Mud could help decide the timing for any Russian move against Ukraine

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Russia showcased previous mobilization near Ukraine in nationwide preparedness exercises

Muddy terrain and the need for more troops on the ground make any large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine unlikely until January at the earliest, military analysts in Moscow and the West say, creating a window of diplomacy to ward off the President Vladimir Putin out of a war. .

The judgments come as a combination of open source reports and images lend increasing credibility to U.S. intelligence assessments of the build-up of troops and equipment to Ukraine’s borders. Ukrainian military maps also show the changing distribution of Russian forces.

The United States has shared the intelligence and its own maps with some North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, warning that Russia could weigh in for a full-scale incursion. U.S. officials said in their briefings that Putin’s intentions remain unknown, but any operation, if he decides to act, would likely involve double the number of battle groups currently in position and could take place within the first few months of next year.

Putin has denied the invasion plans, having annexed Crimea in 2014 and supporting separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“In this season you have what we call Rasputitsa, which is mud,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, Moscow-based military analyst for the Jamestown Foundation. Yet for any attack on eastern Ukraine, he said, Russian generals would want to act quickly to outflank the main Ukrainian force around the conflict-ridden Donetsk and Lugansk regions, before its soldiers don’t have time to dig.

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“We have to be able to get our tanks and other vehicles off the roads to do this, which in the black earth region would be impossible at this time. Once the frosts have arrived, you can move in any direction you want. “said Felgenhauer. .

In addition, Russian commanders would like to assemble a force similar in size to the last major build-up around Ukraine in March of this year, according to Felgenhauer. Western analysts have estimated this at just over 100,000 troops.

An attacking force would normally seek to be two to three times the number of troops it expects to encounter, according to a former senior US security official who asked not to be named. Judging from the maps and publicly available data, the person said, Putin currently doesn’t have the numbers for a full-scale invasion.

A November 22 Ukrainian military map seen by Bloomberg echoes America’s assessment of a renewed build-up near southern and eastern Ukraine. It represents 43 battle groups, made up of 94,000 troops in place around Ukraine, against 53 battle groups at the end of April. An earlier version of the same map was published by the Military Times.

Not all forces mobilized earlier this year have been dispatched to the Ukrainian border, a pattern likely to repeat itself, according to Felgenhauer. There have been redeployments across the country, with more than 300,000 troops, 35,000 pieces of heavy equipment, 900 aircraft and 180 warships according to his calculations, based on data from the press services of the Russian regional commands. .

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The movements went “all the way to Kamchatka, because they must be prepared in case it turns into a more global war”. The Kamchatka Peninsula is located in northern Japan and western Alaska.

Russia presented its previous mobilization near Ukraine and its possible withdrawal as part of nation-wide preparedness exercises called by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. This time there was no announcement of military exercises.

Although far from certain, the conflict seems more possible today than in previous months or years and – in the absence of some form of Ukraine agreement between Washington and Moscow – it is likely that the next election campaign windows are looming, even if that does not happen this winter, according to Felgenhauer and others.

In a context of deteriorating relations between Russia and NATO, “there is only fundamental disagreement on the Minsk 2 accord”, said Andrew Monaghan, former British NATO adviser on Russia and Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, an institute in London. thinking group. He was referring to the 2015 peace agreement which was the culmination of efforts to end the bitter fighting of the previous year.

“Minsk 2 is the result of a Ukrainian defeat on the battlefield,” said Monaghan. “From a Russian point of view, Ukraine is moving away from what it subscribed to, diplomacy is not successful and that is why the military is back on the table.”

At the same time, Russia has consistently denied that its forces have taken part in the conflict since it began in 2014 and answered questions about any current build-up by claiming that troop movements in Russia are an internal matter. Ukraine sees the Minsk-2 agreement as structured to federalize the country in such a way that Moscow retains a veto over Kiev’s economic and security choices.

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Ukraine denies having violated the peace agreements and says it wants to relaunch the mediation of Germany and France on their implementation, which is bogged down. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Monday dismissed Russian claims that Ukraine is planning an assault on breakaway zones, saying it is “devoted” to seeking political and diplomatic solutions to the conflict.

The Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, an open-source intelligence group, claims to have tracked significant movements of Russian tanks and other materiel to Ukraine, using videos and other footage published online in Russia. “If this pace continues through January,” CIT wrote in a November 24 report, “then the total number of Russian troops near the border and in Crimea would be significantly higher than the April figures.”

The Ukrainian army has grown and reorganized since 2014, when it was unable to contain the Russian-backed militias that NATO says were reinforced by regular Russian troops. The nation of 44 million people now has 255,000 people on active duty, according to the government. The difficulty for Ukraine, says Felgenhauer, is that Russia has also dramatically increased its combat-ready strength.

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