Moscow isn’t looking to escalate the war in the Donbass. But it is laying the groundwork to dominate its neighbor for years to come.
- By Michael KofmanMichael Kofman is a research scientist at CNA Corp. and a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
All August, Russia has been announcing new drills and military movements near the Ukrainian border. In Ukraine, the intensity of fighting has picked up over the summer and scaled up even further this past month, with daily shootouts and artillery duels. Between the fighting and large-scale maneuvers, Ukraine-watchers have grown awfully nervous.
Unfortunately, Western commentary on Russia and Ukraine tends to be anxiety prone, seeing military activity as a harbinger of an imminent attack. At the same time, it frequently misses the larger strategic picture. And that’s what’s happening today: Russia isn’t about to escalate the war in Ukraine’s east, but it is reorienting its forces to surround and contain Ukraine for years to come in a process that has been largely overlooked.
Russian drills and snap-readiness checks may appear intimidating, but they are unlikely to be a prelude to an expansion of the current conflict. At this stage of the war, Russia does not need subterfuge to move forces in and out of Ukraine, nor does it require a contrived pretext of the sort we saw earlier this month in Crimea to escalate the conflict. The firefights and artillery duels, too, mean little: Cycles of vicious fighting in the summer can lead to mini-offensives, particularly in the no man’s land between Ukrainian and separatist lines, but little territory has actually exchanged hands since February 2015.
But for nearly two years Russia has been steadily planning the return of permanent garrisons to Ukraine’s borders, creating new divisions and shifting brigades from other regions. New bases are springing up in what Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu calls the country’s “southwestern strategic direction,” as units are repositioning from other parts of the country closer to Ukrainian borders. The Russian General Staff has been busily digging to create housing for new divisions and deploying modernized equipment to existing forces based in the region.
This is not a massing invasion force, as some have alleged. The buildup shouldn’t come as a surprise, nor should it be viewed as evidence of Russian strategic mastery — our dearth of analytical capability is hardly a Russian achievement.
Rather, the first of the new units was announced in November 2014, when the military promised that a new brigade would return to Yelnya, some 60 miles from Ukraine’s northern border and close to Belarus as well. This is where Russia’s 144th Division was once situated after being withdrawn from Estonia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In January it became clear that this would likely be the core of one of three new divisions on Ukraine’s borders. This unit will be formed by the second half of 2017, perhaps numbering 6,000 by then, although the stated goal for each division is to field 10,000 troops.
Remarkably, Russia published the base plan and construction timelines online for a new garrison in Klintsy, about 30 miles from the Ukrainian border, as part of a public government tender. Similarly, it was announced in 2015 that Russia’s 20th Army will move its headquarters from Mulino, a city east of Moscow, back to Voronezh, much closer to Ukraine. These changes were accompanied by other notable decisions: The 23rd motor rifle brigade is moving back from Samara in central Russia to a new base being built for 3,500 soldiers in Valuyki in the Belgorod region along Ukraine’s northern border.
In the Rostov region, which is already packed with Russian military bases, contract servicemen of the 33rd Motor Rifle Brigade have returned from Maikop in the Caucasus. Russia is speedily throwing down modular housing for a third planned division in this region, situated on Ukraine’s southeastern border, and likely incorporating the 33rd Brigade. The unit will materialize in late 2017 and resume the legacy of the 150th Idritsk-Berlin Division from World War II. That bit of historical trivia is not inconsequential, because it was the 150th that raised the flag over the Reichstag in 1945. The symbolism of establishing such a unit with such a prominent legacy of defeating fascism on Ukraine’s flank is doubtfully a coincidence.
But invading armies don’t build garrisons with soccer fields and apartment buildings for permanent bases. They mass and then they invade. So if Russia isn’t on the brink of a full-scale invasion, what is it up to? In part, the moves are restoring the Russian military presence on its western frontiers to what it was before 2009. During the tumultuous period of military reforms, from 2008 to 2012, the Russian armed forces consolidated or disbanded many of the units closest to Europe; others were moved either to the Caucasus or central Russia.
The reforms were spurred by a long-appreciated need to restore the moribund military as a useful instrument of national power. A lean, mobile, and well-staffed Russian military was poised to handle contingencies along the country’s southern periphery, but ill-situated to fight Ukraine or Europe. Having abandoned the old Soviet mass mobilization army, the Russian military is still in a transition phase, experimenting with formations and new equipment based on its combat experience in Ukraine and Syria.
When Russia deployed 40,000-plus troops on Ukraine’s borders from February to April 2014, it did so in an improvised fashion, cobbling unit formations into strike groups and combining the staff from two armies to organize the operation. That may have worked in the spring of 2014, but it’s hardly the preferred way to fight a war and it would not do in a wider conflict. If someday Ukraine’s military becomes a potent ground force — and in five to 10 years, with hard work, the country could partially realize such a vision — then Russia would need a much more robust conventional presence on the border to ensure the security of the separatist republics. Moscow needs divisions to dissuade any notions among future Ukrainian leadership — perhaps by then backed by stronger political support from the United States — that it could succeed with a military solution.
The Russian General Staff is not only repositioning these units back where they were before 2009, it’s also rebuilding a capable combat grouping on Crimea — albeit one that’s largely defensive in nature. The string of divisions, airbases, and brigades will be able to effect conventional deterrence or compellence for years to come. It also secures the Russian vision for how this conflict ends: In a hypothetical future where the Minsk agreement is actually implemented, Russian forces may withdraw from the separatist enclaves in the Donbass. If the deal fails to hold or Kiev reneges on the terms, Russian divisions ringing the country from its north to very southeast (not including Crimea) would be poised to counter any Ukrainian moves by striking from several directions.
What does this mean for the West? For one, Russia will retain escalation dominance over Ukraine for the foreseeable future. By the end of 2017, its forces will be better positioned to conduct an incursion or threaten regime change in Kiev than they ever were in 2014. This means that even as Ukraine reforms its military, it should tread with care. U.S. policymakers should think about the medium to long term — a timeline that is admittedly not our strong suit. If this conflict is not placed on stable footing by the time both countries feel themselves capable of engaging in a larger fight, it may well result in a conventional war that would dwarf the small set-piece battles we’ve seen so far. Beyond imposing a cease-fire on the current fighting, the West should think about what a rematch might look like several years from now.
Don’t let the Soviet hardware on parade at Kiev’s recent Independence Day celebrations fool you. The constellation of forces is not and will not be in Ukraine’s favor for years to come. Russia’s moves, beyond the current exercises and maneuvers, will also make it harder to monitor its intentions. Western leaders should follow these developments, if only to avoid the shock of suddenly discovering that a substantial portion of the Russian army has encamped along Ukraine’s border. With permanent forces in place by 2018, the time and distance required to go from readiness check to combat deployment will be so narrow that Russian forces could be across the Ukrainian border before anyone is the wiser.
Photo credit: Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images