Why are there tensions?
Russia has deployed hundreds of tanks, self-propelled artillery, and even short-range ballistic missiles from as far away as Siberia to a surprising range of Ukraine’s borders.
Russia’s rhetoric has also become more belligerent. Vladimir Putin has demanded legal guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO or host its missile attack systems, concessions he is unlikely to receive. A flurry of diplomatic activity has done little to defuse tensions.
Putin is also short on time. His troops cannot remain outside the garrison indefinitely. In late winter, he will likely have to launch an attack or withdraw forces from him in what looks like a retreat.
How did we get here?
In 2014, Putin sent troops to annex Crimea, a mainly Russian-speaking region of Ukraine. Russia also incited a separatist uprising in southeastern Ukraine, clandestinely sending soldiers and weapons to provoke a conflict that turned into a full-fledged war.
A 2015 peace agreement established a demarcation line and called on both sides to make concessions. Since then, low-level fighting has continued along the front, with both sides accusing each other of violating the deal, which observers say is on the verge of collapsing.
Russia no longer wants to maintain the status quo and is looking for another way to assert control over Ukraine.
What do we know about deployments?
As of January 26, it was estimated that about 66 battalion tactical groups, the smallest operational unit in the Moscow army, were near the border.
Many of the heavy weapons stationed near Ukraine arrived in the spring of 2021, when Russia stationed an estimated 110,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near the border. Russia returned some, but not all, of its troops to the base in May after Putin secured a summit with Joe Biden.
This evaluation from December shows some of the main deployments at the end of 2021:
One of the largest forces remaining since May comes from the 41st Combined Arms Army, which is based in Novosibirsk, nearly 2,000 miles away. Stationed at the Pogonovo training area south of Voronezh since the spring, some of the 41st CAA’s forces have moved to Yelnya, a town in the Smolensk region closer to Belarus.
The equipment includes motorized infantry, main battle tanks, rocket artillery, and Iskander short-range ballistic missiles comprising approximately six or seven BTGs, according to an estimate by independent defense analyst Konrad Muzyka.
Tanks, motorized infantry and rocket artillery from the 1st Guards Tank Army based in the Moscow region have been moved to the Pogonovo training area, according to Muzyka estimates.
Satellite images taken from above of Pogonovo and Yelnya show the arrival of more teams between November 2021 and January 2022.
Other recent moves show motorized rifle brigades from the 49th Combined Arms Army moving into Crimea. The artillery and air defense assets of the 58th Combined Arms Army have also been seen in satellite photos taken from above Novoozerne in western Crimea.
There are also permanently deployed units near Ukraine from the 8th and 20th Combined Arms Armies. And Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of soldiers are stationed in the Russian-backed breakaway territories of Donetsk and Lugansk.
During the new year, Russia has flown tanks, artillery, air defense systems and fighter jets to Belarus for the joint exercises to be held from February 10 to 20. The deployment is substantial and unusual.
What form could a Russian attack take?
A map published by the Ukrainian military intelligence in November showed the worst case scenario: Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border from the east and attacked from annexed Crimea, as well as launching an amphibious assault on Odessa with the support of Russian soldiers in Transnistria and troops sent from Belarus.
Some aspects of the plan, such as offensives from the east and via the Crimea, already appear possible. Others, such as an attack from Belarus, appear to include troops that have not yet arrived in the region.
The thinking in Ukraine in late January was that an eastern-focused attack is the most likely scenario. On January 21, Ukrainian military intelligence said that since the beginning of the month, Moscow had supplied the separatists in eastern Ukraine with additional tanks, self-propelled artillery, mortars and more than 7,000 tons of fuel.
The Kremlin has been actively recruiting mercenaries at centers inside the Russian Federation, the agency added. These unofficial soldiers go through “intensive training courses” before being smuggled across the Russian border into the occupied areas of Donetsk and Lugansk, she said.
Russia’s armed forces have been covertly present in separatist areas since 2014, according to the Ukrainian government. They could openly enter the conflict and then try to break through the Ukrainian lines, amid a general escalation of hostilities.
The potential economic blowback from any further fighting would be huge, as the US and its allies promise “significant and severe” sanctions in the event of an attack.
Russia could still seek concessions from the West in negotiations while keeping its troops along the border for a credible threat of escalation. Putin has said that he believes high tensions are useful for Russia. However, analysts say that without a clear diplomatic victory, any setback could look like defeat.
When could an attack occur?
A potential window for any Donbas offensive would be after February 4, when Putin will attend the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing and meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Military exercises in Belarus are scheduled to end on February 20, the most obvious time for an offensive operation.
What is the role of Nord Stream 2?
The completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea provides both sides with an economic weapon. The pipeline would allow Russia to send gas to Europe without going through Ukraine, meaning Moscow could increase pressure on Kiev without the risk of Kiev cutting off the gas supply route in retaliation. Ukraine has lobbied furiously against the project, saying it undermines its national security.
However, the pipeline, which has become a pet project of Putin, has yet to come online, and Western governments have signaled that, in the event of an invasion, that may never happen.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism