Since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in February–March 2014 and its subsequent involvement in destabilizing southeastern Ukraine, Russia’s Armed Forces frequently conduct force generation close to the border. In March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered a snap inspection of combat readiness across Russia’s system of Joint Strategic Commands (Obyedinennyye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK)/Military Districts (MD), with the movement of troops and heavy equipment especially close to Ukraine’s border. By late April, Shoigu ordered units back to their permanent bases. However, it quickly became apparent that most of those Russian units have not stood down (see EDM, April 22, 27 ). Based on the released details of the buildup, the forces that moved in proximity to the border with Ukraine arguably lack some of the features of preparations—such as strategic-level electronic warfare (EW) assets or sufficient logistics—that would have been required to commence true combat operations. However, new measures could be undertaken if Moscow authorizes the use of force in support of the Russian-led separatists in Donbas (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, May 7).
On April 30, Army General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, said the exercises involved over 300,000 service members throughout Russia. He provided no detail on the numbers close to Ukraine but stressed the involvement of the 58th and 41st combined-arms armies (CAA) as well as the 7th, 76th and 98th Airborne Troops (Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska—VDV) divisions. Gerasimov claimed that military personnel had returned to their bases, with the planned transportation of heavy equipment scheduled to finish by May 12 (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, May 7).
According to the Commander of the Southern MD, Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov, the exercises that followed the snap inspection were large scale and involved the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), Ground Forces, the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. These exercises included battalion tactical groups coordinating their actions with ship crews and squadrons of operational-tactical, naval and army aviation. Naval infantry rehearsed repelling amphibious and airborne assault forces. However, Dvornikov also highlighted these exercises as a response to what Moscow characterized as an increase in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) naval activity close to Georgia and Ukraine (Interfax, March 21).
In southeastern Ukraine, the 1st and 2nd corps of the Russian-led separatists headquartered in Donetsk and Luhansk, respectively, are subordinated to Russia’s 8th Combined-Arms Army in the Southern MD. The 8th CAA is spearheaded by the 150th Motorized Rifle Division, which acts as a reserve for the Russian-led separatist forces in Donbas (see EDM, March 11). During tactical exercises involving VDV units in Crimea (see EDM, May 3), more than 350 personnel rehearsed “capturing” an airfield of the hypothetical enemy and establishing a bridgehead for the insertion of the main forces. This exercise was joined by artillery units and focused on the Opuk military training ground in eastern Crimea. “In accordance with the concept of the exercise, the reinforced paratrooper battalion of the Guards Airborne Assault Caucasian Cossack Regiment, having flown with seven Il-76MD aircraft, landed on the Okhchi-Oba landing site in Crimea with the task of seizing an airfield held by illegal armed groups, thus, ensuring the landing of aircraft with the main forces of the regiment,” noted the commander of the Guards Airborne Assault Caucasian Cossack Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Zizevsky (Interfax, March 18).
The exercises also involved reinforcing the Black Sea Fleet with three large landing ships from the Baltic Fleet, the Minsk, Kaliningrad and Korolev, as well as the Boykiy corvette. These were reported to have passed through the Danish Straits on April 21—monitored closely by United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft, scrambled from Lossiemouth airbase in Scotland—and later sailing the English Channel (Interfax, March 21).
Throughout the period of the snap inspections to test combat readiness within Russia’s Armed Forces, estimates of the numbers of Russian military personnel who were moved close to the border with Ukraine varied between 70,000 and 90,000 (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, April 19; Interfax, March 21). While the precise numbers are unclear, it is certain that the exercises testing combat readiness for large-scale warfare. Many have questioned Moscow’s drawing down of forces close to Ukraine’s borders—among them, Nikolai Sungurovsky, the director of military programs at the Razumkov Kyiv Analytical Center. He described the April events as “not ordinary exercises, but an operation to raise readiness,” linking this with the situation inside Russia, as well as with the aggravation of relations between the Russian Federation and the West. Sungurovsky expressed confidence that Moscow will leave forces near the border with Ukraine in order to “keep Kyiv and the West in suspense” (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, May 7).
In military terms, the senior leadership of the Russian Armed Forces justified the exercises as a combat-readiness test, examining issues such as strategic mobility, command and control over large formations, and inter-service operations. Equally, the snap inspections have been linked to preparations for the annual strategic military exercise in September—this year, Zapad 2021, in the western strategic direction. Politically, of course, these movements of personnel and heavy equipment were cast as a “response” to NATO exercises close to Russia’s borders. Strong indications also exist that the exercises and force buildup were intended to coerce the government in Kyiv, either to make it more malleable to Moscow’s diplomatic efforts or to warn against any action to target the Russian-led separatist forces in Donbas (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, April 19; Interfax, March 21).
The vast majority of the formations involved in the combat-readiness test appeared to be combat or maneuver units. Some of what was missing is equally revealing. Combat-support elements critical to conducting combat operations, including strategic-level EW assets were notably not mentioned in official reports. Moreover, transportation was provided by combat service support, Materialno-Tekhnicheskogo Obespechenie (Material-Technical Support—MTO); conspicuously, there was no reported movement of the vital Railway Troops. Unless it is attacked, Russia does not conduct military operations without first carefully preparing the battlefield—which would undoubtedly involve the forward deployment of the MTO railway troops. Moreover, there appears to have been no intensification of spring combat training for the separatist forces in Donbas or the arrival of increased numbers of Russian officers acting as military advisors. While the immediate war scare has passed, tensions in the border areas are set to continue, with all the potential risks of conflict escalation.
Roger N. McDermott specializes in Russian and Central Asian defense and security issues and is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, Senior International Research Fellow for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen. McDermott is on the editorial board of Central Asia and the Caucasus and the scientific board of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies. He recently wrote The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces: Problems, Challenges and Policy Implications (October 2011).
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.