Once again Russia is mobilising its forces near the Ukrainian border, but much more covertly than in the past. Moscow’s belief that the EU and US will not step in to protect Ukraine could lead it to take direct military action. A commentary of Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Soldier of the 41st Combined Arms Army. Picture: Ministry of Defensie Russia.
by Gustav Gressel
On 10 November, US secretary of state Antony Blinken publicly warned Russia not to make a ‘serious mistake’ by escalating its war against Ukraine. The warning came after Russian troops were reported to have massed on the border with Ukraine. Russian deployments are ongoing, and open-source reporting alone can only capture a fraction of the actual military moves. This makes it difficult to establish what exactly is happening. But there appear to be several moves taking place at once, and they are not necessarily related. Some seem to concern Ukraine alone, while others may pose a danger to the European Union and NATO at large.
One major issue relates to the movements of the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA). The 41st CAA’s headquarters is in Novosibirsk in Siberia, and it was previously based in the Central Military District. In March this year it moved to Russia’s Western Military District, which stretches from Finland to most of the way down Russia’s border with Ukraine. The army remained there and took part in this year’s Zapad 21, a four-yearly large-scale military exercise that rehearses an attack on NATO’s eastern flank. The CAA was deployed first to the Pogonovo training range in the Voronezh region of Russia, next to Ukraine. But by October most of its assets were located in Yelnia in the Smolensk region, next to Belarus. Both of these 41st CAA locations are around 250km from the Ukrainian border, although Yelnia is considerably further west.
That being said, despite being 'based' at Yelnia, military movements appear to be constant, with troops leaving the camp and later arriving again (or different ones, potentially even from other armies, being deployed there). This makes them hard to track. But it would suggest that troops are taking part in military exercises, although there is no publicly available information about their exact nature.
A Ukrainian source acquainted with the situation told the author in early November that at least some parts of these exercises are happening in Belarus. This seems likely from a military point of view: if the 41st CAA stays in the Smolensk region – which it almost certainly will – it would fill a gap between the 6th CAA, which is in the north (headquarters in St Petersburg) and the 20th CAA, which is in the east (Voronezh). Previously this broad location was only covered by the Belarusian Army, which effectively (from within its own country) filled the gap between the 6th CAA to the north and the 20th CAA to the south-east.
If Russia did start a war with NATO in the west, the 41st CAA’s task would be to lead the advance from Belarus towards the Suwalki gap. This is the Poland-Lithuania border area that separates Belarus from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The 41st CAA would likely advance in conjunction with the 11th Army Corps in Kaliningrad; its aim would be to crush the Polish and Lithuanian defences. The 1st Guards Tank Army (based around Moscow), which was previously assigned to these tasks, would now be free as an operational reserve to exploit the advance of the 41st CAA and further push the initial offensive towards the Oder river at the Polish-German border.
Alternatively, if a major war were to be sparked in the Black Sea region rather than in Russia’s west, the task of the 41st CAA would be to push down on Ukraine from the north, predominantly through Belarus. It would seek to quickly cut Kyiv off from any reinforcements and would take up positions on the west bank of the Dnieper river, which passes through the capital and bisects Ukraine. Because the 41st CAA needs to be ready to serve two operative directions, its deployment and preparatory schemes are more complex than that of other armies – which would explain the need for the current exercises.
Importantly, another set of military build-ups accelerated at the beginning of November. These are clearly targeting Ukraine specifically. The number of military assets in Crimea has increased; parts of the 1st Guards Tank Army have been deployed to Maslovka close to the border with the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in the country’s north-east; and a further concentration of military vehicles appears to have assembled around Rostov (just east of Ukraine). This last move is presumably to enable Russia to infiltrate Ukraine’s Donbas region, an intention strongly suggested by the high numbers of military transports arriving at the airport in Rostov-on-Don.
The mobilisation of the National Guards Units is a sign the Kremlin is at least considering incursions into Ukraine.
Alongside these build-ups, Russia has mobilised its paramilitary security forces, the National Guards Units, and also sent them to Rostov. Following an invasion of Ukraine, it would use these to control conquered territory, suppress dissent, and install puppet administrations. Their mobilisation is a sign that the Kremlin is at least considering the option of further incursions into Ukraine. Compared to the situation in March and April 2021, when it last moved troops close to the Ukrainian border, Russia seems to be making much less effort to ensure the current assembly is visible. This may hint towards a significantly more serious intention than simply a wish to appear threatening.
Hostile Russian rhetoric towards Ukraine has increased over the last year. 'Reintegrating' Ukraine – the whole of Ukraine, not Donbas alone – into the Russian Empire is a declared aim of the Russian president. The impression of a weak West, underlined by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, may convince Moscow that now is the time to wrap up its 'unfinished business' with Kyiv. The Kremlin may have been emboldened in this by its interpretation of the American position on Ukraine, particularly since senior US diplomat Victoria Nuland’s recent visit to Moscow. That trip likely left the impression that Washington would subscribe to Moscow’s interpretation of the Minsk agreement.
This is a fundamental error on the Russians’ part, because this is not the US policy. Yet this perception may combine with Moscow’s longstanding misinterpretation and twisting of the provisions of Minsk.
On 01 November, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of provoking further military reactions by leaving the Minsk agreement. He suggested that Russia will intervene if the Ukrainian government presses ahead with its plans to adopt a law on transitional administration. Moscow dislikes the contents of the draft legislation because they do not effectively allow it to retain the republics it set up in eastern Ukraine, instead promising to transition towards new authorities after elections under Ukrainian law. Russia believes that, via the Minsk agreement, it has a say over Ukrainian domestic legislation – and, presumably, the right to wage war if that privilege is violated.
No such stipulation, of course, was ever agreed, either as part of the Minsk negotiations or any subsequent format. But Europe’s silence towards Russia’s revisionism, and towards the country’s ongoing and lasting breach of the very same agreement by continuously deploying occupation forces in Donbas, only encourages Moscow to think that Europe tacitly accepts its revisionism.
Lessons for Europa
And, finally, current events around Belarus tightly connect Ukraine’s security situation with the rest of Europe. This relates not only to the immediate stand-offs with migrant arrivals at the Belarus-Poland border, but to these major Russian military redeployments whose full nature is not yet clear. Were it to take Ukraine, an enlarged and confident Russia would then turn its sights on influencing the activities of it new nearest neighbours: the EU and its member states.
The United States is already sending warships to the Black Sea as a signal of deterrence. In April 2021, it deployed fighter jets to Poland from nuclear-assigned squadrons of the US Air Forces in Europe. This was successful in its aim: two days later, Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the general staff, called off the “exercises” taking place close to the Ukrainian border. This is the only language Moscow truly understands. Unfortunately, most of Europe is yet to learn to speak it.
This article was originally published at the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Gustav Gressel is Senior Policy Fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The ECFR does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.