Will Russia risk an all-out invasion of Ukraine?
In September 2013, Russia unnerved the Baltic States and several NATO countries by holding military exercises on the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and in the Kaliningrad enclave that involved an estimated 70,000 troops. Earlier, in April, the Russian Air Force had practiced mock bombing runs near Swedish air space. The unease caused by these events — along with many others, including the resumption of a Russian Naval task force in the Mediterranean and international flights of strategic bombers — was considerable, prompting many analysts to remark on the Russian military’s resurgent confidence and capability. It was confidence and capability born of a massive modernizatsiia program designed to remedy the inadequacies exposed by the 2008 war with Georgia, and to create a modern, professional military capable of protecting Russia’s status as a great power.
Today, Russia is flexing that newfound military might in Crimea and on its eastern border with Ukraine, where it is massing troops and carrying out a series of military exercises. As the clock ticks down toward a referendum on secession for the Black Sea peninsula, fear is mounting about a full-scale invasion of the Ukrainian heartland — this time, involving Russian troops with insignias on their uniforms. But as analysts speculate about Moscow’s intentions, the question that led most observers to discount the possibility of a Russian takeover of Crimea remains unanswered: To what end?
The most likely answer is that the Crimean invasion — and the current military exercises along the Ukrainian border — is intended to signal to the new government in Kiev that Russia’s interests are not to be ignored. In that case, they would represent a continuation of Russia’s efforts to negate any incipient relationship between Ukraine and the EU that would threaten Moscow’s influence in the region. As my colleague and FP columnist Michael Weiss notes, "That’s why the Kremlin has created a shadow EU known as the Customs Union, which includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and whose sole mission seems to be keeping ex-satellites from being lured into Brussels’ orbit."
If the efforts to "persuade" Ukraine to join the customs union — such as the $15 billion loan offered to President Viktor Yanukovych prior to his ouster — can be seen as part of this strategy, then the latest military exercises are probably just a more forceful iteration. These exercises are largely consistent with the more muscular military posture Russia has adopted since 2008 — and don’t involve the level of manpower needed to mount a full-scale invasion. In other words, Russia is making a powerful political statement — and it may well hang onto Crimea — but it’s not about to march on Kiev.
Russia’s ambitions are stamped onto the troop movements and military exercises themselves. Clearly, Russia isn’t messing around in Crimea. The professionalism and equipment displayed by the occupying troops are extremely telling, displaying a level of command and control that only the Russian military would be able to project. This professionalism suggests that the troops in Crimea (other than the 810th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade, which as part of the Black Sea Fleet is ordinarily stationed in the peninsula) come from the elite Airborne (VDV) and various Spetsnaz (special forces) units: The 76th Guards Air Assault Division from Pskov, the 31st Guards Airborne Brigade from Ulyanovsk, and the 45th Guards Independent Regiment (VDV) located in Kubinka, outside Moscow, are all alleged to be in Crimea. The 7th Guards Air Assault Division is also located next to Crimea in Novorossiysk and could be involved.
Additionally, there are numerous units in Russia’s Southern Military District (Russia is broken up into four regional commands: Western, Southern, Central and Eastern) that are most likely involved in the occupation of Crimea. The Southern MD covers the restive Caucasus region, including the Russian "peacekeeping" operations in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has priority over other military districts for personnel and new equipment, and so would be a prime candidate to contribute to the ongoing operations in Crimea. The 22nd Spetsnaz Brigade, which is subordinate to the Southern MD, is also allegedly in Crimea.
Regardless of which forces are actually in Crimea, the numbers and capabilities pale in comparison to the very real and very public displays of Russian military might on the Ukrainian border, which Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, claims involve 80,000 solders, 270 tanks, 370 artillery systems, and 140 combat aircraft. Still, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt; because Parubiy’s statement is meant to sound alarm bells in the West, his estimates most likely include troops and hardware that are normally stationed in the region.
That’s not to say Ukraine has nothing to worry about. Given that Russia has conducted military district wide maneuvers, air defense exercises, and airborne troop parachute drops, Parubiy’s claims are not the musings of a hyperbolic politician. On February 26, Moscow ordered a massive, 150,00-troop exercise involving units from the western and central military districts (The Central MD’s 2nd Army in Samara is available to be mobilized in the event of war to support the Western and Southern MD’s, which border Ukraine). Then on Tuesday, it announced that the 98th Guards Airborne Division, based in Ivanovo outside of Moscow, would be conducting a parachute drop into Rostov — which directly borders Ukraine. Additionally, Russia has launched large scale exercises involving its air defense forces — including advanced S-300 and Buk M1 air defense systems — and dispatched 6 additional Su-27 fighters to Belarus, possibly as a response to America’s decision to send 6 F-15 fighters to the Baltics and a dozen F-16’s to Poland.
But as menacing as these maneuvers might seem, they are fairly standard from a readiness perspective. As Mark Galeotti, a Russian security specialist at New York University, noted about the recent exercises, "In general terms, this is what a military does if it wants to keep at readiness. But in circumstances like this, they’re very aware of the political implications of any movements."
Any serious invasion would require far larger numbers of Russian troops to effectively occupy eastern Ukraine. It would also require units to be brought up to full readiness (despite efforts to professionalize the military with kontraktniki — contract or professional soldiers — the military still relies on conscripts and the mass mobilization of understaffed units). And as Johan Norberg notes over at the Carnegie Endowment, an invasion would require the construction of field hospitals close to the border (although one could argue that field hospitals would be part of any mobilization).
Additionally, Russia would likely call upon its Interior Ministry troops (VV) to support an invasion of eastern Ukraine. The VV troops are well trained but lightly armed troops that have played a paramount role in conflicts in Chechnya, and as such would be ideal for the kind of counter insurgency situation that could result in Ukraine. They include the 2nd Independent Special Designation Division, 47th Independent Special Designation Brigade (both based in Krasnodar next to Ukraine), along with several special operations forces, such as the 15th Special Purpose Detachment (OSN) "Vyatich," an elite special forces unit.
Since few predicted the Russian occupation of Crimea, it would be premature to rule out the possibility of a full-scale invasion. While it would seem unlikely that Russian troops would march on Kiev, some sort of limited incursion into the Russian leaning east of the country is a very real possibility. The airborne forces and Spetsnaz units that would spearhead such an assault are available and close to the border. But those units would need to be backed up by larger regular Russian military formations after the initial incursion.
Whatever the future holds for the rest of Ukraine, it’s clear that Russia is staying put in Crimea.