Are The Russians Coming?: Russia’s Military Buildup Near Ukraine – Analysis


By Felix K. Chang*

(FPRI) — Long before the Kerch Strait incident in October 2018, Russia had already begun to strengthen the forces in its Southern Military District, which spans from near Volgograd to Russia’s border with Georgia and Azerbaijan. Naturally, that has caused concern in Kiev, since the district also abuts the restive eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas and is responsible for Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. One of Ukraine’s biggest worries has been Russia’s reactivation of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division in late 2016. Posted only 50 km from the border between Russia and Ukraine, it is equipped with an unusually large number of tanks. Its force structure includes two tank regiments, rather than the standard one; and each of its two motorized rifle regiments has an attached tank battalion.[1] Russian media refers to the division as the “steel monster.”

But Russia’s military buildup appears to have recently accelerated. In January 2018, Russia’s Southern Military District fielded 415 tactical aircraft and 259 helicopters. A year later, those numbers climbed to over 500 tactical aircraft and 340 helicopters.[2] Meanwhile, a senior Ukrainian commander noted that the number of Russian army battalions within easy reach of the border jumped from eight to twelve. Possibly related (or not) to that was an open source report which claimed that the 150th Motorized Rifle Division formed a third motorized rifle regiment at the end of 2018.[3]

Moscow has also bolstered its forces in the Crimean Peninsula. In December 2018, several Il-76 heavy-lift transport aircraft sortied from an airport near the home base of the 7th Guards Airborne Division to Dzhankoi Air Base in northern Crimea. During the same period, video imagery posted on social media showed Russia conveying BMD-2 infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) across the Kerch Strait Bridge into Crimea. Since Russian airborne units are the only ones in the Russian army that use BMD-2 IFVs, it is possible that elements of the 7th Guards Airborne Division have been deployed to Crimea.

Even so, Russia’s biggest investment in its Southern Military District has been in air defense. Two years ago, it announced plans to build a Voronezh-M over-the-horizon early warning radar near Sevastopol in 2019.[4] In late 2018, Russia sent one of its most advanced A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft to Saki Air Base in Crimea, which is home to dozens of Russian Su-30 fighters and Su-24 attack aircraft.[5] Perhaps most striking of all, by the end of 2018, Russia had concentrated at least five of its most advanced S-400 air defense batteries in and around Crimea. Together with two other S-300 air defense batteries nearby, Russian land-based air defenses in the region could simultaneously launch as many as 192 surface-to-air missiles. Interestingly, their crews have been training to counter not only hostile aircraft, but also sea-launched cruise missiles, seemingly in preparation for a NATO intervention. Whatever the case, the airspace above Crimea and Donbas has quickly become among the most well-defended in the world.­­­

New Model Army

There is little question that Moscow has been deploying more heavily armed forces near Ukraine. But to what end? One explanation is that they may simply reflect Russia’s better equipped combat units today, the products of Moscow’s long-running state armament program. For the last decade, the program has refit much of the Russian military with new or updated equipment, like the S-400 air defense system.[6] Indeed, that is what has enabled Russia to stay on track to expand its total number of S-400 air defense batteries from 32 in 2016 to 56 by 2020.[7]

Hence, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s announcement in October 2018 that the Southern Military District would annually receive up to 1,500 new and upgraded weapon systems was not a surprise.[8] In fact, Russia would need to maintain that pace if it is to reach its military modernization goal of increasing the share of new or updated equipment in all its units from 15 percent in 2010 to 70 percent by 2021. At the end of 2018, the Southern Military District was estimated to have modernized about 50-60 percent of its equipment.[9]

Power of Persuasion

Another possible explanation for Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine is related to politics. By positioning large military forces in Crimea and near Donbas, Moscow may be trying to persuade Ukrainians to face up to their growing strategic isolation and to accept that their opposition to Russia will ultimately prove futile or, at the least, very costly.

Moscow may even hope that the proximity of its military forces could influence Ukrainians to vote for Russia-leaning candidates in Ukraine’s elections in March 2019. If that is the case, Russia would not be the first to try to use the threat of military force to influence an election. In an even more blatant attempt, China lobbed ballistic missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to intimidate the Taiwanese electorate into voting for candidates who supported reunification with the mainland. Unhappily for China, Taiwanese voters were not swayed.

Escalation of Hostilities

Finally, the reason for Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine could be operational. After all, Russia is not only strengthening its forces near Ukraine, but also conducting additional military exercises. Seen in that light, one could view the buildup as a prelude to some level of military action. Certainly, should hostilities reignite, Russia’s installation of a dense network of surface-to-air missile defenses would make it difficult for Ukraine to airlift supplies into eastern Ukraine or provide air support for its ground forces there. Moreover, those air defenses could deter the most readily available form of international assistance to Ukraine: NATO air power.

