Tag: Crimea

Ukraine Repels Russia’s Initial Blitz (What’s Next?)

Russia has failed to break through Ukrainian defenses in Kiyv and Kharkiv, despite successive airborne and armored assaults backed by artillery, since 24 February 2022. The Ukrainian military has significantly…

Russia has failed to break through Ukrainian defenses in Kiyv and Kharkiv, despite successive airborne and armored assaults backed by artillery, since 24 February 2022. The Ukrainian military has significantly decelerated Russia’s offensive and brought it to a near standstill on most fronts. What Vladimir Putin expected to be a blitz is turning into a slow grind for the Russian military. Ukraine’s defenses prove robust, and the military’s willingness to fight is unshattered. 

Military aid from NATO will provide much-needed replenishment for anti-tank, surface-to-air, and air-to-air missiles ahead of a likely beefed-up Russian assault. 

Russia will likely also escalate violence, relax the rules of engagement, and increase the use of heavy artillery like thermobaric munition, cluster submunition, and ultimately, ballistic missiles. The objective will be to break the Ukrainian military’s and population’s will to resist.

FOUR DAYS OF WAR, ONE FAILED BLITZ 

1. The past 100 hours have shown that Russia’s campaign has been governed by overconfidence that Russian forces would move fast and seize key objectives, including Kiyv, and a severe underestimation of the Ukrainian military’s ability and will to fight. Moscow’s buoyancy racked up a hefty bill, which includes thousands of Russian soldiers killed in action and loss of military hardware such as aircraft, artillery, and armored vehicles. Grave symptoms of Russia’s misguided optimism are: 

INABILITY TO ACCEPT FIERCE UKRAINIAN RESISTANCE 

2. Russia’s biggest miscalculation was to doubt Ukraine’s ability and willingness to fight. Russian commanders have likely forecasted an immediate collapse of the Ukrainian military or a chain-surrendering of the units posted on the frontline, similar to Crimea in 2014, facilitating a quick advance on Kiyv. Besieging Kiyv, forcing the Zelensky administration out of office (even through assassination), and installing a pro-Russian government is undoubtedly the main objective of the Russian invasion. 

3. Most Russian war plans seem to have been based on the assumption of weak resistance, which led to poor logistical planning, a “restrained” offensive counter-air (OCA), incomplete suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD), the inability to establish complete air superiority, and ultimately, failure to reach key objectives. 

FAILURE TO SEIZE KIYV AND MAJOR POPULATION CENTERS

4. Four days into the invasion, Russia has not managed to seize and control any of Ukraine’s major population centers, including Kiyv.

KIYV: Ukrainian forces have heroically repelled multiple Russian charges on Kiyv. The Ukrainians fought off at least three major airborne assaults (two on Hostomel airfield, which was ultimately captured, and one on Vasylkiv airbase) and three to five mechanized and/or motorized operations. Russia’s assaults on Kiyv have exclusively come from the northwest as Russian troops have failed to surround the capital thus far. Ukraine’s victories resulted in tactical defeats and massive casualties for Russia’s tip-of-the-spear units, the special operations forces (SOFs), and airborne assault troopers.

Ukraine has also managed to hit deep beyond Russian lines, including with a Bayraktar TB2 and anti-tank ambushes.


CHERNIHIV: Despite several attempts, Russia did not manage to break through Ukrainian defenses at Chernihiv.

KHARKIV: Despite several attempts to encircle Ukraine’s second latest city, Russian forces have failed to besiege or establish a foothold in Kharkiv. Ukrainian defenses repelled all attacks and resisted multiple artillery strikes from across the border. The 1st Guards Tank Army (Western Military District), Russia’s most capable armored formation, is spearheading the Kharkiv operation.

The failed “thunder run” towards downtown Kharkiv by Russian light infantry on 27 February showcased a lack of imagination and quick solutions for breaking Ukraine’s local defenses.

KHERSON: Russian forces were unable to fully control and hold Kherson despite a small incursion. 

RUSSIA DOES NOT HAVE AIR SUPERIORITY

5. Russia has failed to establish complete air superiority over Ukraine. Multiple social media videos from the past days have shown Ukrainian Su-25 attack aircraft, MiG-29 and Su-27 fighter jets, and Mi-24 utility helicopters engaged in operations against Russian forces. The Ukrainian Armed Forces recently released footage showing three separate strikes on Russian positions using Bayraktar TB-2 combat drones. News that NATO (likely Poland) has resupplied Ukraine with air-to-air missiles indicates that more Ukrainian fighter aircraft survived Russia’s pre-assault Offensive Counter Air (OCA) strike. 

Insufficient OCA: While we are still reviewing satellite imagery, our preliminary assessment is that the vast majority of Ukrainian Air Force (UkAF) bases are still operational. As most runways are intact, flight operations can take place. 

Craters and impact points are only visible on tarmacs, indicating that Russia’s missile strikes have damaged and disabled some aircraft. The strikes also destroyed fuel and ammunition storage facilities in annex sites. 

Russia likely planned this outcome. As many analysts have pointed out, Russia probably expected to seize the airfields and use them immediately. Instead of destroying the runways, Russia preferred to render the UkAF fighter jets ineffective by leaving them without fuel and ammunition. 

Nevertheless, this “restrained” OCA has boomeranged on the advancing forces who continue to face aerial bombardments from Ukrainian attack aircraft, helicopters, and drones. 

Unsuccessful Suppression of Air Defenses: Amid continued reports of Ukrainian air defense activity, including the S-300 and Buk-M1, it is highly likely that Russia did not manage to suppress or destroy Ukraine’s defenses completely. These systems are highly mobile. Ukraine probably moved some systems to hideouts to survive “the first day of war.” It is also likely that Ukraine baited Russian missiles with dummy targets, even radar-emission-rich, to improve the survivability of its air defenses. 

POOR LOGISTICAL PLANNING

6. Another key symptom of Russia’s overconfidence is the derelict logistical situation of its troops in Ukraine. There are reports that Russian soldiers lack fuel and food and therefore have to source resources locally. This does not come as a surprise, as the Ukrainian military has scored big hits on Russian supply lines, destroying scores of fuel trucks and utility vehicles lagging behind assault troops. In “blitz” offensives, the infantry pushes forward towards the objective, leaving the logistical units behind in a highly vulnerable position. If the logistical support units are destroyed, the assault becomes unsustainable despite significant territorial gains of the advancing force.

One iconic video shows a conversation between the crew of a stranded Russian armored personnel carrier that ran out of fuel and a Ukrainian citizen. 

Another video shows Russian soldiers looting a convenience store in Kharkiv. 

Expecting a “blitz” offensive with a quick victory, Russian commanders possibly ignored the need to ensure a steady stream of supplies. 

FRUSTRATION & ESCALATION: WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR

NORTH-EAST AXIS OF ATTACK COULD SPELL DOOM FOR KIYV

7. A Russian breakthrough on the Chernihiv-Hulkhiv-Sumy frontline could mark the beginning of the end for Kiyv. If these forces are freed up and reach the capital, the Russian military could surround Kiyv. Thus far, the Ukrainian army has managed to keep the Russian advance from southeastern Belarus, Yelnya and Kursk, in check. However, this is an area of operations that require close attention 

AVOID CITIES, RACE FOR KIYV

8. There are reports that Russian forces have been ordered to bypass regional cities and race towards Kiyv. A rush for Kiyv would leave the flanks and rear of the Russian columns extremely exposed to Ukrainian attacks, but the pay-off would be huge. A multi-axis convergence on the capital would very likely break the capital’s defenses. The presence of Russian troops beyond cities that they have not captured, such as Chernihiv and Kharkiv, are clear indicators of a rush for Kiyv. 

COUNTER-LOGISTICS OPERATIONS IN WESTERN UKRAINE

9. Stopping the flow of ATGMs and MANPADs from NATO to Ukraine will become a priority for the Russian military in the coming days. Small teams of Russian Special Operations Forces (SOFs) will likely infiltrate to interdict Ukraine’s supply lines from Poland. They will recon Ukraine’s supply routes and storage and distribution hubs and pass on intelligence for air or artillery strikes. Russian SOFs could also provide terminal guidance for RuAF strikes, especially in the case of precision-guided munitions. It is also possible that Russian SOFs could take matters into their own hands and seek to destroy munition transports. 

Renewed Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s western airfields, or even attempts to shoot down cargo jets are likely also on the table, as a way to disrupt Ukraine’s logistical connection with NATO. 

TROOP & VIOLENCE ESCALATION

10. As Russia becomes frustrated with the Ukrainian resistance, it will likely ease rules of engagements (ROE) and phase in more heavy artillery strikes on populated centers. In such a calculus, we would see widespread use of ballistic missiles (BMs), including the Iskander systems, which have been forward-positioned along Ukraine’s borders for weeks. Mounting evidence suggests that Russia has already launched BMs from Belarus, some of them impacting Zhytomyr airfield and Chernihiv. 

11. Russia will likely allocate more forces to the offensive. Currently, only 50 to 70 percent of the troops amassed around Ukraine are engaged in the offensive. As more Russian troops from staging grounds in southern Belarus, Yelnya, Kursk, Voronezh-Belgorod, and Crimea cross the border, Russia will need to rebuild its reserve force. An indicator of this will come in the form of eyewitness videos from Russia showing new troop movements or mobilizations, as we have recently seen with the Chechens. A higher troop count (over 200,000 soldiers) combined with overwhelming artillery and missile strikes is likely Putin’s ultimate bet to break Ukraine’s will to fight.


by HARM

editing by Gecko

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Mother of All Bear Scares: Russia Amasses Forces for a Multi-Axis Attack on Ukraine

KEY JUDGEMENTS I. The Russian military build-up around Ukraine is designed for combat operations and not a show of force (“bear scare”). Our estimates are based on the unprecedented scale…

KEY JUDGEMENTS

I. The Russian military build-up around Ukraine is designed for combat operations and not a show of force (“bear scare”). Our estimates are based on the unprecedented scale of Russia’s military build-up, the force composition in terms of capabilities, credible logistics, and increased operations security. 

