Lessons from Russia’s military build-up in and around Ukraine: was Russia rehearsing a full-scale offensive operation?


Ukrainian President Zelenskyi has survived his first substantial security crisis: a Russian military build-up in the Ukrainian-Russian border regions of Belgorod, Kursk, Rostov and Voronezh, and the Russian-occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas. Russia accumulated an invasion scale force of  heavy military equipment and an estimated 110,000 troops. In the preceding month, Russia had also intensified its pledges to protect Russian nationals, living in Ukraine’s Donbas conflict zone. However, after a two-week international security crisis, the country’s Defence Minister Shougy decided to withdraw military units from the region. What was Russia attempting to achieve with its short-term, but expensive and impressive military manoeuvring?

Armed vehicles are moving across grass-land amid a parade

In March-April 2021, Russia amassed over 100,000 troops along Russia-Ukraine border and in Russia-occupied regions of Crimea and sections of Donbas. Under the pretext of conducting military exercises, the country effectively turned the Black Sea region into a partially closed area denial zone. Against this background, Ukraine’s Security Service commenced nationwide anti-terrorist military drills with a particular focus on the Black Sea coastal regions. Ukrainian military capabilities, although improved since 2014, could not match the scale of Russian military build-up. If a Russian offensive operation occurred, Ukraine would require support from its Western allies. Their military responses, however, were inconsistent. At first, the US reportedly decided to send two warships in the Black Sea, but recalled them back, once Russia’s President Putin agreed to a personal meeting with US President Biden. Simultaneously, EU member states urged both Russia and Ukraine to refrain from military escalations. Arguably unintentionally, the US and the EU sent Ukraine an important message: as long as Putin agrees to talk, diplomacy will remain the modus operandi when dealing with Russia.


Russia’s military build-up of a rare intensity

Russia commenced its latter military build-up in the Black Sea region in early March. Within a month, it re-deployed some 110,000 troops and heavy military equipment to the regions bordering Ukraine and to Russia-occupied Ukrainian territories. Both Ukraine and the EU estimate that Russia has accumulated approximately the same number of forces it had had in the Black Sea region in 2014.

According to Ukraine’s intelligence services, around a third of the Russian newly redeployed military units were redeployed to four Russian regions bordering Ukraine: Kursk, Belgorod, Voronezh, and Rostov. The rest of military personnel is believed to be equally spread in Crimea and “DPR/LPR”-held territories. In addition, Russia has transported various heavy military equipment and vessels to these regions. As of the beginning of April, Russia has reportedly deployed its short-range ballistic missile systems SS-26 Iskander with a 500-km range and a warhead rated at 200 kilotons closer to Russia-Ukraine border. Another nuclear-capable ammunition, 240-mm self-propelled mortars 2S4 Tyulpan, were relocated to Russia’s Krasnodar region and Crimea. The redeployment of troops to Russia’s southern regions and Crimea exhausted the country’s capacities for the rail freight transportation. Since mid-March, Russian agricultural producers were unable to fully perform their contractual obligations due to the severe shortage of rail transport platforms, rented out to the Russian military.

Additionally, Russia’s Navy sent the combination of vessels and military equipment, essential to conduct landing operations to the Black Sea, according to the country’s military operation plans. The Caspian Flotilla and the Northern Fleet transferred eight major and minor landing vessels and nine gunboats and rocket artillery boats to the Black Sea. On paper, these warships were capable of carrying simultaneously some 1,500 fully equipped soldiers, dozens of battle tanks and ammunition. The warships were armed with 122-mm multiple rocket launchers Grad, anti-air guns and other types of heavy weapons. In addition to this amphibious group, Russia has redeployed to Crimea some 50 jets, including Su-27SM and Su-30SM fighters, Su-24M and Su-34 bombers, and Su-25SM3 close air support planes. After beefing up its own military presence, Russia restricted the navigation of foreign military and official ships in some parts of the Black Sea until October 2021. This measure remains in place even after the withdrawal of some Russian troops from the Black Sea.


