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Explained: How large is Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine?

Russia is supposedly engaged in the largest build-up since the Cold War. Putin has created pressure points on three sides of Ukraine — in Crimea to the south, on the Russian side of the two countries’ border, and in Belarus to the north.

Written by Rounak Bagchi , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: February 15, 2022 8:50:19 am
A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea. (Photo: AP)

From tanks and artillery, to ammunition and air power, Russia has about 130,000 troops stationed around Ukraine with American officials warning that Putin has already amassed 70 per cent of forces required for a full-scale invasion of the country.

A war “could happen as soon as tomorrow”, Jake Sullivan, America’s national security adviser, has warned. While it is not clear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to launch an attack — and Moscow has repeatedly said that it has no plans to do so — analysts say the country is well on its way towards constructing the architecture needed for a significant military intervention in Ukraine.

So, how large is Russia’s military build-up around Ukraine?

According to analysts, much of the build-up so far has involved troops and equipment that take time to deploy, including tanks and heavy armour, some of which have travelled by train from bases as far away as Siberia.

However, to understand the scale of this build-up, we need to first understand the characteristics of the Russian Army. Around 100 Russian battalion tactical groups — fighting formations of 1,000 or so troops, accompanied by air defence, artillery and logistics — have gathered on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus, according to Rochan Consulting, which tracks Russian military movements.

The Belarus Map shows Russian troop deployment in the country that may aid an invasion. (Photo: Twitter/@konrad_muzyka)

The battalion tactical group, or BTG, is a fighting formation of 600 to 1,000 troops equipped with their own artillery, air defence and logistics. During the 2015 Russia-Ukraine war, the Russian administration had sent no more than a dozen BTGs. Today, it has around 100 deployed to the border areas, as per Rochan.

What is even more serious is that 10 out of Russia’s 11 Combined Arms Armies — a high-level formation that typically contains several divisions — are now near Ukraine.

Added to the infantry division are Russia’s four naval fleets — the Baltic, Black Sea, Northern and Pacific Fleets. The country’s defence ministry has said that it will be conducting drills in January and February, involving more than 140 warships and support vessels and 10,000 personnel, including missile launches off Ireland’s west coast. Warships from Baltic and Northern Fleets have already been spotted moving towards the Black Sea. Key ships from the Pacific Fleet are also headed for the Mediterranean.

Engineering, logistics and medical enablers have also been spotted. Russian “pipeline troops”, which rapidly refuel mechanised forces, and can lay up to 80 km of pipeline a day, have been seen in Krasnodar, close to Crimea. American officials have also said that Russia has moved blood supplies closer to the Ukrainian border, according to news agency Reuters.

Moreover, Ukraine is essentially ringed on three sides, because of a large Russian military exercise in Belarus. “Allied Resolve”, a Russia-Belarus exercise began on February 10 and is due to end on February 20. Moscow’s deployment into Belarus is believed to be its biggest there since the Cold War, with “an expected 30,000 combat troops, Spetsnaz special operation forces, fighter jets including SU-35, Iskander dual-capable missiles and S-400 air defense systems,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on February 3.

When was the last time Russia amassed such a huge number of troops?

Russia is supposedly engaged in the largest build-up since the Cold War. Although the Russian administration did send in a quarter of a million troops when the then Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, with ten more divisions in the rear, the current build-up is not far from the biggest Soviet exercise ever held during the Cold War.

“Zapad-81” in 1981 involved as many as 150,000 troops, and the present situation has already surpassed the biggest NATO exercise, “Reforger” in 1988, which gathered 125,000. Russia’s build-up today is also larger than America’s in Europe ahead of the first Gulf war in 1991 or the NATO air campaign against Serbia in 1999. It also goes past the first and second Chechen wars, which began in 1994 and 1999 respectively, each of which involved fewer than 50,000 Russian troops.

The last mobilisation of this size was Operation Storm, a Croatian offensive against Serbia in 1995, during the Balkan wars, in which as many as 130,000 Croatian troops were thrown into action.

Which are the areas from where a Russian invasion could be launched?

Russia has created pressure points on three sides of Ukraine — in Crimea to the south, on the Russian side of the two countries’ border, and in Belarus to the north.

Donetsk and Luhansk in East Ukraine have been pegged by many analysts to be the most likely areas of an invasion as Russian and Ukrainian forces have been at loggerheads in this region since 2014. According to CNN, a large base at Yelnya, which held Russian tanks, artillery and other armour, has been largely emptied, with the equipment apparently being moved much closer to the frontier in recent days.

The Yelnya Map shows the Russian force compositions in the Yelnya area in East Ukraine. (Photo: Twitter/@konrad_muzyka)

Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, would also be a perfect ground to launch an invasion from. A large deployment of troops and equipment has been observed by Maxar, which assesses that more than 550 troop tents and hundreds of vehicles have arrived north of the Crimean capital, Simferopol. This coincided with several Russian warships anchoring at Crimea’s main port. Moves in the southern Ukrainian region will also be supported by troops that are present in Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova.

Belarus, too, is another flashpoint where Russian troops are already present for a military exercise.

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