II. President Putin’s intentions remain unclear, but a military operation against Ukraine is moderately likely. The hypothetical campaign will likely be punitive, target Kyiv or Kharkiv, and seek to install or facilitate the emergence of a Russian-friendly “salvation” government. 

III. Moscow’s diplomatic campaign around the build-up serves the informational offensive against NATO. Russia does not seek a political settlement to the current tensions and is well aware that its maximalist demands are non-starters for the West. However, these political talking points serve to shift the blame for the current tensions on the so-called “NATO expansion.” 

IV. Only the threat of massive economic sanctions can alter Russia’s war plans. Ironically, NATO’s most unreliable member, Germany, holds the biggest financial leverage against Russia. Ukraine’s growing stockpile of ATGMs will be critical to slow down an armored assault and impose costs on an aggressor but have no strategic value.


READY FOR COMBAT

UNPRECEDENTED BUILD-UP

1. Russia has amassed around 100,000 troops, organized in 50 to 60 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs*), in five areas bordering Ukraine. The mobilized force represents roughly 30% of Russia’s 168 BTGs. This is the largest Russian build-up in modern history, far exceeding the number of BTGs deployed to annex Crimea (approx. four) and subsequent offensives in Donbas (five to eight). 

A substantial part of the BTGs deployed around Ukraine consist of equipment without personnel. However, Russian General Staff can deploy forces to man the equipment at a moment’s notice, especially using airlift capabilities (as recently demonstrated in Kazakhstan). In addition, a large portion of the troops has been permanently based near the Ukrainian border since 2021 or earlier. 

*BTGs are temporary operational formations of infantry battalions and attached artillery, air defense, engineering, and logistics support units for combat operations, as part of motor rifle and tank brigades. Air assault units, special operations forces, and other echelons can also be attached to a BTG. 

*Estimates on BTG posture: Ukrainian military intelligence estimates of 40 BTGs from late-November 2021 serve as a baseline layer (now dated and exceeded), followed by personal approximations in January, and most importantly, taking into account more precise calculations from Rochan Consulting (54 on 17 January 2022) and Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at CNA (55-60 on 15 January 2022).

Overview of Russian military build around Ukraine. Note that the map is slightly outdated and does not show the units recently amassed in southern Belarus. (source: New York Times)

2. Four out of five Russian military districts have provided units for the build-up, including four field armies from the Eastern Military District (EMD), which are heading towards Belarus for the first time. The level and scope of cross-theater deployments are out of the ordinary and represent a significant logistical strain on the Russian military.

3. Russia’s build-up continues to escalate in scope and complexity. Ongoing troop movements to reinforce established positions, deployments of advanced weapons capabilities like Iskander short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), and opening a new front in southern Belarus underscores the continuity of the operation. US intelligence estimates that the Russian build-up will ultimately amount to 175,000 troops/100 BTGs.


LOGISTICAL PREPARATIONS

4. The flow of logistical units and equipment to Ukraine’s border is the clearest indicator of a build-up with the intention of combat, apart from the unprecedented manpower involved. Eyewitness footage on social media has documented the westward movement of Russian fuel tankers, bridging/pontoon equipment, recovery truckstransloaders, and other utility vehicles on railcars from late October to mid-December 2021.  

5. Logistical movements have re-intensified between January 15-20, 2022, despite a slowdown in the previous month. Railcars now mostly service routes from Siberia, delivering EMD hardware and personnel, to southern Belarus. These transports can be subject to delays caused by bad weather, mechanical issues, or other obstacles that arise on long-term deployments.  

6. Russia’s logistical capacity around Ukraine is difficult to estimate at this point. The most recent authoritative estimate comes from a U.S. government source (quoted by CNN on 3 December 2021): “current levels of equipment stationed in the area could supply frontline forces for seven to 10 days and other support units for as long as a month.” Russia’s current logistical capacity is now likely more extensive than in December. 

7. Russia’s logistical build-up is likely incomplete and will certainly continue at least until February 10-20, when joint exercises will take place in Belarus. With no “Z-Day” in sight, troop movements and supplies will probably continue beyond February – if not to boost to sustain the Russian military capacity. A CITEAM social media analysis found that most soldiers are expected to be deployed for two to seven or even nine months. 

While unnecessary for a show of force, logistics are a prerequisite for military operations. Tanks cannot move without fuel from tankers; soldiers cannot receive food and ammunition without utility trucks supplying the frontline; combat injuries must be treated in field hospitals. 

EFFORTS TO CONCEAL

8. Unlike during previous “bear scares,” Russia has made significant efforts to conceal the troop movements and boost operations security (OPSEC). Countermeasures include nighttime movements, blacking out unit markings, covering equipment, disrupting online tracking methods (such as railcar databases), and dispersing staging areas in smaller formations. This behavior starkly contrasts the build-up in March and April 2021, when the Russian posturing was overt and demonstrative.


FIVE OPERATIONAL DIRECTIONS (OD)

9. Russia has positioned its forces along five axes of attacks, or operational directions (OD)*, around Ukraine: Belarus, Yelnya, Orlov-Voronezh, Don, and Crimea. The following is a short account** of Russian troop dispositions in the five ODs, their relevance, and possible objectives. 

Map shows the Ukraine military intelligence assessment of possible Russian attacks paths (source: Ukrainian military/Military Times)

*axis of attack launched from a given staging area, as seen in a Ukrainian Military Intelligence map released in a Military Times interview November 2021. 

**For an extensive and detailed overview of the Russian order of battle in these areas, please refer to Rochan Consulting’s Tracker, from which most of this data is drawn. 

BELARUS OD

a. The latest and most important piece of the jigsaw puzzle assembled around Ukraine. OD Belarus brings Kiyv within striking distance of Iskander-M SRBMs. Due to its proximity to the capital (150-200 km), OD Belarus can serve as a springboard for an offensive on Kiyv. 

b. Currently, there are seven to ten BTGs in Belarus, mainly from the EMD, according to Rochan Consulting. Russian infantry and mechanized units have been documented arriving in large numbers in Mazyr, Recyca, Gomel, Yelsk (18 km from UKR border), and the surroundings. 

c. Troop movements towards Belarus began sometime in early January and are escalating. A Su-35 squadron has left its homebase inKomsomolsk-on-Amur (near the Sea of Japan), and will soon touch down in Belarus.  Two S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems will follow shortly. Iskander SRBMs are also reportedly joining the party.

YELNIA OD

 a. The forces headquartered and amassed around Yelnya could support OD Belarus and OD Orlov-Voronezh with reinforcements or open a new axis of attack to stretch UKR forces thin in the north. Around four to eight BTGs are based in OD Yelnya, with many units assuming positions close to the tri-border with Belarus and Ukraine at Klintsy. With the influx of an Iskander battalion (approx. 24 missiles) from the 119th Missile Brigade, and various multiple rocket launcher systems (MRLS), OD Yelnya also packs firepower with range to strike Kiyv. 

Russian military presence at a staging ground near Yelnya. Image captured on 19 January 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

ORLOV-VORONEZH OD

b. Established during the initial build-up in March and April 2021, these forces pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and the adjacent areas. There are likely at least twelve BTGs concentrated between Orlov and Voronezh, and these forces have been kept at high readiness through drills simulating nighttime assault and artillery support. 

Pogonovo training ground. Imagery captured on 16 January 2022 by Maxar Technologies

c. Pogonovo and Krynitsa training grounds are the epicenters of the manpower concentration in this OD. Since last year’s “bear scare,” Pogonovo has been exceptionally well documented via satellite imagery (see our analysis) and remains an area of primary concern (see Rochan Consulting’s GEOINT analysis). The forces and equipment at the two staging grounds augment the formidable 20th Combined Arms Army (CAA) headquartered in Voronezh. 

d. In the past weeks, units in this OD have inched increasingly closer to Ukraine’s border. Satellite imagery from December 2021 shows an increase in military hardware in Valyuki/Soloti, just 15 km from the Ukrainian border. Similar activities have been noted in Baguchar (80 km), amounting to a worrying trend. 

DON OD

a. Over 15 BTGs inhabit the areas between Rostov-on-Don and Ndvocherkassk. Their potential role will be to rendezvous with Russian forces stationed in eastern Ukraine to strengthen local defenses or help mount an offensive in depth. Hypothetical offensive operations will likely seek a breakthrough in Mariupol followed by a march along the Azov coastline. Don OD could also eye the Dnieper river valley, especially in a joint operation with splinter formations from Orlov-Voronezh OD. 

CRIMEAN OD

a. This OD could open no less than three axes of attacks on Ukraine’s coastline. An amphibious assault launched from Crimea’s western coast would target Odessa and the adjacent littoral. Once ashore, these forces could link up with the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) from the Transdnister breakaway republic coming from the west. The lower section of the Dnieper valley (North Crimean canal) is another realistic, although overstated, target. Together with Don OD, Crimea-based forces would likely also attempt a pincer movement on the Melitopol-Mariupol axis. 

b. Russia has simulated almost all of these attack scenarios during the military build-up in March and April 2021, during which new BTGs assumed permanent stations in Crimea, bringing the total count to at least 12 BTGs. Back then, the main event was a major amphibious assault on the Opuk training range, which we documented in this analysis. Air and infantry assaults around Dzankhoi and other areas in northern Crimea were also noteworthy. 

c. Naval movements are also underway, with a task force comprising of Baltic Fleet and North Fleet vessels (including three Ropucha-class landing ships) heading towards the Mediterranean Sea to link up with Pacific Fleet ships for joint exercises. There are fears that at least a part of the maritime task force will enter the Black Sea. 