What Russia wanted from Ukraine this time

Seven years after the annexation of Crimea, Russia realised the strategic mistake it made: to annex the peninsula without the vitally important North Crimean canal. The land improvement canal used to supply drinking and irrigation water to Ukraine’s Kherson region and Crimea. Before 2014, mainland Ukraine supplied up to 85% of Crimea’s water consumption via this route. The canal starts near Nova Kakhovka, a town in Kherson region located on the Dnieper river, and stretches all its way to the eastern tip of the peninsula. Around two-thirds of the canal are located now outside of the Ukraine-controlled territories. After the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine shut down the available part of the canal to curb water supplies to the peninsula. Two dams currently block the water flow: one is located just a few hundred meters away from the administrative boundary with Crimea, the other – some 10km farther into Ukraine-controlled territory. Apart from these dams, the northern section of the canal is believed to remain fully operational and is used to supply water to Ukraine’s Kherson region’s southern districts.


A Soviet map of Norhtern Crimea canal
A Soviet map of Norhtern Crimea canal


The shortages of drinking water in Crimea were noticeable, but manageable until the last summer. The year of 2020 was the driest year in the last 150 years for the peninsula. Due to the low precipitation level, local reservoirs and rivers dried up, further increasing the shortage of freshwater. The acute water deficit is worsened by a post-2014 increase in Crimea’s population by about a third of the original number. Russia deployed its military personnel in the peninsula, and also actively encourages Russian nationals to move to Crimea to dilute the ethnic Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minorities. To combat the drought, Russia attempts to pursue various projects aimed at creating alternative water sources: from cloud seeding for rainfall induction to creation of new desalinisation facilities and water wells. In October 2020, Russia’s Prime Minister Mishustin allocated some €550mn to modernise the peninsula’s water supply system. In April 2020, Russia’s government announced allocation of additional €37mn for water supply infrastructure upgrades.

These measures most probably came too late. Crimea is unlikely to achieve water self-sufficiency by the peak tourist season of 2021. Last year, Russia’s Crimean authorities have already introduced the rationing schedule of the drinking water supplies, even in tourist-dependent coastal settlements. The same rules applied to agricultural producers, what resulted in some 50% reduction of harvest output across the peninsula. Now, authorities are tightening this measure further. In April, a month before Crimea becomes a mecca for Russian tourist deprived from their more typical vacations in Turkey, the peninsula further tights the water rationing schedule. Currently, Sevastopol residents receive drinking water for only 10 hours per day; in Alushta, the city hall further rationed the water supplies to five hours per day.

Russia put the blame on Ukraine for the hardships of Crimean residents. It frames Ukraine’s unwillingness to supply water to the annexed territories as “water genocide”. This political rhetoric is likely to be used to pave the way for Russia to lodge lawsuits against Ukraine. By launching international litigation, Russia also threatens to demand some 20bn euro in compensation for damages allegedly caused to the peninsula by the water blockade. However, such legal steps would take Russia years to pursue, and have no guarantees of success: Ukraine claims that Russia, as an occupying state, has to accept responsibility for supplying civilians with necessities in the occupied territories. Hence, a military offensive operation, potentially, could be perceived by Russia as a viable and faster option.


A likelihood of a Russian military offensive operation

Russia had a number of reasons to pursue such a military option. Apart from the most pressing issue of water shortages in Crimea, there are also several domestic gains the Kremlin can achieve by forcing Ukraine to restore its drinking water supply to the peninsula. In September, Russia will hold  parliamentary elections. Their results might deprive Russian President Putin from a parliamentary supermajority his party United Russia has been enjoying since 2016. Recent opinion polls confirm a probability of such a scenario: only 27% of Russians would vote for United Russia this autumn. Putin himself has a support level of some 38% of respondents, but the number is likely to drop if any new anti-COVID-19 restrictions are introduced. The country’s authorities have already started working on averting a possible devastating defeat in the upcoming election. Hence, President Putin’s pledge to invest some €5.5bn into economic and social measures announced at his annual address to the Parliament on April 21st.

