Just a couple months after the conclusion of Russia’s annual military exercises, Zapad, there are numerous reports and video evidence of a new Russian Army build-up on the border with Ukraine.
Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of National Security, and defence council for Ukraine, has estimated that after the end of Zapad 2021 Russian forces never returned home and training sites are still being utilised by up to 90,000 Russian service personnel. It is also estimated that tens of thousands of Russian troops are stationed in the Crimea which was seized by Russia back in 2014 at the beginning of the Ukrainian Civil War.
This marks the second major military build-up along the Russian-Ukrainian border this year following fears of an invasion back in April when Russia rapidly deployed military assets all along its Southwestern border with Ukraine. Although it is generally thought that the build-up in April was just testing the response of the new American President Joe Biden who had only recently been inaugurated.
Videos of trains and trucks loaded with T-80 Main Battle Tanks (MBT) heading towards the Western towns of Kursk, Bryansk and Krasnodar have surfaced on social media further fuelling the thought of Russian build-up and the threat of invasion. Michael Kofman, Director of Russian Studies at CNA has been following the situation and says that “Russian Political messaging on Ukraine has been consistent and worrisome this year”. Kofman has also confirmed that the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA) has not returned to its home base but instead joined other Russian forces near the Ukrainian border. Other units such as the renowned 1st Guards Tank Army has also left its barracks near Moscow moving manpower and material South. The 1st Guards Tank Army is a symbolic force to move to Ukraine as it was reinstated shortly after the outbreak of war in Ukraine and some of the components that make up the Army, such as the 4th Guards Tank Division, were said to have served alongside separatists in the Donetsk region.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence has actually come out and declined these reports of a Russian build-up stating they had not observed an increase in military assets in the region. Meanwhile, the Pentagon stated it is watching the “unusual activity” and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby announcing, “aggressive actions will be of great concern to the United States”. It could be that the Ukrainian government are trying to calm tensions in the region by not highlighting the movements or potentially try not to scare the Ukrainian people who have been at war for 8 years.
A rather interesting note about Russian tank designs in videos on social media showing troop movements near the Ukraine, shows hastily assembled meshes on the top side of the tanks. Similar mesh systems were added to Russian tanks during the second world war to protect against German anti-tank equipment. The same can be said in this situation. These metal meshes have been fitted to the tanks with the idea that they will protect tanks from UAV and loitering munition strikes which Ukrainian forces have been using to target separatist trenches and strong points. This rather crude system should be an efficient way of protecting Russian Armour, primarily consisting of T-80 and T-90 MBT’s which are extremely vulnerable to loitering munitions, as shown in the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020.
Russian activity in the Ukrainian theatre has increased over the last 12 months and the threat it poses to regional and international peace cannot be underestimated. The threat of invasion is real for many countries bordering the Russian Federation. However, it must be noted that this could just be a test of NATO reactions or potentially further military exercises.