INTENTIONS & AIMS

10. Russia’s intentions remain unclear, but we judge the likelihood of direct action high with a 55 to 60% confidence level. Our estimates are based on the build-up’s unprecedented scope and credible composition, including the multi-axis posturing and the unachievable, maximalist political demands of Russian diplomacy. 

11. It is unknown how the hypothetical military operation will look. While the Russian military is positioned for a multi-axis assault, it will not necessarily follow the apparent blueprint. Russia might seek to activate only one OD, such as Belarus or Voronezh, a combination of them, or all. Attacks could be simultaneous or gradual and will fluctuate based on the situation on the ground. 

12. The hypothetical campaign will likely be punitive, target Kyiv or Kharkiv, and seek to install or facilitate the emergence of a Russian-friendly “salvation” government. Such an operation would be akin to the 2008 Georgian campaign, where Russia did not seek to annex territory but to force the government into submission. Rob Lee put forward a similar hypothesis in an extensive article here

13. There is also a high possibility (40 to 45%) that no military operation will occur, yet heightened tensions will persist. The build-up could proceed and even escalate, but hold out for months. As a result, more units will permanently or semi-permanently entrench near Ukraine, waiting to achieve strategic surprise later. The payoff could come even seven months into the future. Alternatively, a significant amount of forces could pack up and return to their home base at any given moment. 

14. Russian President Vladimir Putin will make the final decision. While “Kremlinologists” have long tried to interpret the thoughts of Kremlin leadership, nobody knows Putin’s calculus. He has likely committed to one or several courses of action, hence the comprehensive preparation, but the final order has not been signed and issued. 


RUSSIAN MOTIVATIONS

FEARS OF IMPENDING UKRAINIAN OFFENSIVES IN DONBAS

15. The key driver of this build-up is the perceived threat of a Ukrainian offensive to recapture Donetsk and Luhansk and the increased anti-Russian narratives of the Zelensky administration. Past events (see below) might have forced Russia to consider that the current democratic order will not generate a pro-Russian government in Kiyv. Recapturing Donbas and pursuing NATO membership will remain a top priority of all upcoming cabinets.

a. THE DRONE STRIKE: On 26 October 2021, a Ukrainian Bayraktar TB-2 drone bombed a Russian artillery position in Luhansk. The artillery system had passed the withdrawal line of the Minsk agreement and shelled Ukrainian positions. This was the first Ukrainian airstrike on a Russian position and arguably Kiyv’s most hawkish action in years. Russia reacted by resuming and escalating the build-up of March to April 2021, leading to what we see today. 

b. THE PERCEIVED UKRAINIAN BUILD UP: Between late 2020 and early 2021, a string of videos online apparently showed Ukrainian tanks on railcars rushing towards eastern Ukraine. Whether this was a build-up or just a rotation of the forces stationed near the frontline remains unclear. However, Russia decried the troop movements as preparation for an offensive in Donbas. In retaliation, Russia escalated the conflict in Donbas and initiated the build-up of March and April 2021. 

c. ZELENSKY TURNS HAWKISH: Ukrainian President Zelensky initially adopted a de-escalatory agenda regarding Donbas and pursued peace talks with Russia. By 2020, it became apparent that Russia had no interest in entering negotiations with Ukraine until non-starter demands, such as Ukraine renouncing NATO membership and sovereignty over Donbas, were met. As Zelensky’s dovish strategy failed to bear fruit, his public approval started plummeting. As a result, he adopted a more hawkish demeanour, taking action against Russian-backed opposition, seeking to re-energize ties with NATO, and invigorating Ukrainian aspirations in Donbas. Russia took note of the change of tone and started viewing Zelensky as a problem. 

SECONDARY CONSIDERATIONS

16. Modernization and growing capabilities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces render Kyiv an increasingly potent adversary. Tactical assets like the Bayraktar drones and Javelin anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) cannot generate strategic advantages, but ballistic missiles and cruise missiles can – if stockpiled in high enough numbers. Ukraine is currently developing the Hrim SRBM (with covert funding from Saudi Arabia) and Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles. These two assets can pose a credible threat to Russian critical infrastructure, command and control centers, and population centers, raising the cost of aggression for Moscow. Other programs such as unit reform or NATO training and standardization will also improve Ukrainian combat effectiveness. 

17. NATO Reconnaissance sorties over Ukraine keeping a watchful eye on nefarious Russian activity. Russian officials have publicly decried the constant sorties of NATO reconnaissance aircraft tracking their movements in Donbas and the Black Sea. American Global Hawk drones, P-8A Poseidons, various RC-135s and various other ISR aircraft patrol the region daily and could provide early warning of a Russian invasion and expose the movements. 

18. Growing defense ties between Ukraine and individual NATO members. Similarly, Russia is unhappy with the maturing defense ties between Ukraine and various NATO members, especially the United Kingdom. Ukraine and the United Kingdom have signed a defense agreement in mid-2021, which was followed by a significant incident at sea involving the HMS Defender and a Russian naval task force (see our analysis on the topic). While Ukrainian NATO membership remains impossible at this point, Russia is taking note that individual NATO members are coming to Kiyv’s aid. 


DIPLOMACY: THE INFORMATIONAL COMPONENT

19. Moscow’s diplomatic campaign around the build-up serves the informational offensive against NATO. Leveraging nonmilitary means, namely political and information warfare, is a tenet of the Russian General Staff’s approach to “new generation warfare.” Russia’s official demands include guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO, the withdrawal of NATO troops from Romania and Bulgaria, the decommissioning of the Ballistic Missile Defense system in Deveselu (Romania), and others. Russia does not seek a political settlement to the current tensions and is well aware that its maximalist demands are non-starters for the West. However, these political talking points serve to shift the blame for the current tensions on the so-called “NATO expansion.” 

20. Western interactions with Russia’s false demands played into the Kremlin’s hands. Imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny has perhaps captured the situation best in a TIME interview: “Instead of ignoring this nonsense, the U.S. accepts Putin’s agenda and runs to organize some meetings. Just like a frightened schoolboy who’s been bullied by an upperclassman.” Western diplomats should have rejected this rhetoric and brought the conversation back to the reality on the ground – the 100,000 Russian troops positioned to swallow Ukraine. 


MEASURES TO DISCOURAGE ATTACKS & PALLIATIVES FOR THE DAY AFTER

21. Only the threat of massive economic sanctions can alter Russia’s war plans. Ironically, NATO’s most unreliable member, Germany, holds the biggest financial leverage against Russia. Nothing would deter a Russian invasion more than a credible threat from Berlin to terminate the North Stream 2 project. Perhaps equally important would be a concerted effort to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT payment system. American and EU targeted sanctions on Russian oligarchs will not affect military plans. 

22. Wholesale transfers of tactical military equipment to the Ukrainian Armed Forces are necessary palliatives but do not deter a Russian invasion. Ukraine received over 1,000 NLAW ATGMs from the United Kingdom in the past few days. The British NLAWs will significantly boost Ukraine’s ATGM inventory, consisting of around 400 Javelins received from the United States, first under Trump (2017; 2018), then Biden (2020; 2021). Estonia will also deliver an unknown number of Javelins while Latvia and and Lithuania will donated Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missile systems (MANPADs) to Ukraine, in the next days. 

Ukraine’s growing stockpile of ATGMs will be critical to slow down an armored assault and impose costs on an aggressor but have no strategic value. Russia has likely already devised tactics to mitigate the ATGM threat using long-range fires, drone-directed artillery, and airstrikes, drawing from lessons learned in Syria. Alternatively, sabotage behind enemy lines is another course of action that Russia could take – and has likely already taken – to compromise ammunition depots.

NATO states should continue delivering military aid to Ukraine. The care packages should consist exclusively of easy-to-use equipment which can be quickly absorbed by the Ukrainian military and not require extensive training or high maintenance. 


by HARM 

editing by Gecko

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

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Putin’s Mercenaries on Tour: Mapping the Wagner Group’s Global Activities

Key Judgements Since its inception in 2014-2015, the Wagner group has expanded from a frontline contractor in Eastern Ukraine, to spearheading Russia’s foreign policy and private business objectives in Syria,…

Key Judgements

  1. Since its inception in 2014-2015, the Wagner group has expanded from a frontline contractor in Eastern Ukraine, to spearheading Russia’s foreign policy and private business objectives in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and many other states. As Wagner’s reach is constantly expanding, our mapping project aims to filter through speculation and leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT) to track Wagner’s presence and activity worldwide.
  2. The Wagner group, such as it is, does not exist as a traditional PMC but as an interconnected network of mercenary groups, semi-state forces, and corporations with links to the Kremlin. As a result, Wagner’s activities are very difficult to track and categorize.
  3. If left unchecked, the Wagner group will very likely remain an effective and transient tool of the Russian security apparatus, combining aspects of state forces, private military companies, and paramilitaries. Wagner activities will likely continue to be equally focused on supporting Russian private business interests as foreign policy objectives.

DENIED AND DENIABLE: WAGNER GROUP

“Wagner Group” is an umbrella term that refers to the network of mercenary groups with ties to the Kremlin and controlled by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner Group is used to advance Russia’s foreign policy objectives with a modicum of plausible deniability, as no such group formally exists and is denied by Russian officials. 

Utilized in everything from disinformation to site protection and offensive combat operations, the Wagner Group escapes conventional definitions of Private Military Companies (PMC) and has become increasingly active globally. 

Wagner PMC is known to operate under different names and structures, often related to mining, or military training, further obscuring the group’s activities. Existing literature focuses on the debates over Wagner’s functionality, goals, history, and even its very existence. However, limited attention has been directed towards the breadth of the network’s global activities. Herein we identify the locations of Wagner activity worldwide based on open-source reporting and assess the likelihood that Wagner is indeed active in each country.

