Russia builds up forces on Ukrainian border

Since late October Janes has identified a significant increase in anomalous Russian military activity across the Ukrainian border area of operations, defined as being within 250 km of the Russian side of the border.

However, what at first sight appears to be a new Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border should instead be viewed as a continuation of last spring's (March–April) buildup. Many of the units involved in the initial spring buildup remained in the Ukrainian border area of operations and have redeployed to new sites.

In addition, Russia has begun deploying new forces, including some of its best equipped and trained units, to the border area, to sites well outside of their normal training areas close to the border. The United States has expressed concern on multiple occasions over Russia's intentions during this phase of the buildup, and on 7 December US President Joe Biden held a two-hour virtual summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the buildup.

In addition to the deployment of Russian ground units close to the border, Ukraine's Main Intelligence Directorate has reported an increased level of interaction between Russia's military and the Moscow-backed separatist 1st and 2nd Army Corps. This activity includes readiness drills under the leadership of Russia's 8th Combined Arms Army and the delivery of fuel, electronic warfare equipment, and unmanned aerial vehicles to the separatist troops.

Russian military equipment deployments near the Ukrainian border. (Janes)
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Characterising the buildup

This phase of equipment movements and deployments sits in stark contrast to what was seen in the spring, when Russian forces moved with minimal operational security. Trains carrying equipment travelled by day, in large numbers, often carrying vehicles to vast camps such as those in Voronezh and Crimea.

This new phase of deployments followed a very different pattern. Multiple trains carrying equipment appear to have moved during the night, likely in an attempt to minimise sightings. Equipment also appears to be deploying at a much slower rate and – generally – to more, smaller camps.

In addition to this, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) appears to have taken steps to stymie open-source investigations of the movements. Multiple open-source analysts told Janes in late November and early December that their access to railway tracking sites such as the Russia-based GdeVagon was being blocked. Railway tracking sites proved invaluable during the spring buildup, allowing analysts to identify the origin and destination of a train based on the identifying numbers seen on the carriages.

Opening moves in Kursk region

The first movement of new units as part of the October buildup was identified in the Kursk region. Elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army's 2nd Motorised Division have been present in the region since at least 26 October. Additional 2nd Motorised Division and 4th Tank Division forces were identified moving through the region in the following days and are believed to have deployed to a site close to the northern Ukrainian border between Kursk and Bryansk, but Janes has not been able to identify the site.

In addition to the 1st Guards Tank Army forces in the region, Janes has also identified the deployment of at least a battalion tactical group from the 6th Combined Arms Army's 138th Motorised Brigade equipped with 2S3 self-propelled howitzers (SPHs) and T-72B3 main battle tanks (MBTs) from the Leningrad region to a training ground east of Kursk on 21 November.

Largest garrison in Smolensk region

By far the largest garrison established during this phase of the buildup is based on the grounds of a military base north of the town of Yelnya in the Smolensk region. This equipment, which includes some 700 MBTs, IFVs, and SPHs, as well as Iskander ballistic missile launchers, belongs for the most part to the Central Military District (CMD) units deployed to the Pogonovo training ground during the spring buildup.

These units include elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army's 74th and 35th Motorised Brigades, 120th Artillery Brigade, and 119th Missile Brigade, as well as limited elements of the 90th Tank Division's 6th Tank Regiment.

Since late November, Janes has identified the 41st Combined Arms Army's 55th Motorised Brigade (Mountain) beginning to deploy over 4,000 km from the Tuva region to Yelnya, including the brigade's three Tigr armoured car battalions and elements of its Nona-SVK self-propelled mortar battalion.

Although new equipment is being deployed to Yelnya, it is important to note the majority of the kit seen in satellite imagery of the garrison has been deployed in the Ukrainian border area of operations since the spring.

1st Guards Tank Army task force near Voronezh

Janes analysis of satellite imagery and information gathered from social media has revealed the deployment of a 1st Guards Tank Army task force comprising some 60 MBTs, along with self-propelled and towed artillery and long-range multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) to the Pogonovo training ground south of Voronezh city. The 4th Tank Division has deployed at least 30 T-80U MBTs, 10 BMP-2 IFVs, and four 2S19 MSTA-S SPHs. The 2nd Motorised Division has deployed a further 30 T-72B3 MBTs supported by four 2A65 MSTA-B towed howitzers. The 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defence Regiment has also deployed a TOS-1A thermobaric MRL battery supported by nuclear, biological, and chemical reconnaissance vehicles. Finally, a battery of long-range MRLs – believed to be BM-30 Smerch belonging to the 79th Rocket Artillery Brigade – can also be seen at the training ground.

Satellite imagery reveals only the minimal deployment of troop accommodation to Pogonovo, indicating the presence of a limited number of troops likely present to maintain and protect the vehicles.

The imagery also shows Russian troops have begun modifying the structure of the vehicle stores, building additional dividing walls, indicating the training ground is being prepared for the arrival of additional equipment.

