Russian-Ukrainian crisis: where are Putin’s troops and what are his options? | Russia

Why are there tensions?

Russia has deployed hundreds of tanks, self-propelled artillery and even short-range ballistic missiles from as far as Siberia to within range of Ukraine’s borders. US intelligence has said Russia could launch an offensive by the end of January with as many as 100 battle battalion groups (BTGs), comprising around 175,000 troops. Current estimates indicate that Russia has around 50 BTGs in the border region, an already large force that could invade Ukraine’s defensive positions.

Russian rhetoric has become more belligerent. Vladimir Putin has demanded legal guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO or host its missile strike systems, concessions he is unlikely to receive. He is also running out of time. Its troops cannot remain outside the garrison indefinitely. At the end of winter, he will likely have to launch an attack or reduce his forces in what would look like a retreat.

How did we get here?

In 2014, Putin sent troops to annex Crimea, a predominantly Russian-speaking region of Ukraine. Russia also instigated a separatist uprising in southeastern Ukraine, smuggling troops and weapons to spark a conflict that has turned into a full-fledged war.

A 2015 peace accord drew a line and called on both sides to make concessions. Since then, low-intensity fighting has continued along the front line, and both sides have accused the other of violating the deal, which observers say is on the verge of collapse.

Map showing disputed regions in Ukraine

Russia no longer wants to maintain the status quo and is looking for another way to assert control over Ukraine.

What do we know about deployments?

Most of the heavy weapons stationed near Ukraine arrived in the spring, when Russia sent around 110,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near the border. Russia returned some, but not all, of its troops to its base in May after Putin secured a summit with Joe Biden.

Map of Russian military deployments

One of the largest remaining forces comes from the 41st Combined Arms Army, headquartered in Novosibirsk nearly 3,000 miles away. Stationed in the Pogonovo training area south of Voronezh since the spring, some of the 41st CAA forces moved to Yelnya, a town in the Smolensk region closer to Belarus.

Equipment believed to belong to the 41st CAA near Yelnya on November 9. Photograph: Maxar / AFP / Getty Images

The equipment includes motorized infantry, main battle tanks, artillery rockets and Iskander short-range ballistic missiles comprising around six or seven BTGs, according to a quote by independent defense analyst Konrad Muzyka.

According to Muzyka’s estimate, tanks, motorized infantry and rockets from the 1st Guard Tank Army based in the Moscow region were moved to the Pogonovo training area.

A satellite image taken on November 26 shows the location of Russian troops at the Pogonovo training ground in the Voronezh region
A satellite image taken on November 26 shows the location of Russian troops at the Pogonovo training ground in the Voronezh region.
Two satellite photos of the Pogonovo training area on November 26
Two satellite photos of the Pogonovo training area on November 26. Photography: Maxar Technologies, AP

Other recent movements show motorized rifle brigades of the 49th Combined Arms Army heading towards Crimea. Artillery and air defense assets of the 58th Combined Arms Army were also spotted in satellite photographs taken over Novoozerne in western Crimea.

Equipment from the 58th CAA at Novoozerne on October 18.
Material supposed to come from the 58th CAA in Novoozerne on October 18th. Photography: Maxar Technologies, AP

There are also units permanently deployed near Ukraine from the 8th and 20th Joint Armies. And Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of troops are stationed in the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.

What form could a Russian attack take?

A map released by Ukrainian military intelligence in November showed the worst-case scenario: Russian forces crossing the Ukrainian border from the east and attacking from annexed Crimea, as well as the launch of an amphibious assault on Odessa with the support of Russian soldiers in Transnistria and troops sent from Belarus . Some aspects of the plan, such as offensives from the east and via Crimea, already seem possible. Others, like an attack from Belarus, appear to take into account troops that have yet to arrive in the area.

Russia could assert its dominance with a smaller operation. The head of the Ukrainian military intelligence service told the New York Times that his nightmarish scenario involved air strikes and rocket attacks on munitions dumps and trenches that could leave the army paralyzed, leaving the frontline commanders to fight on their own. They would fall, he said, if Russia launched a full-strength invasion. At this point, Russia may seek to force Kiev into a disadvantageous peace deal.

Map showing invasion scenarios.

Other options include the dispatch of a “peacekeeping force” or the clandestine deployment of troops under the guise of separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. From there, they could reignite fighting along the front line or seek to conquer new territories.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, one option would be to get out of Donetsk to try to establish a land bridge connecting Crimea with the territory near Rostov, as well as to seize the Kherson region north of the Crimea and secure the North Crimean Canal. . Russia would need to capture Mariupol, a large and well-defended city, for this plan to work.

The potential economic backlash from any further combat would be enormous, as the United States and its allies promise “deep and severe” sanctions in the event of an attack.

The last option is perhaps the most likely: Russia seeks concessions to the west in negotiations while keeping its troops along the border for a credible threat of escalation. Putin said he believes the high tensions are useful for Russia and that he has already withdrawn his troops from Ukraine once this year.

Still, analysts say without a clear diplomatic victory, any withdrawal could look like a defeat.

What is the role of Nord Stream 2?

The completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea gives both sides an economic weapon. The pipeline would allow Russia to send gas to Europe without going through Ukraine, meaning Moscow could put pressure on Kiev without risking Kiev cutting off the gas supply route in retaliation. Ukraine has lobbied fiercely against the project, claiming that it undermines its national security.

Map showing where the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is located

However, the pipeline, which has become a favorite of Putin’s project, is not yet live, and Western governments have signaled that in the event of an invasion, this may never happen.

Christi C. Elwood