A few things to understand before discussing the so-called Wagner group’s activities worldwide:

  • Due to the vague nature of the Wagner network and often imprecise and conflicting online reporting, much of the group’s activity cannot be identified with 100% certainty. Here we have opted to categorize Wagner activity as: Confirmed, Likely, Possible, and Unlikely.
  • It is important to note that beyond PMC Wagner, several other Russian PMCs remain active. It is possible to misidentify these PMCs as Wagner, especially with vague and unverified reports.

ACTIVITY LOG: TRACKING WAGNER’S GLOBAL REACH

Russia/At Home:

Like any PMC or military entity, Wagner trains its contractors before departing on missions. Supported by Russian military and intelligence personnel, Wagner conducts training at two locations attached to the 10th Special Mission Brigade of GRU Spetsnaz in Mol’kino, Krasnodar region, Russia. These facilities feature airborne training and obstacle courses, weapons and munitions storage buildings, and barracks, among others. 

Area view of military facilities near Mol’kino as first identified by CSIS (base imagery: Maxar Technologies)

Presumed Wagner training facility as first identified by CSIS (base image: Maxar Technologies)


Ukraine:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided the impetus for the creation of the Wagner group. Wagner mercenaries were instrumental in numerous battles throughout the conflict, notably in Crimea and later the Donbas region. Donbas war veterans formed the foundation of Wagner’s ranks, and the group continues to recruit from Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.  

Estimates put the number of Wagner operators in Ukraine anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 at their peak, operating in support, intelligence, and direct combat roles. Wagner mercenaries were pivotal in the battles for Luhansk airport and in the seizure of the strategic town of Debaltseve in Donetsk oblast.

Activity Status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence


Syria:

Wagner has been active in the Syrian civil war in support of President Al-Assad’s government since October 2015. Taking part in numerous battles in key roles, Wagner has been able to win a stake in the country’s energy industry for companies linked to Prigozhin and the Kremlin. 

Estimates place the number of Wagner operatives as high as 2000 at different points in the Syrian civil war. Wagner also involved in the training of various Syrian millitias groups loyal to Bashar al-Assad, and Palestinian militias. By 2017, Wagner had already played a key role in recapturing parts of Deir ez-Zor province. In February 2018, Wagner contractors alongside Iranian-backed militias and Syria army units, attempted to capture an oil field from the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Swift U.S. airstrikes obliterated the Wagner attack, resulting in massive casualties for the Russian mercenaries (some estimate over 100 Wagner KIA). 

Wagner maintains a presence at the strategically important Tiyas airfield (T-4) and in central and eastern Syria. In addition to supporting Russian foreign policy goals, Syria served as an important proving ground for the use of Wagner, leading to the PMC’s global deployment. 

Activity Status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Libya:

Numbering in the thousands, Wagner mercenaries have been omnipresent in the Libyan conflict since 2015. Wagner operatives served in critical frontline roles supporting General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord. 

Wagner contractors trained LNA forces, engaged in combat operations, including the assault on Tripoli, and secured the LNA’s critical infrastructure (oil refineries and the ports of Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, and Sirte). Wagner is also notorious for executing prisoners and placing mines and booby-traps in civilian areas

Presumed Wagner contractors in Libya

Wagner affiliated personnel also pilot Russian fighter aircraft (e.g. Su-24 “Fencer”) and operate advanced air defense systems (Patnsir S-1/SA-22) on behalf of the LNA. Wagner infantry in Libya are equipped with utility trucks mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles.The east Libyan al-Kahdim airfield is likely Wagner’s headquarters in the country.

US AFRICOM GEOINT shows Wagner aircraft and anti-air systems displayed at Al-Khadim airfield in eastern Libya

USAFRICOM GEOINT shows Wagner infantry near Sirte

The group continues to be engaged in the Libyan Civil War despite ceasefire agreements necessitating the removal of foreign fighters. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Mozambique:

Two years into the bloody ISIS-linked insurgency in Mozambique’s northern region of Cabo Delgado, the government reached an agreement with Wagner to combat the insurgents in exchange for a stake in the country’s natural resource industries. Wagner commenced combat operations in Mozambique in October 2019. After initial success Wagner hit a wall and sustained notable casualties, leading to Wagner deciding to pull out of the agreement. Wagner was later replaced by Dyck Advisory Group (DAG).

Activity status: Confirmed – No longer present.


Central African Republic:

In early 2018 reports highlighted that Russia had sent Wagner trainers to the CAR to assist in the government’s fight against rebel elements. Despite the fact that the Wagner operatives were brought in for training, SOCMINT evidence suggests that the contractors have been involved in combat and human rights abuses. Wagner group affiliates/fronts “Lobaye Invest” and “Sewa Security” have secured a stake in the country’s diamond and gold mining industries in exchange for kinetic services. 

Satellite imagery shows increased use of the group’s reported base of operations, Berengo Palace. Located southwest of the capital of Bangui, satellite imagery highlights increased traffic and what appears to be the use of an airstrip. 

GEOINT: Vagner PMC barracks near Bangui (Analysis by T-Intelligence; imagery courtesy of Planet Inc.)

Operating under the “SEWA Security” banner or with no markings at all, Wagner has also provided VIP protection to CAR President Touadera.

A member of the close protection unit for Central African republic President Touadera, composed by Russian private security company operatives from Sewa Security, are seen in Berengo on August 4, 2018.(Photo by FLORENT VERGNES / AFP via Getty Images)

To learn more about Wagner activities in CAR, read our early report on Wagner’s growing presence, and our analysis of Russia’s troop surge ahead of 2021 CAR presidential elections. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Growing presence.


Sudan:

Reports from 2017 indicate that Wagner mercenaries had been redeployed from Ukraine and Syria to support President Omar al-Bashir’s military with training and aid in suppressing demonstrations. Wagner-affiliated companies “Meroe Gold” and “M Invest” search for gold in the country with permission from al-Bashir’s government. Wagner’s presence in Sudan also reinforces Russia’s geopolitical position with a significant presence along the coast of the Red Sea and provides a supply line to the group’s operations in CAR. The Kremlin confirmed in 2019 that “Russian companies” are training the Sudanese army. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Continued presence.


Madagascar:

Wagner provided security detail to the political strategists hired by Prigozhin to assist the Madagascarian presidential election in 2018. Prigozhin received a contract to run an existing chromite mine in Madagascar in exchange for electoral assistance and interference. In April of the same year, reports suggest that these same Wagner contractors are being used to protect Prigozhin’s exploitation projects. 

Activity status: Confirmed – Very limited continued presence.


Venezuela:

Wagner contractors were brought in to assist embattled President Maduro in the face of political and social opposition in 2019. Reports suggest that Wagner contractors assisted in providing security for Maduro and his administration, as well as local Russian business interests. In 2019 there were reportedly 400 Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. 

Wagner’s tasks beyond simple security roles included recruiting informants and helping to train Maduro-backed militias. Wagner’s presence is heavily tied to Russian geopolitical and economic interests in the country. In 2020, Rosneft, the largest Russian oil company in Venezuela, sold all its assets to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government, further solidifying Moscow’s interests.

Activity status: Confirmed – Limited continued presence.


Nigeria:

Pre-Wagner affiliate Moran Security Group was known to be active in security roles in the shipping industry. Moran contractors were arrested at the port of Lagos in October 2012 for trafficking weapons. However, after Moscow’s involvement, the men were released.  

Moran Security Group created the Slavonic Corps to branch away from its traditional security roles, which later morphed into the first iteration of the Wagner Group. 

Recently reports have emerged that Prigozhin has been spotted in Lagos meeting with the Nigerian government and military officials, including with Nigerian Army Chief of Staff Farouk Yaha, in 2021. Prigozhin’s alleged meeting in Lagos coincides with a Gulfstream G550 flight to Nigera, namely P4-BAR – an aircraft associated with Wagner. 

The meetings are likely connected with the fight against ISIS-affiliate Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. 

Activity status: Possible – Discussions about bringing in the Wagner group appear to be underway, although Nigeria has made noted use of more traditional PMCs.


Chad:

Wagner’s well-documented activity in CAR and Libya has led to speculation that Russian mercenaries have also penetrated neighboring Chad. Further reports suggest that Wagner has assisted in arming and training rebel groups in northern Chad in 2016. Rebel incursions lead to the death of Chadian President Idriss Deby Into.

Wagner-linked activities in Chad will likely intensify due to the group’s heavy presence in Libya and Russia’s growing interest in Africa. 

Activity status: Likely – Contemporary reports of Wagner indirect influence coupled with Russian interest in the region suggest likely further activity in Chad.


Cuba:

Amid the political upheaval in Cuba, OSINT enthusiasts have tracked flights and a freighter previously associated with the Wagner group to the country. Given Moscow’s traditional relationship with Cuba, the state of upheaval, and Wagner’s noted presence in Venezuela, we may see Wagner’s arrival in the coming weeks or months.

Activity status: Likely – Though not currently active, Wagner personnel will likely arrive in the country.


Mali:

While there are unverified reports of Wagner operatives arriving in Mali to fight the ISIS-linked insurgency, recent reports highlight ongoing negotiations for Wagner involvement in Mali. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov further corroborates these reports by stating that Mali’s government has asked for “Russian PMC” assistance – a clear nod to Wagner. 

Activity status: Likely – discussions are ongoing.


United Arab Emirates 

The US intelligence community received reports in the summer of 2020 that provided links between the UAE and Wagner mercenaries active in Libya. As the UAE makes noted use of foreign fighters it is unsurprising to see the UAE turning to foreign mercenaries for foreign policy objectives. This provides an interesting precedent for both the UAE and Wagner.

Activity Status: Likely – Indirectly, evidence suggests the UAE is involved financially with the Wagner network.


Equatorial Guinea:

Sightings of Prigozhin-associated flights and multiple news reports indicate a nascent Wagner presence in the country. Furthermore, a report suggests that some 200 Wagner operatives protect Russian intelligence officials at the Pico Basile Island spy base.

