In the last few months, I have repeatedly warned about Putin’s shifting approach to Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine. In spite of this, there has been very little coverage in the mainstream media and scant debate amongst the elite political circles, with both being more interested in the perceived mistakes committed by Donald Trump rather than acknowledging and responding to the very real threat of Putin’s increased foreign policy activity. Meanwhile, there are many signs that Russia is increasing its military activity near Ukraine.
On the way to Novorossiya
From right under the noses of politicians and the media they’ve completely missed increased Kremlin activity. The Kremlin reorganized, strengthened and attracted forces to the Donbas region and the border area with Russia to “correct” the existing borders.
Putin had accurately calculated that Russia’s advance would be unchecked by the West and counted upon the lack of a “joined up” response by NATO and the EU at large. This assessment and understanding additionally strengthened Putin’s resolve to take a firmer rein upon Ukrainian territory. Putin shows no signs of stopping and for the purposes of clarity for our green table experts, the recent efforts of the Russian Napoleon are set out in the points below.
- Although parts of the three armed forces have been moving in a westerly direction since 2016, the current repositions are likely to be exacerbated by the “fake” news tsunami surrounding Donald Trump, emboldening Russia and giving them greater prominence
- After the end of the large-scale military exercise KAVKAZ 2016 and related exercises on a smaller scale, it has become clear to Russia followers that Russia is looking for an opening to capture land in eastern Ukraine without nullifying agreements entered into in the MINSK II treaty. (1)
- The Soviet model in which a “backbone” status of specialist rods and units as a starting point has been reintroduced. They can be strengthened quickly and silently for efficient mobilization – a typical Kremlin strategy
- Different from other large-scale exercises in recent years, assumed KAVKAZ II units are part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs section. As in previous decades – and common in the Soviet era – soldiers were paid their fees in markets within specially deployed static administrative centers and military hospitals which been instructed to set up mobile field hospitals during exercises. This signals that Russian units are prepared for an impending large-scale operation.
- Civil administration centers have been ordered to move forward to develop their operational lines. In the Southern Military District, (Ukraine) and also within Belarus similar to the deployment in Syria. If deemed appropriate, this will be applicable to the Baltic states and observers have noted an increased concentration of these units.
- In the past, the Russian Federation utilized 25 divisions and 15 brigades on the ground. These units are still increasing in strength, placing the current combat power levels around 60% to 70% of total capacity. These units are looking to increase their personnel with an extra 10,000 men. A clear indication that the Russian forces are preparing for a possible deployment of military units.
- Russian military action in the Donbas region has increased with 336 attacks recorded between 12 and 20 March 2017 where nine Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 35 wounded. Russia also perpetrated successfully an attack on a Ukrainian mobilization complex annex ammunition depot in Balakliya in Kharkiv. (2) most likely by the use of armed drones [Ed: Although the version of a Russian attack, as well as an armed drone had indeed been sounded as the reason of the explosion in Balakliya on 23 March 2017, it was later dismissed. The official investigation into the explosion has ended, but the results have not been made public yet].
- It is generally believed that all activities will converge with a planned exercise ZAPAD likely to take place in September 2017.
Drilling in the border area with Ukraine
As a result of the activity outlined previously, the Military District South contains three armed units: 1st Guards Tank Army, the 40th Army and the 8th Army headquartered in Rostov on Don. Subunits of this Army can be deployed quickly in the Caucasus for rapid response.
These armed units can also be deployed at short notice to carry out operations in Ukraine, Syria, Belarus and the Baltic States. Russia has further increased its armed presence and opened four new divisions, all located in close proximity to the Ukrainian border:
- 150th Motorized Armoured Police Division in the Rostov area, (50 kilometers from the Ukrainian border)
- 10th Army Division, 3rd Motorized Infantry Division in the Voronezh Region (45 kilometers from the Ukrainian border)
- 144th Motorized Armoured Infantry Division in Smolensk (255km from the Ukrainian border).
This forms part of the rapid response unit, in order to be able to supplement the already developed combat force at the border of Ukraine. Three motorized infantry brigades have been moved from Kazakhstan’s border and from Volgograd to Bryansk and the Voronezh region which is less than fifty kilometers from the border with Ukraine. The headquarters of the 20th Army have also been moved westward. The repositioning of such a major combat force in the border area with Ukraine have not been made with defensive considerations but are instead strategically placed for maximum offensive capabilities.
Measures in other traditional and modern dimensions
On 8 March 2017 the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Black Sea Fleet will be equipped with additional ships capable of rapidly moving large troops to the south coast of Ukraine (Mariupol and Odesa), Caucasus (Abkhazia) and/or Russian bases in Syria. On 24 March 2017 observers in the port of Pokrovskoye noted the loading of some of these ships. At the same time, the Kremlin sent special air and land units to the bases in Belarus, which during a Russian invasion in Eastern Ukraine, would act to protect the north flank of those incoming units.
In addition to this, the Kremlin also increased its fourth-dimensional efforts against Ukrainian websites and the internet connections of high-level authorities and institutions.
By the end of 2016, the number of violations of websites and addresses of Ukrainian public institutions and high-level authorities such as the Ministries of Defense and Finance grew significantly. The Ukrainian government identified 6,500 attempts. A small proportion turned out to be successful and even managed to render large parts of the southern provinces of Ukraine without power.
It happens right under our noses
Russian military intervention and the movement of its armed forces clearly demonstrates that the Kremlin is on its way to continue its “Novorossiya” adventure and expects to successfully complete its geopolitical ambitions. Russia’s foreign policy plans within this area have been inadvertently supported by the role played by the liberal parts of Western-based media that often appears to push news narratives which the Trump administration feels forced to defend itself from. Liberal news media outlets media have become so fixated with undermining Trump that the aggressive military signals emanating from eastern Ukraine are willfully ignored.
To date, NATO’s response to force the Kremlin to rethink their geopolitical ambitions have been symbolic rather than strategically led with specific operational objectives. In part, this has been due to an insufficient combat force leading to deployment on a piecemeal basis emboldening Putin to deliver against his military objectives. One hopes by the end of the year the West will not ruefully reflect on the past 12 months and state.
(1) Source: Steven Blanks. Senior Analyst at the American Foreign Policy Council (a US non-profit think tank operating from Washington DC and focusing since 1982 on giving advice to the US government in the field of foreign affairs).
(2) Balaklya was Europe’s largest ammunition complex from which all eastern-stationed Ukrainian units of ammunition and spare parts were provided. Source: Avraam Smuleyvich, President of the Institute of Eastern Partnership
Victor A.C. Remouchamps is a retired Artillery Lieutenant Colonel with 34 years of service in the Royal Netherlands Army. He is a military and political analyst with experience of a senior Intelligence analyst in several NATO headquarters, where he was responsible for tracking and analyzing developments in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Presently, he lives in Vilnius, and writes for the periodicals “Carré”, “Armex” and “Sta Pal.”