Footage taken at a railway station used to unload equipment bound for Pogonovo and posted on social media on 7 and 8 December indicates these additional deployments have just begun. The footage shows additional 4th Tank Division equipment, including at least 12 2S19 MSTA-S SPHs, Rtut-BM electronic warfare systems, several MBTs, and a Buk-M1-2 air defence battalion equipped with launchers and missile reloads. The deployment of large quantities of air defence missiles is a significant anomaly, as the Pogonovo training ground is not used for live-fire air defence exercises.

In addition to the deployment of forces to Pogonovo, the New York Times , citing a Center for Strategic and International Studies report, reported additional Russian forces have been deployed to a “former warehouse complex” near Pavlovsk in southern Voronezh, a claim Janes has not been able to independently verify.

Concentrating in Crimea

Janes has identified the likely deployment of several new units to the Crimean Peninsula since the start of the October buildup. This includes elements of the 247th Airborne Regiment, at least one 42nd Motorised Division T-72B3 battalion, a Buk-M2 battalion likely from the 90th Air Defence Brigade, and a 34th Motorised Brigade (Mountain) battalion tactical group. Subsequent video footage indicates at least some of this equipment has since returned to its base in the Caucasus mountains.

Janes has identified activity at three sites on the Crimean Peninsula: the Opuk training ground in eastern Crimea, a vehicle store north of the town of Novoozerne in western Crimea, and an airbase in Dzhankoi less than 40 km from Ukraine.

The large vehicle store close to Novoozerne has been present since the spring buildup and has likely hosted equipment belonging to 58th Combined Arms Army formations such as the 19th Motorised Division and 281st Artillery Brigade, which were deployed to Crimea from the Caucasus mountains last spring. Janes identified equipment belonging to these formations on the Crimean Peninsula during the summer (May–August), well after the Russian MoD announced its withdrawal. Recent satellite imagery has revealed the number of vehicles at the site has increased during November and early December.

Satellite imagery from 26 November shows the presence of at least 20 MBTs, 2S19 MTSA-S SPHs, BM-21 Grad MRLs, and armoured vehicles at a camp at the Opuk training ground, revealing that the equipment has been stored at the camp since October. It is unclear what unit this equipment belongs to.

Satellite imagery, also from 26 November, has revealed the establishment of a new camp comprising some 70 vehicles and six tents in the disused revetments of Dzhankoy airbase. Freely available synthetic aperture radar imagery from Sentinel satellites indicates the camp was established sometime between 10 and 14 November and has been expanded since the 26 November imagery was taken.

It is unclear what units have been deployed to the camp at Dzhankoy airbase, but Janes has identified the anomalous presence of at least two Black Sea Fleet BTR-82A IFV motorised battalions – one from the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade and one from the 126th Coastal Defence Brigade – either in Dzhankoy or close to the town since 1 December.

The presence of Black Sea Fleet ground units so close to the Ukrainian border is anomalous and not a typical training location for its forces. Data from Janes OSINT Force Monitor shows Black Sea Fleet ground units typically train at either the Opuk or Adanak training grounds in southern Crimea.

Additional anomalous movements

In addition to the movements detailed above, Janes has also identified the likely activation and westbound transit of the 31st Air Assault Brigade. A train carrying vehicles belonging to the brigade was filmed on 28 November heading west through Volgograd, an estimated 700 km from the formation's base in Ulyanovsk and well outside its normal training area.

A Tigr armoured car battalion from the CMD's 3rd Spetsnaz Brigade has also been identified as active and moving by road out of Samara. The destination for this unit is not known, but the vehicles appear to have travelled by road for at least a week, indicating a long-distance deployment.

The Baltic Fleet has also deployed the Ropucha-class landing ships tanks (LSTs) RFS Minsk and RFS Korolev to the Mediterranean Sea in late November. This movement is particularly notable as a similar deployment was carried out during the spring buildup when the Baltic and Northern Fleets each deployed two LSTs to the Black Sea to bolster the Black Sea Fleet's amphibious landing capability. No similar movement of Northern Fleet forces has been identified by Janes.

Analysis

Russia's military appears to be transporting more difficult-to-move equipment such as tanks and artillery to forward positions and is establishing the capability to deploy troops and logistics elements into position quickly if needed.
 
This enables the deployments to keep a relatively small footprint. They are also less taxing on the troops, who do have to remain in camps over the winter, and it leaves Russia with the capability to react quickly and covertly if it so chooses.
 
With heavy equipment forward deployed, Russia would be able to deploy troops by train or aircraft quickly and covertly. It is significantly harder to detect trains or aircraft carrying only troops than those carrying tanks or large amounts of equipment. The forward deployment of heavy equipment also allows the Russian military to sustain the buildup for much longer.
 
It is unlikely Russia will begin to pull back its forces immediately as a result of Western diplomatic efforts such as the 7 December Biden-Putin virtual summit. Russia has demonstrated its willingness to leave large quantities of equipment out of position for several months over Ukraine and may choose to do the same now, meaning this pressure on Kyiv can essentially become the new normal.

 

 

 

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