Russian buildup near Ukraine features potent weapons systems, well-trained troop

A tank of Russian armed forces fires during military exercises in the Leningrad Region, Russia (Photo: Reuters)
A tank of Russian armed forces fires during military exercises in the Leningrad Region, Russia (Photo: Reuters)


The forces give Moscow the means to attack Ukraine from multiple directions but aren’t sufficient to occupy the entire country

Russia’s enormous military buildup near Ukraine features some of its most potent weapon systems and provides the Kremlin with the means to attack Ukrainian forces from multiple directions, which likely would overstretch their defenses.

In its buildup, which has quickened in recent weeks, Russia has positioned forces on three sides of Ukraine: in Belarus, western Russia and Crimea and on naval vessels in the Black Sea. The forces include some of Russia’s best trained battalions, special forces and surface-to-surface missiles that could strike targets throughout Ukraine.

The more than 130,000 troops Russia has in the region are still too few to seize and occupy the entire country, according to U.S. assessments. Urban warfare would still be a challenge, military specialists said, as it was for Russian forces fighting in Chechnya more than a decade ago and for the U.S. and its partners in the Iraqi city of Mosul in their more recent struggle against Islamic State militants.

However, Russia’s deployments provide its commanders formidable advantages. They include the capability to make rapid thrusts toward Ukraine’s capital, seize swaths of territory, take command of the skies and blockade the country’s ports, current and former U.S. officials said.

“The advantages are very strong up front. They can move quickly and use artillery and missile systems with long-ranges and a high rate of fire to target military facilities, air defense and army units," said Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the Rand Corp.

“But over time, the missions would become more complicated for them, like holding roads, securing terrain and cordoning off major cities. Urban warfare would be very manpower intensive, and they don’t train on that scale," Ms. Massicot said.

For months, Biden administration officials said that if Russia attacks, the U.S. would expand its supply of weapons to Ukraine’s forces, as well as impose punishing economic sanctions. Sending supplies could effectively be foreclosed if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders a major invasion, which the White House has said could halt commercial transportation and sever communications.

On Sunday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Russia has sharply accelerated its buildup and that an attack could come “essentially at any time." Moscow has said it has no intention of invading Ukraine but could take retaliatory military measures against what Mr. Putin has called “unfriendly steps."

Ukraine’s forces, which number some 260,000, have improved since 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea and backed a separatist proxy force in Ukraine’s east. Since then, Ukrainian forces have benefited from U.S. and other Western advisers and increased support. Those forces, however, would be stretched thin if they had to defend against potential Russian attacks on multiple axes, military analysts said.

The best of Ukraine’s forces are positioned on the border of Donbas, where fighting against the Russian-supported separatists has been going on since 2014. Those Ukrainian forces, however, could be vulnerable to envelopment if Russian troops attacked from the north and the south.

The U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have sent antitank weapons, Stinger air-defense missiles and other battlefield systems to Ukraine. Ukraine also has acquired Turkish-made drones, one of which it used in October to destroy a howitzer manned by Russian-backed separatists. Still, the arms shipments the U.S. and its partners have provided haven’t included sophisticated air defenses or antiship missiles, hampering Ukrainians’ ability to defend themselves against Russia’s more modern military.

Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who served as the U.S. Army commander in Europe from 2014 to 2018, said that by surrounding Ukraine on three sides, the Kremlin may be trying to damage the country’s economy and undermine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government while keeping its military options open. Already, some businesses are putting expansion plans on hold, the Dutch airline KLM has suspended flights, and U.S. military trainers have been withdrawn.

“Russian forces are like a boa constrictor around Ukraine," Gen. Hodges said. “If the Kremlin can bring about a collapse, it won’t have to attack or worry about sanctions."

Russian officials have said their forces in Belarus are conducting a joint exercise with that nation’s military while Russian naval maneuvers are being carried out in the Black Sea. Western analysts said the exercise in Belarus—where Russian artillery, multiple rocket systems, warplanes, missiles and reconnaissance drones have been deployed—provides Russian forces with an opportunity to fine-tune tactics and train for a potential attack.

“Currently there’s over 130,000 troops stationed at readiness or exercising—plus warplanes, plus ships into the Black Sea—on the borders of Ukraine, and that is an action that is not normal," Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary, said last week. “It is beyond normal exercising."

At the forefront of Russia’s capabilities are battalion tactical groups that have been deployed close to Ukraine, including in Belarus, according to U.S. assessments. Those units, which generally number about 700 to 800 troops each, are manned by professional soldiers instead of conscripts. Built around mechanized infantry or tank battalions, they are reinforced with artillery, air defenses, electronic warfare and other units. The Biden administration told Congress earlier this month that 83 of the groups were poised near Ukraine. That number, U.S. officials said, has since increased

The battalion tactical groups are capable of fast maneuvering on open terrain, including a rush toward Kyiv, U.S. officials said, but are also too small to defend large areas. If a major attack is ordered, traditional Russian regiments and brigades would likely follow to consolidate gains, according to current and former officials. Russian helicopters, which have been observed moving toward the region, could also be used to insert airborne troops at road junctions and bridges, and to fire at Ukrainian reinforcements moving to the front.

Adding to Russia’s firepower are Iskander surface-to-surface missile brigades, whose deployments within range of Ukraine have tripled since October, according to Phillip Karber of the Potomac Foundation, a policy research organization. Along with Kalibr cruise missiles deployed on vessels in the Black Sea, the Iskander missiles could strike airfields, ammunition storage sites, air defenses, army bases and command centers throughout Ukraine. Russia could use bombers to fire air-launched cruise missiles.

If Russia attacks, Russian Su-35 fighters and the S-400 air defense systems that Moscow has deployed in Belarus and whose range extends well into Ukraine, would give the Russians an advantage in the skies.

“These systems will help Russia achieve air superiority over the Ukrainian Air Force within days of the start of a further invasion" and would also dissuade the U.S. and allied cargo and reconnaissance aircraft from operating in Ukrainian airspace, according to an assessment by military fellows at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

In amassing its forces, Russia has deployed units from far-flung bases near China in the nation’s far east, garrisons near Norway in the north and from installations in the south near Georgia and Azerbaijan, according to Western experts and accounts on social-media.

Warships have steamed to the Black Sea from Russia’s northern Arctic waters and the Baltic Sea, giving Moscow the capability to blockade Ukrainian ports. During maneuvers there they are carrying out missile firings in zones restricting shipping. Still, more Russian naval vessels have taken up positions in the Mediterranean.

An invasion could start with cyberattacks, electronic jamming and, the U.S. has repeatedly alleged, some sort of staged provocation.

Among Mr. Putin’s options are putting military pressure on Kyiv without entering the city and moving more Russian forces into separatist-controlled Donbas, said Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general who served as NATO commander from 2013 to 2016. They could also seize Ukraine’s southern coastline, which could enable the Russians to isolate the city of Mariupol and control the water supply that serves occupied Crimea, he said.

“He has built a set of tools that gives him distinct options, and those tools now are ready," Gen. Breedlove said.


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