Latest information indicate that Equatorial Guinea had planned to involve Wagner in providing security in the country, but failed to reach a deal as it also wanted possible assistance in a coup against the incumbent President. 

Activity status: Possible – Numerous unverified reports naming Guinea as a state where Wagner has influence. However, the lack of evidence or corroborating reports makes it unclear. 


Nicaragua:

A Russian training center exists in Nicaragua since 2013, hundreds of Russian military personnel were sent to the country for “joint military exercises,” “humanitarian and military operations training,” and “anti-drug trafficking.” However, reports suggest that these “instructors” played a significant role in cracking down on anti-government protests. 

The Russian military personnel are not thought to be affiliated directly with the Wagner group at this time. However, as Russia continues to rely on relationships with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua for a geopolitical foothold in the region, the Kremlin might insert Wagner in the country, if not already. 

Activity status: Unconfirmed but possible – No explicit link identified, but numerous linkages have been highlighted. Nicaragua’s operational environment is optimal for Wagner activity.


Iraq:

No direct involvement of Wagner or Wagner affiliates has been noted in Iraq at this time. The Wagner group has previously been highly active in eastern Syria near key Iraq border crossings but there is no indication that Wagner undertook operations across the frontier. 

Other Russian PMCs, including the Antiterror-Orel Group and the Moran group, linked to Wagner’s emergence, had previously operated in Iraq.  

Activity status: Unlikely – Wagner might emerge in Iraq if the operational environment becomes more permissive due to a US/NATO withdrawal. 


Nagorno-Karabakh Region (NKR):

Chatter emerged from forums and social media accounts associated with Wagner contractors insinuating that the group was operating in the conflict, these claims were eventually disproven by Bellingcat. 

Displeased with Armenian PM Pashynian, Russia has been unusually detached from the flare-up in NKR, and only stepped in after the formal conclusion of hostilities in December 2020. If secretly deployed, it is possible that Wagner mercenaries only entered NKR as part of Russia’s “peacekeeping force.” 

Activity status: Unknown


Belarus:

In July 2020, before the country’s presidential election, Belarussian authorities arrested 33 Wagner-linked contractors on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks to destabilize the elections. Reports later came to light that the men were members of a PMC lured to Belarus through a joint operation by Ukrainian and US intelligence services intended to arrest members of the Wagner group active in the war in eastern Ukraine – former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko seemingly confirms the information. 

Activity status: Unlikely – Wagner is extremely unlikely to be active in Belarus, more likely to be in transit to Libya, Sudan, CAR or elsewhere.


Tanzania:

Russia and Tanzania signed an agreement in 2016 for joint military training at Russian facilities. While Wagner often fills these roles for the Kremlin, no evidence suggests they are active in Tanzania at this time. Previous activity along Tanzania’s southern border with Mozambique is not thought to have spilled over into the country.

Activity Status: Unlikely – Russian military activity does not always translate to Wagner presence, especially when overt agreements are made between the state. 


South Africa:

There is no evidence to suggest a Wagner presence in South Africa; however Prigozhin-linked political strategists have assisted parties involved in the 2019 presidential election. 

Activity status: Unlikely –The presence of numerous South African-based PMCs means mercenary activity is unlikely. Though Prigozhin-linked political strategists are very likely to maintain a presence.


Inconclusive Reports of Wagner Activity:

The following highlights inconclusive reports of Wagner activity, due to lack of evidence or corroborating reports.

  • Eswatini: Unverified reports suggest Wagner maintains a presence in the country and has trained Ewatini’s troops on new weapons systems.
  • Rwanda: Rwandan troops fought against Rebels in  CAR as part of a bilateral agreement alongside Wagner elements.
  • Yemen: Rumors and social media reports indicate that a “Russian PMC” is active in the Yemeni Civil War. However, there is no credible report naming Wagner. Wagner-trained Sudanese militias have, however, deployed and fought in Yemen. 
  • Zimbabwe: Nondescript reports have claimed that Wagner maintains an office in the country. Additionally, there have been claims that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s 2018 election campaign was assisted by Russian political advisors associated with Wagner.

END NOTE: This tracker will be periodically updated as new open-source information emerge relating to Wagner activity. 

by Matt Sutherland 

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

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Operation Ditroite: The HMS Defender Incident Explained

Last week, the Black Sea became the latest theatre upon which tensions flared between the United Kingdom and Russia. On June 23, the British Royal Navy’s Type-45 HMS Defender entered…

Last week, the Black Sea became the latest theatre upon which tensions flared between the United Kingdom and Russia. On June 23, the British Royal Navy’s Type-45 HMS Defender entered contested waters off the Crimean Peninsula while sailing from Odessa (Ukraine) to Batumi (Georgia). As expected, Russia reacted aggressively, sending fighter jets and warships to taunt the Defender

Unpicking these events proved difficult at first, given inconsistent reports from both the Russian and British militaries. However, nearly one week on, the fog of uncertainty has somewhat lifted, and the discovery of classified Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents at a bus stop in Kent (England) on June 27 has established a broader picture. The incident is part of a geopolitical contest in the region that has simmered for weeks.  


Russia opened with a bang. On June 23, Russian media reported that the HMS Defender had entered Russian-controlled waters, and Russian forces had subsequently fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the destroyer’s pathway. Initially, many media outlets speculated that Russia was making baseless accusations and blowing events out of proportion.   

The MoD downplayed the severity of the events. According to the MoD, the HMS Defender was “conducting innocent passage” and was not the target of Russia’s warning shots. The MoD’s rather bland coverage of events was at odds with reports from BBC Defence correspondent Johnathan Beale, who was on the Defender during the incident. According to Beale, the crew of the Defender took battle stations as Russian warships shadowed the British vessel and issued threats. BBC audio provides evidence that jets could clearly be heard overhead. Beale also mentions artillery shots from afar.

The HMS Defender entered Russian-claimed waters by two nautical miles and was prepared for some degree of confrontation. However, the Royal Navy transited the area using an internationally recognized shipping lane. The international community does not recognize Russia’s claim over Crimea or the adjacent waters. De jure, Crimean waters still belong to Ukraine. 

The incident was a tester for how Russia would react to a NATO sail through. The MoD’s classified documents left behind a bus stop in Kent (England) corroborate this assessment. The papers highlight route options for the HMS Defender and estimate Russian reactions to the proposed routes. The timing of the (literal) unearthing of these documents in the face of Russian rhetoric points to a likely composed leak to set out the motivations behind the Defender’s movements. Without officially setting the record straight, the MoD has proven a point.

Classified map of shows HMS Defender’s route options from Odessa to Batumi (source: BBC News)

The HMS Defender’s controversial voyage aimed to strengthen the British-Ukrainian alliance. In plotting a course through what it, and most of the world, deems internationally recognized Ukrainian waters, London rejects Russia’s claims over Crimea. Incidentally, on the day of the skirmish, the UK issued a press release stating that the UK and Ukraine have signed an accord to boost Ukrainian naval capabilities. Part of the agreement is the commitment to building a naval base in the Black Sea, which will serve as the primary base for Ukraine’s fleet.

Moscow was probably aware of the Defender’s plans to sail through Russian-claimed waters and responded with a disinformation campaign. Before the incident, on June 18, Russia falsified the tracking data of the Defender and another NATO warship. The ‘spoofed’ automatic identification system (AIS) data put the ships within two nautical miles of Sevastopol. However, port camera footage confirmed that both warships were still docked in Odessa. 

 

Russia pulled an identical move on another ship, the USS Ross, on June 29. Spoofed AIS data falsely showed that the USS Ross was nearing Crimea, when in fact, the American vessel was also still ported in Odessa. 

The incident was a preamble to the Sea Breeze 21 multinational exercise this week.  Led by the US and Ukraine and encompassing 30 other states, this year’s edition is the largest in the history of Sea Breeze. Not long after Sea Breeze 21 kicked off, the Netherlands’ MoD reported that Russian jets had harassed the Dutch HNLMS Evertsen frigate in international waters. Russia will very likely continue to rattle the sabers in protest of the multinational drill. 

Further escalations between the UK and Russia in the Black Sea have to be expected. British-Russian relations are at a low due to the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018. As the UK is redefining its role in the post-Brexit world, London is eager to project itself as a solid military force supporting Ukraine. Furthermore, the recent events underscore that the UK is willing to dabble in the evolving ‘grey zone’ of information warfareBy downplaying the events of June 23 and then setting the record straight through the “loss” of classified documents, London plays fast and loose with the truth akin to, but not as versed as the dis/information warriors in Moscow. 


by Adam Campbell 

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“Do Not Enter:” Using OSINT to Monitor Russia’s Wargames in the Black Sea

Russia has concentrated warships from all fleets, except the Pacific fleet, in the Black Sea for joint drills. While not unprecedented, it is rare to see such a show of…

Russia has concentrated warships from all fleets, except the Pacific fleet, in the Black Sea for joint drills. While not unprecedented, it is rare to see such a show of force.

The cross-theater deployments and large-scale exercises bear the hallmarks of a maritime build-up intended to intimidate Ukraine and deter NATO activities in the Black Sea.

This report showcases the Russian assets and maneuvers and analyzes how these actions are shaping the Black Sea theater of operations.


OBJECTIVE FEAR

Russia’s maritime build-up in the Black Sea has two aims:

  • intimidate Ukraine;
  • deter and complicate NATO activity in the Black Sea.

CROSS-THEATER DEPLOYMENTS

Russian naval task forces from the Caspian, Baltic and Northern Fleets have joined the Black Sea Fleet for exercises near Crimea.  

Caspian Flotilla: Around 15 vessels of the Capsian Flotilla, namely gunboats and landing crafts, entered the Black Sea on 16 April. 