Within the 20 years of Putin’s rule in Russia, his public approval rating, as well as those of the party, soared only two times: after the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and after the annexation of Crimea of 2014. If Russia decides to resort to such a measure, a seizure of Ukraine’s Northern Crimean Canal and immediate corridor around it would not require a large-scale military offensive operation. The territory Russia needs to take under control to restore drinking water supply to Crimea is moderately small. The distance between Russia-controlled Crimea and the source of the Northern Crimean Canal in Ukraine-run Nova Kakhovka is 65 km. This area is sparsely populated rural flat grassland. That might give Russian advancing ground troops enough space for manoeuvre, at least during the initial phase of a military offensive operation, and would spare army units street fighting.


A view from a bus driving along a grassland road in Kherson region. The road is narrow and streight, the landscape is flat
A road in Ukrainian Kherson region just a few kilometres from Russia-occupied Crimea


Nonetheless, success of a military offensive operation to seize control over Nova Kakhovka is not guaranteed. The Crimean Peninsula connects to the Ukrainian mainland with a 10km-wide Perekop isthmus. Knowing its weak spot, Ukraine has fortified its positions near the isthmus, constructing defenсe lines, pillboxes, laying landmines, to turn it into a deadly bottleneck. There, the Ukrainian army has an advantage of stopping advancing Russian forces before they reach Kherson region. Russia’s joker is amphibious military drills. Under the pretext of conducting exercises, Russia’s landing vessels, with motorised units aboard, could reach the coast of Skadovsk, located just 40km away from Crimea. This would allow Russian troops to leave the Perekop trap behind and also to constantly reinforce its military units. From Skadovsk, Russian troops could access both Kherson and Nova Kakhovka, or to support advancing troops at the Perekop isthmus. Thus, Russia’s decision to keeps parts of the Black Sea for foreign vessels closed until October should be met with intensified surveillance monitoring and data sharing.

Any Russian military operation against Ukraine would have two types of circumstantial evidence: increased diplomatic pressure and an intense media propaganda campaign. The country’s state-owned media outlets have already started the latter. In January, Margarita Simonyan, an editor-in-chief of the Russian major international holding Russia Today, visited DPR-occupied Donetsk to participate in the ‘Russian Donbas’ forum. DPR and LPR militias set the goal of the forum as to develop the doctrine of ‘Russian Donbas’ with a major objective to accede to Russia. At the forum, Simonyan played her role of a Donbas loudspeaker to Russia. In her speech, Simonyan urged Russia to annex eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region:


People of Donbas want to have a chance to be Russians. We are obliged to give them such a chance. People of Donbas want to stay at home and, simultaneously, to be a part of a large, great motherland. Mother Russia, take Donbas home.” -  Margarita Simonyan, an editor-in-chief of the Russian major international holding Russia Today, at the Russian Donbas forum, Donetsk, January 2021

Simonyan set a potent example in Donetsk, which was followed by a number of Russian government propagandist and senior public officials. The rhetoric was similar: Russia will not leave separatist DPR and LPR militias to face Ukraine one-on-one. In March and April, first Yevgeniy Primakov, Russia’s head of the state agency for international humanitarian cooperation, and then Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff, pledged that, if Ukraine initiated a military offensive operation on the “DPR/LPR” territories, Russia would respond militarily and even attack governmental and civilian targets in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to protect residents of the “DPR/LPR” territories.

Russia already used the reference to “responsibility to protect” (R2P) as a justification of its military advancement in 2008 in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in 2014 in Ukraine’s Crimea. The difference with Ukraine’s Donbas region is that this time, Russia ensured well in advance to back its R2P claims with real Russian nationals living in the region. Since 2019, Russia commenced issuing its passports to residents of Ukraine’s DPR/LPR-held territories. As of now, some 500,000 people, or a third of the population of the self-proclaimed republics, have obtained Russian citizenship. In late April, Russia’s deputy chairperson of the parliamentary committee for CIS affairs stated the objective to double the number of Russian nationals living under “DPR” and “LPR” by 2022, to 1 million people.

