces along the lines of National Guard units have been hastily created, financed, and trained from the various groups and protestors who took part in the protests and clashes with police last winter that led to the current crisis. These units were put together to fill the manpower shortages created by years of corruption and inattention to Ukraine’s military.
Ukrainian forces’ recent gains against the separatists are a testament to Kiev’s commitment and the strengthening of its army: The situation began to turn in Kiev’s favor when the Ukrainian army repelled the Vostok Battalion’s attack on Donetsk International Airport in May and caused significant casualties among the rebels. Since then, the Ukrainian army has continued its advance, gradually dislodging separatists from their bases, such as when the infamous rebel commander Igor Strelkov was forced to retreat from his stronghold in Slovyansk on July 5. These successes speak to Ukraine’s distinct advantage in heavy firepower and airpower over the rebels, even despite Russia’s supplying of tanks, rockets, and air defense systems to the separatists.
But these victories took place among the relatively open landscape of Donetsk and Lugansk. Because the rebels have retreated from their control of the countryside into the cities, the upcoming fight will take place not in the fields of Ukraine’s eastern farmland but in its cities and urban areas — where no modern army was designed to fight. An urban battle reduces the advantage of Ukraine’s superior firepower and increases the potential for civilian casualties, making further gains for Ukraine a bloody and horrifyingly slow endeavor.
As Simon Saradzhyan, a Russia expert at Harvard’s Belfer Center, notes, if Ukraine continues to suffer troop casualties at its current rate, it would "surpass 1,560 per year. That would be more than what the Russian army acknowledged losing in the deadliest year of the second Chechen war." In view of the increasing casualties on the horizon, Ukraine’s parliament has just approved a call-up of a further 50,000 reservists and men under the age of 50, just 45 days after its last mobilization. But just how long Ukraine’s cobbled-together military will be able to sustain increasing casualties is questionable at best — especially if they suddenly find themselves up against more qualified Russian soldiers.
Throughout the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have watched from just over the border, implicitly threatening intervention. Since the beginning of the rebellion, Russian troops have been conducting maneuvers and setting up the logistics network that would be needed for an incursion. Things have ramped up in recent days, with Russia conducting large-scale exercises with some of its most advanced helicopters. The threat hasn’t been lost on Kiev.
During the July 22 debate in the Ukrainian parliament on calling up reserves, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Parubiy, said that Moscow was once again building up its reserves on the border with Ukraine. Parubiy claimed that the Russian force consisted of up to 41,000 troops, 150 tanks, and 400 armored vehicles. Washington and NATO have also backed up that assertion, although estimates on numbers differ: The Pentagon and NATO military commander U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove put the estimates of Russian troops at the border at 12,000 to 15,000. This may be the best estimate, as the United States has no incentive to downplay the level of troops at the border and American satellite imagery is likely to get the most accurate picture.
Even if the number of Russian troops at the border is far lower than the 41,000 discussed by Ukrainian security officials, there is still good reason to worry. "These battalion groups consist of infantry, armor and artillery, and also have organic air defense capabilities," the Pentagon notes. These are the units that comprise Russia’s "New Look" army and exemplify the Kremlin’s effort to modernize its armed forces over the past six years. The units on Ukraine’s borders are far more advanced than the Soviet divisions that were pointed at NATO. While skeleton crews manned the old Soviet forces, the New Look army is supposedly manned at 90 to 100 percent. And these troops can also be mobilized more quickly.
Since 2008, the Russian military has reformed its army from old, unwieldy divisions and regiments into a brigade structure that would allow for full manning and quicker mobilization. At full strength, these brigades consist of 4,200 to 4,300 servicemen each, with 2,200 in tank brigades. But the biggest difference between the New Look brigades and their predecessors is that each was created with the intent that they would be able to operate independently, with their own artillery, armor (tank), and anti-air capabilities. This makes them much more dangerous and maneuverable: Instead of individual infantry or tank units, these are nimble, deadly, all-in-one brigades.
The rationale behind this move was to more effectively engage in the threats that Russia envisioned in its future. Rather than facing off against NATO tanks in lowlands, the Russian General Staff envisioned focusing on regional conflicts that require mobility and flexibility — exactly like Ukraine right now. The special-forces troops that invaded Crimea are not designed to fight a heavily armed and armored force. They are meant to strike fast and hard, and then be quickly supported by regular brigades with heavier firepower. The troops currently on Ukraine’s borders are the support that typically follows behind the "little green men."
Russia does not have the force ready at the border for a full-scale invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine. But it doesn’t need to. Putin does not want to annex the large and economically depressed region, despite the increasingly vocal calls from Russia’s nationalist right and the Russian commanders in charge of the insurgency. Even if he did, from a strategic point of view, he has missed his best opportunity. In May and June, Russia had its best units poised and positioned on Ukraine’s borders. Since then, however, the rotation of conscripted soldiers has put fresh, less-than-battle-ready soldiers into the field.
But what the Kremlin really wants in Ukraine is to foster anarchy and instability, putting pressure on the new regime in Kiev and the West to acquiesce to Russia’s dominance in the east and to stop what Putin and many in his circle believe are EU and NATO incursions into Russia’s backyard.
That means that the forces currently amassed on the border are capable of launching a quick incursion into Ukraine to halt the progress of Kiev’s forces and allow the rebels to reassert some control, along with effectively signaling Moscow’s dominance over events in the region. Whether this is a quick strike or a longer-term incursion, these new brigades have the firepower and logistics support to effectively deal a blow to Ukrainian forces.
Political analysts and intelligence agencies alike were surprised when the Kremlin annexed Crimea. The economically depressed region, already under Moscow’s influence, seemed like an unnecessary addition to the Russian Federation. And then Putin surprised the world. Another surprise may be possible soon. The Russian president is stuck in a dangerous position between the vocal proponents of Russian revanchism and the international community that condemns interference in Ukraine. He can ill afford to allow eastern Ukraine to return to Kiev’s hands and he may be willing to use the troops he has built up along the border to stop that. An incursion by Russian troops to stunt the Ukrainian advance would be well within Russia’s capabilities, and very likely would not meet much resistance by the international community, other than further sanctions.
And while it may seem farcical to some, not too long ago so was the notion of Russia training the separatists and giving them rocket launchers. In Ukraine, the farcical becomes reality.