Assets identified: 

  • 6x Project 11770 landing crafts (no. 721, 722, 723, 724, 725, 726) – NATO/AFIC reporting name: Serna-class.
  • 3x Project 1204 artillery gunboats (no. 042, 044, 045) – NATO/AFIC reporting name: Shmel-class.
  • 1x Project 16611 small hydrographic survey vessel (no. 01817).

The deployment was announced on 8 April but in a smaller number. The ships set sail on 11 April, with social media photos documenting their passage through the Don-Volga channel. Footage dated 16 and 17 April shows some of the Caspian task force vessels transiting the Kerch Strait that links the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. 

OSINT map shows sail path of the Caspian task force (T-Intelligence 2021)

Baltic and Northern Fleets: Both fleets deployed Project 775, or Ropucha-class, landing ships to the Black Sea. Capable of carrying over 450 tones of hardware, primarily tanks or other vehicles, the Ropucha was purpose-built for beach landings. As a versatile hauling platform, the Ropucha has been Russia’s maritime logistical workhorse to deploy and support forces in Syria. 

Shispotters documented their northbound pass through the Bosphorus strait on 17 April.

Baltic Sea assets:

  • 2x Project 775 landing craft ( Kaliningrad no.102 & Korolev no.130) 

Northern Fleet assets: 

  • 2x Project 775 landing craft ( Kondopoga 027 & Alexander Otrakovsky 031) – NATO reporting name: Ropucha-class

The maritime build-up augments Russia’s land maneuvers near Ukraine’s border that have been ongoing for the past month. 

In addition to land and naval movements, Russia has also redeployed over 50 aircraft to Crimea. Ukraine estimates that Russia is now garrisoning nearly 110,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. 

MANEUVERS: COASTAL DEFENSE, AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT

Russian forces in Crimea will hold a myriad of land, air, and naval exercises until 1 May. Some are already underway, while others will commence this week. 

The Russian drills have so far simulated the defense of Crimea and amphibious assaults of the enemy littoral – undoubtedly a message to Ukraine. Exercises involving marine and amphibious assaults are expected to continue. For example, in the next stage of a multi-phase campaign, Russian marines “will deliver artillery fire against a notional enemy’s coastal targets that will precede a seaborne assault on the shore.”

The satellite imagery below likely shows a Russian naval formation conducting a military exercise off the Crimean coast and near the Kerch Strait. Dated 19 April, the imagery was captured by the Sentinel-1’s synthetic aperture radar, a sensor that allows us to see through cloud cover.  The exercise area is covered by a notice to mariners (NOMAR) that Russia issued a few days ago. 

Sentinel-1 SAR satellite shows large and organized naval formation in a known Russian training area (T-Intelligence 2021)

The timelapse below shows the build-up of military hardware and logistics at the Opuk firing range. High-resolution imagery obtained by Der Spiegel provides a closer look at the staging ground.

Update: Monitoring the waters off Opuk, we have observed another spike in maritime activity on 21 April. The SAR imagery shows new Russian naval manoeuvres that are consistent with a coastal assault. With the exception of one search and rescue vessel (MMSI: 273145123), none of the ships were broadcasting AIS. No activity has been noticed on the previous day (April 20). 

 

New Russian maritime drills spotted on satellite imagery on 21 April (T-Intelligence)

Using visual evidence published by Zvezda TV on 22 April, we were able to confirm that these vessels and movements are connected to Russia’s exercises.

RUSSIAN NO-FLY/NO-SAIL ZONE?

As it is standard procedure, Russia issued a series of notice to airmen (NOTAMs) and notice to mariners (NOMARs) ahead of its exercises, informing seafears and pilots of which areas they should avoid. 

Map of NOTAMs and NOTMARs issued by Russia in connection to its military exercises in the Black Sea (T-Intelligence 2021)

Most “danger areas” are in effect until the end of April. However, in the Kerch strait, Russia plans to suspend the right of passage of foreign warships and “other state ships” until 31 October (purple rectangle). Russia’s state agency later claimed that “the planned restrictions will not affect navigation in the Kerch Strait or its entry points.” 

Russia’s temporary air-naval restrictions will have severe ramifications for maritime traffic to and from the Ukrainian port cities in the Azov sea, such as the strategic city of Mariupol. Russia’s de facto blockade of the Kerch strait will also prevent the Ukrainian navy, primarily based in Odessa, from reaching Mariupol in the event of a crisis.

In addition, Russia aims to deter NATO countries from even considering a “freedom of navigation” operation through the strait or a port visit on Ukrainian coast in the sea of Azov. However, the alliance has never suggested that it is considering such missions. 

DENYING NATO ISR ADVANTAGE?

Another key effect of Russia’s excessively large NOTAMs and NOMARs is that it could deter or significantly limit NATO’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) missions on Russia’s exercises.

U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft have been intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea for the past weeks. Drones and maritime patrol aircraft are surveilling Crimea’s coast daily up until 19 April, keeping a close watch on Russia’s build-up – read more about NATO’s ISR operations here.

Given the latest NOTAMs, NATO surveillance platforms could be targeted by Russian anti-air fire or electronic attacks. From a legal standpoint, Russia has no authority to restrict the regional airspace, as Crimea is still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory and falls under the Kiyv flight information region (FIR). However, the Russian build-up displays a credible capability and threat. It remains to be seen if NATO ISR missions will continue, and if so, how. 

DETERRENCE TEST FOR NATO

The movement of extra-regional NATO vessels will also be indicative of whether Russia’s muscle-flexing and deterrence work. Two U.S. warships are currently on station in the Aegean Sea after President Biden abandoned plans to sail into the Black Sea, fearing that this move would provoke Russia. 

Despite Washington’s reluctance, London has instructed two Royal Navy warships, one Type 45 destroyer and one Type 23 anti-submarine frigate, to deploy to the Black Sea. It remains to be seen if London will go through with the plan in May and if the U.S. warships will continue to idle in Greek waters. 

One thing is certain, regional NATO countries and Ukraine would breathe easier knowing that advance British and American destroyers are in the Black Sea just in case Russia’s wargames turn out to be something else.  


by HARM

editing by Gecko

Update 23 April – added a new satellite image of Russian naval drills from 21 April and two explanatory paragraphs. 

Update 22 April – additional comments have been added on the paragraph about NOTAMs and NOMARs to clarify Russia’s perspective on its plans to limit navigation through the Kerch strait. 

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NATO ISR Planes Monitor Russian Military Build-Up

U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft are intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea coast amid fears of a renewed Russian offensive. RUSSIA’S 2021 BEAR SCARE In the past…

U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft are intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea coast amid fears of a renewed Russian offensive.

RUSSIA’S 2021 BEAR SCARE

In the past month, Russia has moved over 14,000 soldiers and a vast array of capabilities, including Iskander ballistic missiles,  tanks, howitzers, and thermobaric rocket launchers towards the Ukrainian border. Russia then launched thousands of snap exercises countrywide and established new field camps. One staging ground in Voronezh oblast, hosting over 400 military assets, has all the hallmarks of a logistics node that could support a line of communication into Ukraine. 

OSINT map aggregating and georeferencing videos of Russian military movements near Ukraine, as documented on social media between March 27-30 (T-Intelligence)

Russia’s recent troop movements have alarmed the international community that fears a reignition of the war in eastern Ukraine or, even worse, the opening of a new front from Crimea. 

Operating from international and Ukrainian airspace, U.S. and British drones and other specialized aircraft collect updated, real-time intelligence on Russia’s nefarious activities. Given the types of aircraft visible on openly available flight trackers, the two NATO members primarily collect imagery (IMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT). 

IMINT ON DEMAND: RQ-4 IS OUR “FORTE”

Operated by the United States Air Force (USAF), the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone is at the forefront of Washington’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) operations in the Black Sea region. Based in Naval Air Station Sigonella (Italy), the RQ-4 Global Hawk with registration number 11-2049, either callsign FORTE10 and FORTE11, conducts frequent flights over eastern Ukraine. 

USAF RQ-4 drone at Naval Air Station Sigonella (T-Intelligence/Maxar Technologies)

Th RQ-4 Global Hawk is a long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), meaning it has a 24 hour+ flight autonomy. Combined with hi-resolution cameras, the RQ-4 can provide a crystal-clear, live feed of Donetsk and Luhansk’s frontlines to decision-makers and commanders back at base. As seen in the screenshots attached, the RQ-4 loiters extensively and publicly over designated areas of interest. 

Example of flight path taken by a USAF RQ-4 drone on ISR mission (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)

While FORTE10 was a daily visitor of the region even before the latest escalation, its recent activities are likely connected with Russia’s troop build-up. In the screenshot below (11 April), the RQ-4 (now FORTE 11) was orbiting over the Kherson-Mariupol area, north of Crimea, after completing multiple passes over the frontline in Donbas.

The drone’s flight path is unusual and suggests that U.S. commanders are seriously considering that Russia might open a new front in the war against Ukraine and seize the Crimean canal. 

The same RQ-4 drone (reg. no. 11-2049) using callsign FORTE 11 on 11 April while surveilling the area north of Crimea (source: @GDarkconrad)

Ukraine dammed the North Crimean Canal in 2014. As a result, the Russian-occupied Crimea lost nearly 90% of its fresh water supply, leaving it dry. While Moscow plans to solve this issue by re-routing four rivers into the Mezhgorny reservoir by 2024, many observers fear that Russia might use military action to seize the Crimean dam. 

Besides the “daily FORTE”, there various other NATO country platforms surveilling the Black Sea region.

POSEIDON IS WATCHING

Best known for its submarine-hunting capabilities, the U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MAP) also packs a substantial ISR capability. Using its powerful APY-10 multi-mode synthetic aperture radar, the P-8A can detect, classify and track surfaced vessels. The P-8A Poseidon surveillance system also includes the MX-20 – a modular HD imaging system with large-aperture lenses for high magnification, laser-range finding, and laser illumination. 

