Military Assessment of the Russian Crisis: Forces in Place for Ukraine Invasion on Less Than 12 Hours’ Notice
In light of the current crisis in Russia, the Scowcroft Center Cheeky Defense Practice (FD) will share weekly assessments of the latest force developments around Ukraine, leveraging expert insights from our senior military colleagues. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied herein are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any other US government agency.
The bottom line
Russia has essentially completed preparations for a full-scale offensive operation and could probably execute another invasion of Ukraine with less than twelve hours’ unambiguous warning, such as deployed forces moving towards their “jump” points. Its joint exercise with Belarus focused on a combined arms offensive, including establishing air superiority and providing air support to a large mechanized force. Russia’s upcoming naval exercises will likely focus on establishing naval superiority in the Black Sea, potentially leveraging its fleet to execute a naval embargo on Black Sea ports.
Movements of Russian forces
Air and Air Defense: The Russian Air Force (RAF) has the aircraft in place to support a major offensive. The RAF trains to quickly establish air superiority over Ukraine and provide air support to ground forces, while signaling that it will engage American or NATO planes if they were to intervene in the conflict.
- On February 10, a Russian Su-25 aircraft carried out a ground attack mission as part of Union Courage ’22 exercise (also known as Allied Response ’22). Notably, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) said that the Su-25s “carried out combat training tasks to detect camouflaged objects simulating checkpoints, armored and automotive equipment of the fake enemy”. This mission demonstrates the type of interdiction missions the Su-25 and other ground attack assets will be tasked with in the event of a conflict: find and destroy enemy mechanized targets like tanks and artillery before they got into close combat with Russian ground forces.
- On February 11, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Su-35S fighters had conducted a training mission during which they had captured and destroyed a “conditional air target”. The press release noted that the “unified regional air defense system” of Russia and Belarus “discovered a conditional air target approaching the area of responsibility that did not respond to requests.” While a fighter jet simulation like this is common, for Russia to publicize it in this way sends a message to the United States and NATO: if they fly a plane near or in an area of active hostilities, the Russians will destroy it. Additionally, the advanced fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that Russia has deployed in Belarus provide the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubble’ that covers much of space. Ukrainian airspace – an additional warning against any NATO country entering Ukrainian airspace in the event of new hostilities.
Marine: Russian exercises off the coast of Ukraine and the presence of general-purpose submarines reduce Ukraine’s ability to sound the alarm at the first signs of an impending attack. Monitor movement to and from Black Sea ports as an indicator of nearby danger.
- On February 10, the Russian Black Sea Fleet began exercises off the Crimean Peninsula in the Sea of Azov. These exercises integrate naval forces into an A2/AD area on the Ukrainian coastline while simultaneously cutting off the port of Odessa. Although not a blockade, these exercises can actually achieve the same result. Moreover, the proximity to the Ukrainian coast greatly reduces the ability to signal a warning before a Russian invasion. One potential indicator remains: ships involved in exercises prior to an invasion may make a quick stopover to replenish supplies, thus extending the length of time ships will remain on station. Watch out for ships entering the harbor for a few hours before returning quickly to the station.
- On February 13, an upgraded Russian Kilo-class submarine (project 636.3) transited the Turkish Strait into the Black Sea. Project 636.3 submarines are equipped with Kalibr missiles, providing a range of options from land attack to anti-ship. The arrival of an additional Kalibr-compatible submarine increases Russia’s ability to covertly strike targets and hold NATO ships in danger with little or no warning.
Nuclear Capable Forces: Russia’s latest moves with its nuclear-capable forces are likely intended to warn the United States and NATO nations of the risks of nuclear escalation if they intervened directly in support of Ukraine. These actions complement statements by President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials on the risk of nuclear war. Russia does not need to carry equipment to be capable of nuclear escalation in Europe, so these moves are best understood as a signal.
