Russia Bolsters Supply Lines, Deploys Medical Units Near Ukraine As Invasion Fears Grow: Report (Updated)
Logistical and medical capabilities would be critical for Russia to sustain any future major operation in Ukraine that could last weeks or more.
U.S. intelligence shows that the Russian military has established significant supply lines for fuel and other support, which now also include various medical units, for its forces arrayed around the country's borders with Ukraine, according to a report today from CNN. Though much attention has been paid to the Kremlin's positioning of heavy armor, artillery, and even long-range missiles in these same areas, logistical and medical support would be essential for sustaining any new major military intervention into Ukrainian territory.
Fears that Russia could be preparing to stage a new invasion of Ukraine as early as January have been building for weeks now. NATO, of which Ukraine is not a member, pushed back against Russian President Vladimir Putin's setting of new "red lines" over the alliance's potential involvement in the brewing crisis earlier this week. Russia and Ukraine have already been deeply embroiled in a conflict since 2014, when the Kremlin launched an operation to seize the Crimean Peninsula and then subsequently deployed troops to actively support ostensibly local "separatists" fighting the government in Kyiv.
"The current levels of equipment stationed in the area could supply front-line forces for seven to 10 days and other support units for as long as a month, according to one source familiar with the matter," according to CNN. The outlet said that a senior official in President Joe Biden's administration had also disclosed that the U.S. government had "seen additional Russia troops added to the border region in recent days," but did not provide any additional details.
"Russia's capabilities would be equivalent to a modern-day blitzkrieg," Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who is on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN, adding that the Russians have positioned themselves to attack Ukraine "when they want."
There has been at least one classified briefing regarding the situation in and around Ukraine this week given to some members of the U.S. House of Representatives, which took place on Dec. 1. "It doesn’t appear that the U.S. has seen any substantial changes to Russian posture in the last week or so," CNN's Katie Bo Lillis Tweeted afterward based on comments from the lawmakers who were present. This would indicate that the newly reported arrival of logistical and medical elements in the region either occurred prior to that or that it happened very recently.
Regardless of the exact timeline, that those supporting elements are now near Russia's borders with Ukraine is a significant development. It is a notable difference between publicly available reports about the situation now as compared to the deployment of large numbers of Russian forces to the same general region earlier this year. Those previous troop movements had also prompted concerns that the Kremlin was preparing to launch a new large-scale military operation against its neighbor.
"Pentagon officials say the current intelligence does not indicate that this land force is prepared for offensive operations in the next few days, because there is no evidence of the logistics, spare parts, fuel, and medical capability that would need to be pre-positioned," CNN had reported on April 14, amid that previous spike in tensions. "But the concern remains that there are also no indicators of Russia reducing its forces or signaling a de-escalation. And events on the ground can change quickly, officials caution, noting that the intelligence assessments typically project out for only a few days at a time."
Though there ultimately ended up not being any major confrontation in the spring, the Russian military left significant stockpiles of armor and other heavy weapons and equipment in place in the region, and not all the units that had flooded into the area went back to their normal garrisons. Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy declared that Russia had arrayed units with almost 100,000 troops in total around its borders.
Ukrainian authorities, as well as American officials, among others, continue to stress that there are no clear indications that the Russian government is firmly committed to a new major military operation in Ukraine. At the same time, the U.S. government and NATO have been outspoken in warning the Kremlin against doing so and that there would be serious repercussions.
The United States is putting together "the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do," President Biden said today. He did not elaborate on what these initiatives might include, but there have been reports already that the U.S. government has threatened to hit the Kremlin with more sanctions in the event it launches a new invasion of Ukraine.
There is talk of a potential meeting of some kind between Biden and Putin as early as next week about the crisis.
“Despite a massive Russian disinformation campaign, Ukraine in no way poses a threat to Russia," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said yesterday while attending the 28th Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm, Sweden. “The only threat is that of renewed Russian aggression towards Ukraine."
For some time now, Russian officials have been actively seeking to present Ukraine, as well as NATO, as being the real source of the latest tensions in the region. This is a common rhetorical tactic on the part of the Kremlin to deflect questions and criticism from the international community about worrying military movements and other malign activities it is engaged in.
Blinken also met directly with Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the OSCE gathering to discuss the situation in and around Ukraine, but nothing of substance emerged from those talks.
"We've made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past," Blinken said the day before during a meeting of top NATO diplomats in Latvia. He added the alliance was "prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine" and "prepared to reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank."
