Russia continues to pull its troops towards Ukraine’s borders and in both countries there is talk of the possibility of a new war. At the request of The Insider, experts from the Conflict Intelligence Team have analysed open sources, evaluated the scale of the forces involved, showed what kind of troops have appeared at the border and why these preparations cannot be explained by “exercises”.
Starting in late March this year, Russian social media has been full of videos allegedly showing Russian military convoys and trains carrying trucks and combat vehicles. Many posters claimed they were moving towards the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula or towards the Russia-Ukraine border. One of the most viral videos showed a trainload of Msta-S self-propelled howitzers on the newly constructed bridge between Russia and Crimea.
During the past few days, we at Conflict Intelligence Team, as well as other researchers, have been closely studying these videos. We have conclusively determined that Russia is moving a variety of units, including motorized, artillery, paratrooper and, most likely, tank units towards Ukraine. Two known destinations are Crimea and the environs of Voronezh, a city some 170 km (105 miles) from the Ukrainian border.
To confirm this, we used a Russian publicly available railcar tracking database (gdevagon), which allows us to track the routes of railcars and flatbeds by their unique ID numbers. As the videos show, these numbers are often written on the carriages themselves.
Among the units being transferred, some are known to have fought inside Ukraine, such as the elite 76th Guards Air Assault division, which lost troops while fighting the Ukrainian forces in the country's eastern regions back in 2014.
The tanks of the 74th Motorized brigade, T-72B3 previously seen fighting in Ukraine, are also moving towards the border.
Videos on social media show artillery and motorized riflemen from Yurga in Siberia transferred towards Ukraine.
The Russian military has tried to explain away the vehicle transfer with exercises in the Southern military district (which also covers Crimea). However Michael Kofman, for example, a senior researcher at US-based CNA, does not buy this explanation, given that, firstly, the exercises were announced only after the media had reported the troops transfers, and secondly, they do not explain the vast geography of the transfers (we have seen units being shuffled from across Russia, including the North, the Caucasus, Siberia and possibly the Far Eastern Pacific coast). This also applies to the «snap check» just announced by Russia's Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu.
Such a mass troop transfer could be explained by a strategic (as opposed to a local) exercise, but such maneuvers aren't due until Zapad-2021, set to take place this September. While mass exercises in Western Russia and allied Belarus take place every year, such a troop concentration near Ukraine is unprecedented since 2014—2015, when Russian regulars operated in Crimea and Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.
Some pro-Kremlin sources have claimed that the Russian buildup is happening in response to a Ukrainian troop transfer towards Crimea and Donbas, but this assertion does not stand up to criticism. Firstly, Ukrainian military intelligence made its first claims about a Russian buildup back in early March — at the same time, the first evidence of Ukrainian military transfers started to appear on social media. It should be noted, that the earliest videos of recent Russian troop transfers to Crimea (that we are aware of) appeared as early as February. Secondly, the Russian deployment known to us suggests an offensive rather than defensive posture — for example, Voronezh region does not border the Russia-backed separatist statelets in Donbas. The other side of the border near Voronezh is controlled by Kyiv, and a Ukrainian offensive into Russia itself would be inconceivable.
The currently available social media data is not enough to give a definitive assessment of the numbers of the Russian troops moved towards Ukraine (in addition to those permanently based in border areas). In late March, the Ukrainian military assessed that at least 28 battalion tactical groups (around 20,000 servicemen) were present at the border, while the New York Times cited US military sources as saying that Russia might have moved up to 4,000 troops to the border. We believe that we will soon know the final staging grounds of the Russian vehicles (after unloading, they are transported on military low-loader trucks towards the border). After that, a more credible assessment will be possible via satellite imagery. However, even now it is obvious that such a concentration of troops has never been seen since the “hot phase” of the war in Ukraine ended in early 2015.
As it stands now, we have not seen any obvious signs of an imminent invasion (such as Russian convoys next to the border itself, like one seen by British reporter Shaun Walker in August 2014). The currently available data would allow us to agree with various pundits who have stated that the troops are being transferred to intimidate the Ukrainian government (which has recently taken bold steps against Ukrainian politicians and groups seen as Russia's “agents of influence”), and also to “test the resolve” of the new administration in Washington.
However, it is important to note that the Russian troop concentration is a continuing process. Almost daily, we receive information about new units and destinations. Thus, both our quantitative and qualitative assessment could change in the nearest future under pressure of new evidence. Nonetheless, we will continue to closely monitor developments.