Tag: Kiyv

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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Russia Invades Ukraine: First Day of War Through OSINT

In the early hours of 24 February 2022, Russia commenced a series of pre-assault operations to soften Ukrainian defenses ahead of an all-out, multi-axis invasion, which is now in progress….

In the early hours of 24 February 2022, Russia commenced a series of pre-assault operations to soften Ukrainian defenses ahead of an all-out, multi-axis invasion, which is now in progress.

This course of events was extensively threatcasted by the OSINT community weeks in advance, including us. Those familiar with our estimates from January 2022, see here, would have expected a Russian invasion and the subsequent operational and tactical developments. 

DAWNBREAKER: PRE-ASSAULT OPERATIONS

Cyber attacks & Electronic Warfare (EW): 

1. The opening salvos of Russia’s invasion were cybernetic and electronic and were initiated on 23 February 2022. Russia launched Distributed Denial of Service (DDos) attacks on the Ukrainian government, jammed military communications, and psychological operations against Ukrainian troops.

2. One notable EW attack was conducted by a Leer-3 which spammed Ukrainian troops with SMS calling them to surrender or be killed.

Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (S/DEAD)

3. In the dead of night, Russia launched land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and anti-radiation missiles (ARMs) at Ukrainian integrated air and missile defenses. They likely disabled several early warning, tracking, and engagement radars, rendering Ukraine’s sensors and SAM systems ineffective (S-300, Buk M-1). However, some might still be functional or serviceable. 

Debris is consistent with Kh-31PD anti-radiation variant

Offensive Counter Air (OCA)

4. Russia launched massive strikes against airbases to ground the Ukrainian Air Force (UkAF). Damaged runways prevent Ukrainian aircraft from taking off and landing. Follow-up salvos disabled the grounded aircraft and cleared facilities for occupation by airborne troops. 

5. Visual evidence suggests that Russia fired ballistic missiles, likely Iskanders (SS-26 Stone), at airbases to cause structural damage – a textbook use of BMs for anti-runway operations. 

6. Latest satellite imagery of Chuhuiv Air Base near Harkhiv shows that Russia did not crater the runways of all airports, instead it destroyed fuel depots and munition storage. 

7. One Ukrainian Su-27 flew into Romanian airspace where it was intercepted by Romanian F-16s and forced to ground at Bacau Air Base. As per Romanian government accounts, the pilot’s homebase was destroyed and had nowhere else to land. 

Counter-C3

8. Russian LACMs also leveled command, control, and communication nodes (C3). These attacks aimed to separate the higher echelons from battlefield units, behead the leadership, and throw the military in disarray. This was another textbook pre-invasion tactic.

Counter-Logistics

9. Many videos emerged online showing LACMs pounding ammunition depots and warehouses, resulting in massive secondary explosions. Attacks to bleed Ukraine’s logistical supply lines have occurred nationwide, including Lviv (near Poland), Ivano-Frankivsk (close to Romania), Melitopol, and Odesa. 

10. Our previous T-Intelligence analysis anticipated this tactic to diminish Ukraine’s growing ATGM stockpile.

MIDDAY RUMBLE

11. Shortly after the crack of dawn, the Russia commenced a multi-axis ground offensive, moving tanks and armored vehicles along select axis of attack. 

Russian operational directions and screengrabs from select videos showing military attacks in Ukraine

Air superiority

12. As OCA was largely successful and grounded most of the UkAF’s extensive fighter fleet, the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) could establish air superiority. Otherwise, we would not have seen a major helicopter assault on Kiyv and nearby airports. However, a video emerged showing a UkAF MiG-29 buzzing the skies of Kiyv and allegedly dogfighting an alleged Russian Su-35, which means that not all fighters are grounded or destroyed (update: a re-examination of the video concludes that both aircraft are Ukrainian).

Manoeuvre

13. Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) have advanced from nearly all operational directions:

  • Belarus (to Kiyv, the Pripyat area, Chernihiv)

14. Russian forces in Belarus crossed the border towards Chernihiv, seized the Chernobyl exclusion zone following a heavy armored battle with Ukrainian forces, and deployed a massive airborne assault on Kiyv. 

  • Voronezh (to Kharkiv and Sumy)

15. Under the cover of rocket artillery, tank columns crossed into Ukraine and rapidly approached the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. The battle for Kharkiv is still raging on, with Russia facing losses. Intrusions have reportedly also occurred further north on the frontier near Sumy. 

  • Don (further into Donbas)

16. Recently reinforced by Russian troops, Luhansk and Donetsk separatists have launched a tandem assault across the demilitarized zone. Operational objectives are to capture Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, and secure the rest of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Splinter groups will likely then follow up to hit Ukrainian positions in Kharkiv from the rear, and separately, besiege Mariupol.  

  • Crimea (to Kherson & Melitopol)

17. Russia made significant territorial gains north of Crimea, towards Kherson city and most adjacent areas. A separate line of the assault went eastwards and arrived at Melitopol. Beyond Melitopol, Russian forces aim to encircle Mariupol with Donbas formations.

  • *Black Sea Fleet

18. An amphibious assault on Odesa is still expected but would likely come later to complete the pincer movement with troops advancing from Kherson. 

Close Air Support (CAS)

19. Ka-52 attack helicopters, Su-25 attack aircraft, and a myriad of ground-based artillery provide overwhelming fires to the advancing columns. Russia’s successful OCA and subsequent air superiority enabled aerial CAS platforms. Without a permissive aerial environment, Su-25s and attack helicopters would have been easy targets for Ukrainian fighter jets. 

Airborne assault

20. Russian Airborne Forces aboard Mii-8 helicopters and escorted by attack helicopters have assaulted key areas around Kiyv. Russian paratroopers achieved a breakthrough at Hostomel airfield/Antonov International Airport, but lost three helicopters to ground to air fire in the process. Russia’s airborne assault seemed rushed, albeit speed is key to maintaining the initiative, and faced heavy resistance. 

Securing these facilities is key to airlift tanks, personnel, and the necessary equipment to besiege Kiyv.

NIGHTFALL: OFFENSIVE OPERATIONS CONTINUE

Tactical defeat

21. Russian airborne units have lost Hostomel airfield after a strong counterattack from the Ukrainian military. If sustainable, the loss of Hostomel is a significant blow to Russia’s plans to quickly amass and encircle Kiyv before Ukrainian forces establish better defenses. 

EPILOGUE

For reasons of operation security, we will not comment on Ukraine’s military movements. We urge OSINT analysts not to share videos or images of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.


by HARM 

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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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