All of this follows Putin declaring his country's lastest red lines in relation to Ukraine earlier this week, warning in particular against major NATO deployments to Ukraine. While NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg pushed back forcefully against these statements, there is no actual indication that any NATO members are actively considering expanding their military presence inside Ukraine proper.
There are reports that members of NATO — the United States, in particular — are looking to step up other kinds of assistance to Ukraine's military, including the delivery of weapons, ammunition, and other equipment. The United States just recently delivered two ex-U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats that are set to enter Ukrainian Navy service and has continued to deliver ammunition and other supplies as part of pre-existing agreements.
"The U.S. is planning to send more anti-tank weapons like Javelin missiles," CNN reported today. Ukraine already has some stockpiles of Javelin anti-tank missiles. Officials in that country say they have started employing them against Russian-supported forces in the eastern part of the country following the lifting of earlier U.S. government prohibitions against doing so last year. These are very capable modern guided anti-tank weapons that have long been touted as significantly bolstering Ukraine's ability to challenge future Russian aggression.
However, the United States "has for now backed off of providing Ukraine with surface-to-air missiles, like [shoulder-fired, man-portable] Stingers, which Russia would view as provocative," according to CNN. It is well known that Ukraine has limited air and missile defense capabilities, which would present major vulnerabilities during any future conflict with Russia. There have been recent calls in the United States to provide Ukrainian forces with new surface-to-air missiles to help address these concerns.
What kind of deterrent effect, if any, additional military assistance, threats of sanctions, and other initiatives emanating from the United States and other NATO members might have in the end very much remains to be seen. As The War Zone has explored in its past reporting of this crisis, a number of geopolitical factors, together with domestic considerations, are likely combining to push the Kremlin increasingly toward some kind of action no matter what the consequences.
At the same time, Russia has non-military options to try to destabilize the government in Kyiv, with the hope that its collapse could lead to a more pro-Russian regime. A realistic threat of a new invasion, even if it never comes, puts its own pressure on Ukrainian authorities and their international partners. Continually conducting maneuvers that suggest such an operation might be imminent, but not following through could have a desensitizing effect, as well.
What is increasingly clear, as underscored by this latest report that logistical and medical capabilities have been deployed near Ukraine, is that the Kremlin is posturing itself to keep the invasion option wide open.
Updated 8:50 PM EST:
The Washington Post
has published a story late today that offers details about a U.S. intelligence assessment that indicates Russia is putting the pieces into place to launch a large-scale intervention into Ukraine involving at least 175,000 personnel on the ground. It also says that American officials believe that there are around 70,000 Russian troops positioned near the country's borders with Ukraine now, a lower estimate than the ones that have been given out publicly by the Ukrainian government. However, some of the discrepancies may be due to the Kremlin's regular movement of forces in the region in order “to obfuscate intentions and to create uncertainty," according to the report.
“The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 with a scale of forces twice what we saw this past spring during Russia’s snap exercise near Ukraine’s borders,” an official from President Joe Biden's administration said, according to The Washington Post. “The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery, and equipment.”
Earlier this year, “the Russian troops worked out the issues of creating strike groups near the borders of our state, mobilization measures, logistical support of groups, [and] transfer of significant military contingents, including by air,” a Ukrainian official said separately, the Washington Post reported. “Additionally, in the past month, our information indicates Russian influence proxies and media outlets have started to increase content denigrating Ukraine and NATO, in part to pin the blame for a potential Russian military escalation on Ukraine."
“Recent information also indicates that Russian officials proposed adjusting Russia’s information operations against Ukraine to emphasize the narrative that Ukrainian leaders had been installed by the West, harbored a hatred for the ‘Russian world,’ and were acting against the interests of the Ukrainian people,” they continued.
All this being said, U.S. and Ukrainian officials continue to state publicly that it is unclear if Russian President Vladimir Putin has fully committed to executing this operation. If the Kremlin does truly intend to launch this invasion, it would still need to deploy around 100,000 additional personnel, per the U.S. government's assessment. Exactly what kinds of units are being discussed here is unclear, and there have also been reports of significant mobilizations of reserve units in Russia. All told, the 175,000 number likely does not reflect all of the forces that the Russians would bring to bear in an actual conflict.
Again, whatever Putin's plans may actually be and what his policy objectives actually are, it does seem clear that moves are being made to keep the option of major military action open and viable.
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