- On Feb. 7, a handheld video surfaced showing a MiG-31 equipped with a Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile landing in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania, for the first time. According to Russia, the missile is nuclear-capable and has a range of 1,250 miles, meaning the MiG-31 could launch the missile from Kaliningrad airspace and easily hit several high-value targets in Ukraine, including including the capital. The deployment means that Russia is likely to employ this hypersonic missile operationally if Russia launches a full-scale offensive, while providing an implied threat of possible nuclear retaliation against the intervention of the United States and NATO in a possible broader conflict in Ukraine.
- So far, there have been no appearances of some of the other so-called “exotic” nuclear weapons described by Putin in a 2018 speech, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile and a nuclear-powered submarine. drone. It is possible that Russia is keeping them in reserve for additional nuclear signaling. It is more likely that these systems will not yet be ready for prime time (recall that the Burevestnik cruise missile exploded after a test in 2019).
- The deployment of Kinzhal coincides with patrols of Russian Tu-22 nuclear-capable bombers over Belarus, as we analyzed in our last assessment, as well as similar patrols in November and December of the year last.
Deployments in the United States, allies and partners
On February 12, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) announced that the The American army will deploy three thousand additional American soldiers to reinforce the NATO countries in Eastern Europe. The United States has now deployed a total of five thousand troops to Europe and repositioned a Stryker task force (one thousand troops) from Germany to Romania. These additional ground forces will be ready to help evacuate American citizens who may flee to Poland during the crisis but, as US policy stands, these troops will not enter Ukraine to evacuate personnel. the Avoiding U.S. military casualties is the DoD’s current priority., compared to conducting a typical non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) with military personnel. Additionally, the DoD announced that it was transferring one hundred and sixty US troops out of Ukraine. They had been deployed to advise and mentor the Ukrainian army. If US troops are caught in the crossfire of a Russian invasion – even in an operation as peaceful as a NEO – it risks embroiling the US and NATO in a much larger conflict.
- Led by the corps commander, the 300 troops from XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters who have already deployed to Germany could eventually become part of a joint task force headquarters formed to lead the U.S. military tactical response in Ukraine.
- Several units based in the United States remain on heightened alert (a deployment period of five days compared to ten days). These units include combat formations, medical support, air support and logistics support; they come from the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division and the 4th Infantry Division.
Over the past three weeks, the United States Air Force deployed at least ten fighters and bombers from the continental United States to Europe and forward deployed fighters from their home bases in Europe to Eastern Europe. Most visibly, the US Air Force sent four B-52 Stratofortresses to Royal Air Force Base (RAF) Fairford in the UK. Additionally, six F-15E Strike Eagles were deployed from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, to Estonia as part of the Baltic Air Policing mission. Finally, the US Air Force is pushing its European-based aircraft east, sending F-15C air-to-air fighters from RAF Lakenheath to Poland and sending F-16 Fighting Falcons from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. In Romania. These deployments are designed to signal U.S. determination, demonstrate military strength, and signal U.S. ability to gain air superiority if the potential conflict spills over beyond Ukraine.
Russia has completed – or is about to complete – the reinforcement of its forces in Belarus and on its border with Ukraine. Its strengths now include high-end military capabilities; combat tools, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) vehicles, electronic warfare, mobile communications and command and control vehicles; and combat support capabilities, including munitions, vehicle maintenance, field medical sites, blood supplies and security forces. The most likely indicator of an impending invasion will be the movement of deployed forces to “jump” positionswhich may have already started. Check out our Military Rating Card here.
Meet our military comrades
Today’s briefing is brought to you by COL Benjamin Johnson, Comrade Senior United States Army, Comrade Senior United States Navy, CDR Daniel Vardiman, Comrade Senior United States Air Force, Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel, and FD assistant director Mark J. Massa. The Scowcroft Center Military Fellows Program, hosted by the Cheeky The Defense Practice welcomes military fellows from participating branches of the U.S. military and the armed forces of U.S. allies and partners each year for a twelve-month fellowship program.