USN P-8A Poseidon aircraft on the second ramp at Naval Air Station Sigonella (Italy) – T-Intelligence/Maxar Technologies via Google Maps

Besides IMINT, the P-8A can exploit emission from the electromagnetic spectrum. Thanks to its ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure (ESM) suite, the P-8 can geo-locate and classify enemy radar emitters. On top of that, the P-8 can launch drones equipped with specialized sensors to detect submarines based on fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field.

This sensor fusion is invaluable to keep a watch on the Russian Navy’s activity around the Crimea peninsula and Krasnodar Krai. The Poseidon becomes an ever more relevant platform as Russia recently announced that it would deploy ten warships from the Caspian Sea into the Black Sea. 

OLD TIMERS LISTENING IN: P-3C ORION AND ARIES II

The Poseidon’s predecessor platform, the P-3 Orion, is the U.S.’s other platform tasked with monitoring Russia’s build-up from an air-naval perspective. A rare occurrence, the P-3 acts as a force multiplier for the U.S. ISR efforts.

We have observed two P-3 variants operating in the area: the P-3C Orion and the EP-3E ARIES. While the Orion is an old airframe, it can still pull its weight in maritime intelligence collection and fulfil SIGINT duties. 

Photo of the ARIES II aircraft (reg. no. 161410) conducting Black Sea missions (copyright: Levery)

The other variant observed is an evolution and conversion of the Orion, known as the EP-3E ARIES II (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System II). Operated by a crew of 22+ specialists, ARIES II provides near real-time tactical SIGINT and full-motion video intelligence to commanders. ARIES can also intercept human communications (Communication Intelligence/ COMINT) and exploit a wide range of electronic emissions from deep within enemy territory. 

Plus, the EP-3E ARIES flight crew also brought some humor into the mix. During a flight around Crimea on 10 April, an ARIES II appeared on flight trackers with the callsign “AK47,” and claimed to be an “AirAsia” flight. 

ARIES II aircraft (callsign AK47, reg. no. 161410) from Souda Bay Naval Air Station on Black Sea mission on 12 April (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)

ELECTRONIC STALKERS: RC-135W RIVET JOINT FLIGHTS

The last but not least platform active in the area is the Royal Air Force’s RC-135W Rivet Joint, operated by the 51st Squadron from RAF Waddington. The RC-135W is an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft that can monitor radars, communications, and other signals emitted by the Russian units in Crimea. 

ELINT aircraft are particularly good at mapping out the enemy’s Electronic Order of Battle (EOB). EOB typically includes the identity, capability, operating details, and location of enemy threat emitters and their role within an integrated air defense network.

Compilation of RC-135W Rivet Joint missions near Crimea (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)

RC-135W aircraft have started regularly operating in the Black Sea in late February/early March. This is likely when the first signs of Russian troop movements became apparent to the American and British intelligence community. Two RC-135W aircraft (reg. ZZ666 and ZZ664) conducted the recon runs using at least four different callsigns – RRR7227, RRR7238, RRR7239 and RRR7240. 

ISR PARTIES

Many of the aircraft listed have also operated simultaneously in the Black Sea theater. The tweet attached shows the airspace over the Black Sea on 6 April. 

An RQ-4 UAV was completing its second orbit over Severomonsk, while the RAF’s RC-135W was active near the Kerch Strait. Outbound from Sigonella, a P-8A Poseidon was on its way to join to ISR party. 

Another mentionable ISR party took place on 14 April and featured a different assembly of allied aircraft. A U.S. EP-3E Aries II from Souda Bay (reg. no. 16140) scanned Crimea’s southern coast for signals and other emissions. Further down south, a Turkish Navy ATR C-72-600 aircraft was patrolling the Black Sea’s midsection, making a rare appearance on flight trackers. The “no callsign” aircraft is the US Navy’s P-8A Poseidon (outbound from Sigonella) on its way for another mission over the Black Sea. 

14 April: Aries II SIGINT plane (USN, not USAF as shown on flight radar), C-72-600 maritime patrol aircraft (Turkish Navy), P-8A Poseidon and a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone (NATO – not pictured) are active over the Black Sea in a joint ISR mission (T-Intelligence/FlightRadar24)

One of NATO’s few independently-operated RQ-4 Global Hawks was was also active in the region. However, the drone deactivated its transponder before we had the chance to screenshot it.

PREVENTING SURPRISES

ISR platforms such as those observed on flight trackers enable commanders and decision-makers to “see and hear” what the Russian military is preparing near Ukraine. These missions are critical to ensure that NATO will not be caught by surprise should Russia mount a new sneak attack.

While Russia’s build-up is at 2014-2015 levels and poses a credible threat, there is still no clear indication that Moscow intends to launch a new offensive in Ukraine. 

T-Intelligence will continue to monitor the situation. 


by HARM

This article has been updated on 14 April to include a new image of an ISR “party” and a paragraph explaining it. 

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Russia’s Military Build-Up near Ukraine (II): Troops from Siberia, Snap Drills in Crimea, and More Convoys

The Russian Federation’s military build-up near Ukraine is expanding, drawing forces from the Central Military District and escalating as thousands of snap exercises take place throughout the country.  Social media…

The Russian Federation’s military build-up near Ukraine is expanding, drawing forces from the Central Military District and escalating as thousands of snap exercises take place throughout the country. 

Social media users have continued to capture scores of rail flatbeds hauling main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers, fuel trucks, and even air defenses. 

Sequel to our initial report, here is T-Intell’s breakdown of the most noteworthy open-source information from 2-7 April 2021:


1. Probably the most noteworthy development is the deployment of units from the Central Military District (CMD) towards the Ukrainian border. Russia typically moves and parades units from the Southern Military District and Western Military District if it wants to “bear scare” Ukraine and the West. 

However, this week, Conflict Intelligence Team (CITEAM) observed BMPs, MLRS, and other vehicles moving west from Yurga and Novosibirsk (Siberia) on railways. 

Many vehicles’ license plates, which indicate the unit’s origin, have been partially covered to preserve some degree of operations security during the cross-theatre movement. 

It is unusual for CMD units to deploy so far from “home” except for strategic exercises. This development sets the recent troop build-up apart from past “bear scares.” 

2. Russia ordered all of its forces to conduct readiness inspections. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, a total of 4048 exercises of various scales will take place during April, including 812 bilateral exercises, at 101 training grounds and 520 facilities of the training and material base. Checks will take place in all military districts, and all types and branches of troops will take part in them.

One such snap exercise took place in Opuk training range, Crimean peninsula. Over 200 troops from the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet) simulated an operation to capture a beachhead. Ground forces assaulted enemy positions using BTR-82s armored personnel carriers and Mi-8AM and Ka-27 helicopters. 

3. Enter the battle-hardened “Pskov paratroopers.” Train markings seen in a TikTok video suggest that Russia has instructed one of its most experienced units, the 104th Guards Air Assault Regiment, to join the build-up – CITEAM has found. Based in Cheryokva and part of the 76th Guard Air Assault Division, the 104th is a unit known for having fought and sustained heavy casualties in Eastern Ukraine. The forward-positioning of this echelon adds further credibility to Russia’s build-up. 

4. Advanced air defenses spotted on flatbed railcars, ready for deployment. A video shows a Pantsir S-1 (AFIC/NATO reporting name: SA-22 Greyhound) and numerous S-300 tractor erector launchers (SA-20B Gargoyle) without their missile tubes in an unidentified railway terminal – reportedly Voronezh. This deployment was probably connected with the snap air defense exercise in the Ashuluk training range on 6 April.

Video frame collage showing Pantsir and S-300 systems

5. Russia continues to amass a diverse and increasingly credible posture. The hardware spotted on the move in the past three days include (but are not limited to): 

  • T-90 main battle tanks (moving from Makhachkala to Crimea); 
  • T-72 main battle tanks and BMP-3 infantry fight vehicles (Kropotkin train station, Krasnodar); 
  • 2S4 Tyulpan 240mm self-propelled mortar system (Krasnodar)
  • Tunguska anti-air artillery (on the move M1 highway); 
  • MT-LB armored personnel carriers (Voronezh region);
  • Towed howitzer, likely 2A65 Msta-B (Klintsy, Bryansk region);
  • 2S23 self-propelled artillery, 
  • TOS-1 thermobaric rocket launchers (Voronezh region).

6. Despite multiple social media claims, large-scale fighting has not reignited in Donbas. However, there has been a spike in ceasefire violations. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SSM) recorded 1,424 ceasefire violations in the Donetsk region between 2-5 April. In the previous reporting period (2-3 April), the mission recorded 594 ceasefire violations. In Luhansk, the SMM recorded 126 ceasefire violations, a slight decrease from the 427 violations noticed in the previous reporting cycle. 

Visualisation of ceasefire violations in Eastern Ukraine © OSCE SSM

In addition, the SSM also noted the disappearance of seven multiple launch rocket systems (BM-21 Grad, 122mm) and five towed howitzers (2A65 Msta-B, 152mm) from a warehouse in the non-government-controlled Luhansk region on 1 April 2021. The report specifically mentions that this is the first time these heavy weapons have disappeared. 

7. The Russian-backed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) has announced military conscription for citizens born 1994 – 2003. Signed on 25 March, the DPR plans to implement the draft between 1 April 2021 and 5 July 2022. Despite the symbolic timing, DPR only expects to mobilize around 200 conscripts. Conscription campaigns are likely to continue and, in time, increase in scope.  

PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT

What initially seemed like another annual “bear scare” – Russia’s typical postures ahead of negotiations – has now turned into a credible threat for a renewed offensive against Ukraine. This reading is based on logistical and military indicators that measure capability for an invasion, not the intention – which is political. 

