Is Russia Planning a January Invasion of Ukraine?

·3 min read
  • U.S. officials have warned their European allies that Russia may be preparing to invade parts of Ukraine.

  • Russian Ground Forces troops and equipment are marshalling in western Russia and Belarus in positions where they could invade.

  • At the same time, Russian intelligence is reportedly sowing disinformation in Ukraine to destabilize the country.

American intelligence sources believe Russia is gathering the forces that would enable it to conduct a large-scale invasion of nearby Ukraine. Spies have detected enough tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery for an invasion force of up to 100,000 troops. The hammer could fall as soon as January, though it is too soon to tell if Russia definitely plans to attack.

Bloomberg reported that the U.S. has shared “intelligence including maps with European allies that shows a buildup of Russian troops and artillery to prepare for a rapid, large-scale push into Ukraine from multiple locations if President Vladimir Putin decided to invade.”

The evidence includes signs that the Russian Ground Forces, the official name of the Russian army, is planning to position about 100 battalion tactical groups in positions in the Crimea, Belarus, and from Russia itself. The invasion could take place in the dead of winter and also reportedly include air support.

Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images

The invasion would likely not be an all-out attack on Ukraine, but be in support of limited territorial goals. Russia staged a similar attack in 2014, seizing the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. The amount of land seized in 2014 was about 10,000 square miles, while the entire country of Ukraine is 233,000 square miles. The projected size of the invasion force could likely not hold off the Ukrainian Army while occupying captured territory, and then there’s the prospect of an armed NATO intervention.

Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV - Getty Images
Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV - Getty Images

The battalion tactical group (BTG) is the basic tactical unit of the Russian Ground Forces, combining tanks, infantry, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery, and air defense units into a single mobile combat unit. Unlike past Russian combat units, the BTG incorporates all the tools and troops its commander might need for a spectrum of combat operations, from attacks across the European plains to urban combat.

Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images

Ukraine’s army, the Ukrainian Ground Forces, is about the same size as a potential Russian invasion force but spread out across the entire country. The UGF is also not as well equipped as its Russian counterpart, but it does include some American military equipment including the excellent Javelin anti-tank missile.

If Russia does invade, NATO could intervene militarily, sending some combination of air, sea, and naval power to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but its territorial integrity is an important matter to the alliance, as is deterring Russian aggression. But direct combat between NATO and Russian forces backed with nuclear weapons is a dangerous prospect, and some NATO members, especially those far from the frontier with Russia, might not see it as within their direct national interest.

Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Caroline Pirchner
Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Caroline Pirchner

The United States maintains about twelve BTG equivalents in Europe, scattered from Italy to the Baltics. The 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division is currently deployed to Europe and consists of, according to the U.S. Army, “approximately 3,800 Soldiers, 80 tanks, 130 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 15 Paladins, more than 500 tracked vehicles and more than 1,500 wheeled vehicles and equipment”.

Deploying alongside the armored brigade is the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, an aviation brigade equipped with Apache attack helicopters, Blackhawk assault helicopters, and Chinook heavy transport helicopters. There’s also the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, based at Vicenza, Italy and the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, based at Vilseck, Germany.

Will Russia invade? U.S. intelligence has been wrong before. While the buildup is real, it could be another way of applying pressure to Russia’s neighbor, undermining public support for the government, and perhaps even forcing the election of a more Russia-friendly one.

On the other hand, Moscow could really be building up for an invasion, which could make the Biden Administration have to make a decision on intervening militarily.

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