A further indication that hostilities could resume was the news that Russia moved some 200 T-64 tanks out of storage to an area close to its border with Ukraine in late 2018.[10] Though Russian forces no longer use them, the tanks could be transferred to pro-Russian separatist militias in Donbas where they would be an even match against the T-64 tanks that equip most of the Ukrainian army. At about the same time, Ukraine’s military intelligence noted that those separatist militias had begun to increase their combat strength and readiness.

Along with Russia’s own, such activities have pointed to the possibility of an escalation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine. By January 2019, those activities had become so alarming that the Kremlin’s spokesman felt the need to publicly declare that “there is no war between Russia and Ukraine at all.” Perhaps no hot war exists, but a cold war does—and one that seems ready to heat up.

Prudent Precautions

As to which reason has been the main driver behind Russia’s military buildup, that is hard to say. Likely, a mix of all three is at play. But it is the last one that worries Ukraine the most. Thus, it has put some of its regular and reserve military units on higher alert and hardened key government facilities in eastern Ukraine—measures that suggest it is principally concerned about Russian infiltration or air strikes, rather than an outright invasion.

While large-scale military action does not appear to be in the immediate offing, if hostilities do escalate beyond infiltration or air strikes, the Ukrainian military would be hard pressed to resist the combination of Russian and Russian-backed forces without international assistance. And, considering the scale of Russia’s military buildup in the region, if the international community was to provide that assistance, it would have to be substantial to make a difference. Otherwise, it will have as much impact as the Light Brigade had at Balaclava, during another Crimean conflict 165 years earlier.

*About the author: Felix K. Chang is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also the Chief Strategy Officer of DecisionQ, a predictive analytics company in the national security and healthcare industries.

Source: This article was published by FPRI


[1] Samuel Cranny-Evans, “Russia’s Southern Military District receives mechanised, airmobile reinforcements,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 5, 2018.

[2] Samuel Cranny-Evans, “Russia and Ukraine raise combat readiness as tensions rise,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Nov. 28, 2018.

[3] Samuel Cranny-Evans, “Russia’s Southern Military District receives mechanised, airmobile reinforcements,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 5, 2018.

[4] Bruce Jones, “Russia to deploy early warning radar in Crimea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 6, 2018

[5] Tim Ripley and Mark Cazalet, “Russia reinforces Crimea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 12, 2018.

[6] Julian Cooper, Russia’s State Armament Programme to 2020: A Quantitative Assessment of Implementation 2011–2015 (Stockholm: Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2016), pp. 13-23.

[7] Thomas Grove, “Russia’s Missile Defense Challenges U.S. Air Power,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 24, 2019, pp. A1, A10; “S-400 Triumph missile systems put on combat duty in Siberia,” TASS, Mar. 1, 2016.

[8] Dmitry Fediushko, “Russian MoD details development of military districts,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 15, 2018.

[9] Ibid.; Richard Connolly and Mathieu Boulègue, Russia’s New State Armament Programme: Implications for the Russian Armed Forces and Military Capabilities to 2027 (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2018), p. 5.

[10] Tim Ripley and Mark Cazalet, “Russia reinforces Crimea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 12, 2018.

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2 thoughts on “Are The Russians Coming?: Russia’s Military Buildup Near Ukraine – Analysis

  • March 2, 2019 at 7:13 pm

    “As to which reason has been the main driver behind Russia’s military buildup, that is hard to say.”

    Well, not really. With the NATO virus creeping further and further eastward over the past, oh, twenty years, Russia’s intensified mobilization would naturally focus primarily on closing her western borders. Good preventive medicine.

  • March 5, 2019 at 2:09 pm

    I agree with Jacob, from the illegal action in Kosovo, place missiles in west Poland supposedly against terrorist, yet the only terrorists in our UK news at that time were Brits, 2 Brit Asian males one died on the beach at Tel Aviv the other unable to enter the night club they want to bomb, blew himself up outside the club killing 6 people. We had one of our terrorist widow, who is a convert to Islam, up to mischief. Even now the main terrorist baddies, ie Jihadi John , the Beatles(sic) are Brits, yet to find a Russian terrorist in our newspaper, ok Salisbury?.
    In short I have found through good sources East Germany was handed back and the west(NATO) kept out of interfering in Russian affairs, we have not. I do not agree that Russia is the aggressor in the Ukraine, lets remember there was unity in the Ukraine, all be it tenuous, then meddling by the EU/UK/USA caused the break up. Also if I am correct the Russians have legal right to be in Crimea till 2022. I do not say if the Ukrainian people want to join the EU/NATO then they cannot far from it but it is clear there is something very fishy going on. My point, the Russian’s are innocent, did not say they are the ‘good’ guys


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