Russia’s public promises to support “DPR/LPR” militarily coincided with an abrupt discontinuation of the July 2020 ceasefire agreement between the separatists and the Ukrainian army. Only on March 26th, DPR/LPR militiamen killed four Ukrainian servicemen and wounded two more, the highest number of single-day casualties since the beginning of the truce. By mid-April, 16 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in action as a result of the re-escalation of Donbas fighting. It is hardly possible to confidently deduce who initiated the escalation: Russia, that needed an R2P pretext to initiate a military operation against Ukraine, or DPR and LPR militias, that attempted to reach their own political objectives by drugging Russia in an open military confrontation with Ukraine. In any case, increased fighting in the Donbas conflict zone is a likely proxy indicator of a potential Russian military offensive operation against Ukraine.


Russia’s demonstration of military capabilities: lessons to learn

Russia’s abrupt decision to return its military units to their permanent bases does not mean that Russia has completely abandoned an idea to seize the Northern Crimean Canal. It rather indicates that Russia gathered enough intelligence on Western responses to finetune its future military posturing. Such collected information could include data on Ukrainian air-defence systems, navy response scenarios and its military capabilities around Crimea.

Notwithstanding its rapid troops withdrawal, Russia’s military capabilities in and around Ukraine are likely to increase. It remains yet unclear which military units Russia kept in the region after pulling some of the troops back. Additionally, newly constructed military infrastructure, such as temporary bases and depots in Crimea and in the regions bordering Ukraine, could be used in the event of an escalation in the future. Thus, there are some political lessons Russia’s military manoeuvres around Ukraine should taught:

Lesson 1. Diplomacy will remain the main means of forcing Russia to comply with international norms; military escalation is likely to be seen as a last resort measure. There are good signals in this lesson: the US and, to a lesser degree, the EU are likely to impose further sanctions on Russia, if it attempts to intimidate Ukraine militarily. A mid-April package of US sanctions on Russia explicitly advises Russia against disregarding the territorial integrity of other states. Simultaneously, the US allocated an additional USD63mn to Ukraine for countering “Russian aggression”. However, there will be no US boots on the Ukrainian ground. The US administration quickly recalled its warships from entering the Black Sea, when Russia’s President Putin agreed for a bilateral meeting with US President Biden. This was a clear tactical signal of priorities for Russia.

Lesson 2. The US and the EU are diverging in their approaches when dealing with Russia, weakening the combined weight of responses. While the US is ready to further increase the economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia, the EU seems to be reaching its pain threshold. Due to their tighter economic ties with Russia, individual EU members states are becoming more vocal in their critique of imposing new sanctions on Russia. Against the background of the EU’s synchronised decisions to expel Russian diplomats, Germany and Austria criticised this sanction-oriented foreign policy on Russia. The latter is likely to endorse such attitudes in its bilateral relations with these states.

Lessons 3. Ukraine’s calls for the US to join the Normandy Four talks are unlikely to be accepted. Nothing personal, just business: the US has no interest in resuscitating this long-deceased diplomatic platform. Normandy Four’s Germany and France, preoccupied with the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, are also unwilling to heavily invest in the talks. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyi seems to realise the futility of the country’s diplomatic efforts via the Normandy Four format. His next step, a possible bilateral meeting with Russia’s President Putin, will be a momentous signal for the West: whether Ukraine continues to see the US and the EU as vital allies for its international posturing.

Lesson 4. The absence of the EU’s unified and solid response is likely to push Ukraine closer to Turkey and, if encouraged, to the US. Seven years after the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian people remain determined to continue the country’s integration with Europe. Ukraine’s current presidential administration understands that any political compromise with Russia, especial on such essential issues as water supply to Crimea, would trigger mass nationwide protests, similar to those of 2014. However, Europe’s political indecisiveness in supporting Ukraine might undermine Ukraine’s trust in the EU. From the Ukrainian perspective, the European Union, a unique example of international diplomatic success, does not fancy military measures. It continues to disregard Ukraine’s requests to assist it to fight Russia, instead insisting on talking with it. The US and Turkey, on the other hand, do not walk away from battlefield realm and provide Ukraine with appropriate tools: anti-tank missiles Javelin and combat UAVs Bayraktar. Effectively, the image of the EU has suffered in Kyiv as from the Ukrainian point of view the EU has failed to prove its reliability for Ukraine and to reaffirm its commitment to democratic Ukraine, similar to what Ukraine has been showing to the EU since 2014.