March 31, 2021
Russia is moving thousands of military personnel and a great deal of equipment towards the southeastern Ukrainian border area held by Russian-allied forces. The deployments are likely to portend a new offensive by Russia.
While Russia’s Southern Military Theater command had previously announced major exercises were to be held, the scale and combined arms diversity of the particular units deployed is striking. This includes a heavy emphasis on infantry fighting vehicles, rapid mobility airborne and special forces, air force fighter and bomber units, and logistics trains. Moving these forces is expensive and complex, and is already constricting Russian civilian economic activity by disrupting arterial train routes.
Put simply, Vladimir Putin will soon have the means to conduct a rapid offensive into southeastern Ukraine, pushing through Ukrainian army positions that have taken up a defensive posture. We should also note that Russian aviation forces have also been reinforced in Crimea. This means that the Ukrainian government-held cities reaching along the Sea of Azov, from Henichesk to Mariupol, are now heavily vulnerable to encirclement and rapid seizure. Such a seizure would give Russia dominion over the Sea of Azov and contiguous sea control right up to the Kerch strait. It would also provide a Ukrainian land bridge from Crimea to the Russian border, without reliance on the Kerch bridge.
After all, Russia has signaled its increasing displeasure with the situation in Ukraine. On Monday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that “things are bad” with regard to the current status of negotiations on both the Normandy and Minsk diplomatic tracks. Peskov referenced the Kremlin’s aggravation over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s reluctance to adopt European ceasefire mediation on terms favorable to Russia. Russia has failed to intimidate Zelensky into giving ground, even though Putin’s proxies have been relentlessly breaching the ceasefire agreement. This has included the use of snipers to target Ukrainian army patrols.
The Biden administration should take note of the warning signs.
The call on Tuesday by General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to his Russian counterpart is insufficient. President Biden should commit that if Russia begins a new offensive he will not simply kill off Putin’s Nord Stream II energy pipeline (something he should have done weeks ago), but will also introduce wide ranging new sanctions — unilaterally, if necessary — on Russian financial interests in the West. Putin already views his relationship with Biden through the prism of personal animus, and may hope to use escalation in Ukraine to undermine Biden’s credibility with allies.
Biden must not fail this test.