Russia’s intentions remain unclear, and our confidence levels for large-scale conventional operations against Ukraine are low to moderate. We maintain our assessment that Russia aims to posture and intimidate. However, given the forces’ heightened readiness and hardware deployed, this can change at any moment. 


by HARM

special credits to @GirkinGirkin for aggregating a vast amount of media material from Russian-language accounts

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Russia’s Massive Troop Movements near Ukraine: Another “Bear Scare”?

Videos on social media show a massive Russian military deployment near the Ukrainian border in the past 72 hours. Main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, rocket…

Videos on social media show a massive Russian military deployment near the Ukrainian border in the past 72 hours.

Main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, rocket launch systems, logistics trucks, and amphibious trailers (bridge-layers) have poured into occupied Crimea, Krasnodar Krai, and Rostov oblast.

OSINT map aggregating and georeferencing videos of Russian military movements near Ukraine, as documented on social media between March 27-30 (T-Intell)

The troop movements are so big that Russian agricultural machinery manufacturers and farmers have complained to the government that they cannot move their equipment ahead of the harvest season because the military requisitioned all of the flatbed railcars. 

While the recent movements are out of the ordinary, they are not unprecedented. Russia has periodically launched large-scale snap deployments in an attempt to “bear scare” before upcoming negotiations or to test its adversaries ever since it invaded Ukraine in 2014. 

HYPOTHESES FOR THE RECENT SITUATION:

1.Tit-for-tat for Ukraine’s moderate troop surge near Donbas and Luhansk in early March (following an increased number of ceasefire violations by Russia in Donbas).

In early March, a string of videos and images surfaced on social media, reportedly showing Ukrainian military hardware, T-64 tanks, APCs, and other vehicles, moving by train towards the war-torn Donbas. 

While most of the footage remained unverified, the vast majority of the media material was genuine (not recycled from other build-ups), and a small amount could even be authenticated. For example, the images below show Ukrainian military vehicles on flatbed railcars in the Dnepropetrovsk train station. 

Geolocation of images showing Ukrainian military vehicles in Dnipro train station

The deployments followed an uptick in ceasefire violations that resulted in Ukrainian soldiers’ death and increased sightings of advanced Russian weaponry in the Donbas. 

Russia’s latest saber-rattling is likely a direct response to the presumed Ukrainian reinforcements in the east. 

2.Posturing for ceasefire negotiations.  

This is a strong candidate theory considering that talks between the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE) on Ukraine to extend the ceasefire monitoring mission beyond April 1st, have nearly failed. However, the OSCE managed to extend the mandate for another year in the final hours of March 31st. 

3.Preparations for a renewed offensive against Ukraine.

The hardware type deployed and deployment locations are consistent with preparations for a multi-front assault on eastern Ukraine. Russian forces could escalate violence in Donbas while simultaneously assaulting Mariupol from Crimea to finish off the land-bridge linking Donbas with the occupied peninsula. 

Russia’s movements have certainly stirred international anxiety, and NATO seems to be taking the risk seriously. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Milley had a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Gerasimov, discussing the recent troop build-up on March 31st. The U.S. European Command has reclassified Ukraine’s risk status from “possible crisis” to “potential imminent crisis.”  

There has also been a spike in aerial intelligence collection sorties off the Crimean coast. A British Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft and American drones are among the platforms that “glued their eyes” on Russia’s military manoeuvres. 

While a renewed invasion is the most impactful scenario, it is also the most unlikely at this point in time. 

PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT

Apart from the mentioned hypotheses, there could be a myriad of other reasons that contribute to the latest actions, such as the relocation of 56th Airborne brigade from Kamyshin to Feodosia, unannounced military exercises, or extended deployments post-drills. 

The recent movements are likely just another “bear scare,” however, one should never rule out the possibility of a renewed Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Ultimately, this is a fluid and volatile situation that can escalate or cool down at any moment. Prudent caution is advised. 


by HARM

ALERT: Read our second part report on Russia’s build-near near Ukraine’s border, here, encompassing the latest developments between 1-7 April. 

This article is an extended version of the situation report that we shared on Facebook on 1 April 2021.

Update [2 April 2021, 1700z – CET] to include tweet of flight tracker showing P-8 Poseidon patrolling near Kerch strait.

Update [7 April 2021 1700z – CET] to include link to our second report on the issue. 

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Here’s Where Russia Will Deploy Nuclear-Capable Tu-22M3 Bombers in Crimea (IMINT)

Russia continues the wholesale militarization of the Crimea peninsula with the upcoming deployment of nuclear-capable long-range Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) to Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base. The airfield’s large aircraft…

Russia continues the wholesale militarization of the Crimea peninsula with the upcoming deployment of nuclear-capable long-range Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) to Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base. The airfield’s large aircraft revetments and logistics facilities can host at least 20 Backfires. With the Backfire eyed as a future launching platform for the Kinzhal hypersonic aero-ballistic missile, Russia intends to increase pressure on the U.S. Aegis Missile Defense systems (Ashore and Afloat) in Europe.

Hvardiyske/ Gvardeyskoye Air Base IMINT via T-Intelligence based on Digital Globe and Planet Labs imagery


On March 18, Viktor Bondarev, the chairman of the defense and security committee of Russia’s upper parliament house, announced that Moscow will deploy nuclear-capable Tu-22M3/Backfire-C bombers to Crimea in response to the U.S. missile defense systems in Romania.

Over the past years, NATO Enhanced Air Policing fighter jets have intercepted several Backfires over the Black Sea, which simulated mock bombing runs in Romania’s flight information region. Recently, the aircraft also served in Syria as a frontline bomber against unsophisticated ground targets. The Backfire was originally developed for the Soviet Air Force and Navy to prosecute targets – particularly maritime targets like U.S. carrier strike groups – in peripheral-range missions. The internal weapons bay and external pylons can carry up to 24,000 kg of ordnance, including nuclear which makes the Backfire ideal for saturation strikes.

Russia plans to upgrade 30 of the 63 Backfires that are still in service to the advanced M3M variant. The M3M variant will be compatible with new generation ammunition such as the standoff/extreme-range Kh-32 cruise missile, the Kinzhal hypersonic aeroballistic missile, and potentially the 3M22 Zircon (NATO reporting name: SS-N-33) anti-ship hypersonic missile. Live trails of the first M3M commenced in mid 2018.

The Backfire deployment in Crimea will likely take the form a small-scale forward deployment from their home bases in Belaya (Irkutsk) and  Shaykovka (Kaluga). However, our IMINT analysis concludes that – if needed – Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base could host 20-30 bombers on high-readiness and up to 50 aircraft for storage and maintenance.   

Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye is the home base of the 37th Composite Aviation Regiment (CAR), which currently operates the Su-24M and Su-25 (NATO reporting names: Fencer and Frogfoot). 37th CAR Frogfoots were airborne during Russia’s blockade of the Kerch strait in October 2018 and Fencers have harassed U.S. and NATO vessels in the Baltic and Black Seas in the past. The 37th CAR was established as part of the 27th Compose Aviation Division (CAD) in 2014. The 27th CAD also commands the 38th Fighter Aviation Regiment in Belbek, which operates two Su-27P/SM (NATO reporting name: Flanker) squadrons. Like all forces deployed in Crimea, the units are subordinated to Russian’s 4th Air and Air Defense Army (Southern Military District) in Rostov-on-Don.

In response to the Russian plans, Washington deployed six B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers from the 2nd Bomber Wing to the Royal Air Force base in Fairford on March 14, 2019. During their first major European exercise since 2003, the B-52s conducted theater familiarization flights and enhanced interoperability with NATO partners.


by HARM and Gecko

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Immediate Measures to Protect Ukraine’s Navy: The Harpoon Solution

1. The Kerch blockade is a limited operation that advances Russian sea command objectives in Black Sea. The Ukrainian Navy, now contained to Odessa as the remaining major port, will…

1. The Kerch blockade is a limited operation that advances Russian sea command objectives in Black Sea. The Ukrainian Navy, now contained to Odessa as the remaining major port, will permanently lose the ability to operate in the Azov Sea. By further isolating the port of Mariupol, Russia is weakening Kyiv’s supply lines to Eastern Ukraine. While there is no immediate danger of a large-scale Russian land offensive, continued acts of maritime aggression have to be expected.

2. The Kerch blockade forces the Ukrainian Navy into a uniquely vulnerable position. Isolated in Odessa, the Ukrainian fleet could be annihilate by the Russian Navy and Aerospace Forces within days. Kyiv therefore requires a credible deterrent to prevent and counter further Russian attacks at sea. The Trump administration’s transfer of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kyiv in April 2018, has already raised the stakes for Russia to intervene in Eastern Ukraine considerably. A similar solution is now needed for the navy.

3. A feasible short term solution to safe the Ukrainian Navy would be the acquisition of Boeing’s advanced anti-ship missile (ASM) Harpoon (Block II or above). The Harpoon belongs to the most advanced current generation of over-the-horizon ASM weapons. It can be launched from aircraft as well as surface and subsurface vessels. The Block II version has a range of 124 km, while the 2015 Block II Extended Range (ER) can engage targets in a 248 km radius thanks to its improved turbojet engine. The missiles travel with subsonic speed at sea-skimming altitude to avoid radar or infrared detection. The Harpoon’s 221 kg warhead is constructed to inflict terminal damage on enemy vessels. Both version are adequate given the expected engagement range in the Black Sea. One Block II missile has an estimated cost of over $1 million.

4. Ukraine’s total defense budget for 2018 runs to $600 million, which encompasses expenses for all branches of the armed forces as well as research and development programs. However, the U.S. Department of Defense’s budget has allocated up to $200 million to enhancing Ukraine’s defence capabilities, including coastal and maritime assets.  

5. The purchase of a small number of Hapoons is thus feasible and would have immediate effects. In the longer term, Kyiv should also strive to build or acquire multirol corvettes and operationalize the Ukrainian-made long-range ASM “Neptune.”

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