By Catherine Harris, Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, and the ISW Russia Team
Russia continues to build up and prepare its military forces for possible offensive operations against Ukraine from the Crimean Peninsula and the east. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has been warning that Russia could conduct such operations at short notice since December 11, 2018. It remains impossible to assess whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to launch an offensive or will do so, or whether the visible military preparations are intended to pressure Ukraine and its partners without escalating to additional open conflict. The data suggests that Putin is preparing to attack, although alternative interpretations are possible. One can make reasoned arguments about why it would be unwise for him to attack now (or, indeed, at all). The West should nevertheless focus first on the data itself and the risks that flow from it, rather than on reasoning about Putin’s intentions.
Since ISW’s last warning on December 17, 2018, ISW has observed the following additional data points:
- 19 DEC: Russia is moving military convoys north on the Simferopol-Armyansk highway toward the border between Kherson Oblast’ in Ukraine and Crimea. These convoys include artillery, armored personnel carriers, trucks and a field kitchen. The correspondent of RFE/RL in Crimea observed these convoys moving on December 19 in the village of Pervomayskoye roughly 30 miles from the border with the Ukrainian mainland. ISW cannot assess the sizes of these movements at this time.
- 20 DEC: Russia is increasing its information campaign to frame Ukraine as the military aggressor should Putin decide to invade. Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, and the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, are continuing to warn about an imminent Ukrainian attack on Russia-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine and on the Kherson-Crimea Oblast border at the end of December 2018. This propaganda effort could serve multiple purposes. The Russians may be intending fabricate a threat to rally separatist forces to escalate in eastern Ukraine in order to distract from Russia’s main effort north of Crimea. The Kremlin may also be attempting to frame Ukraine as the main aggressor ahead of a Russia-backed provocation in order to obfuscate blame.
- 21 DEC: Unidentified Russian submarines of the Black Sea Fleet conducted planned drills in the Black Sea to practice covert movements while submerged. The crew of one submarine carried out separation from surveillance while the crew of another one maintained surveillance as long as possible. The crews attempted to maneuver as covertly as possible during the submerged position.
- 21 DEC: A Reuters witness spotted a Russian missile frigate 1.5 km off the coast moving from Feodosia towards the Sea of Azov. A helicopter was visible on-board.
- 22 DEC: Russia shifted 'more than a dozen Su-27 and Su-30 fighter jets' to Belbek Airbase near Sevastopol, Crimea according to an unidentified 'Reuters witness.' The Russian Ministry of Defense had announced on 17 DEC that it would relocate ten Su-27SM and Su-30M2 fighter jets from Krymsk airfield in Krasnodar Territory to the Belbek airfield in Crimea.
A Russian occupation of Kherson would allow Russian forces to interfere with—and possibly cut off—ship movement into and out of Mykolaiv, one of Ukraine’s most important ports and shipbuilding centers. Such a development, together with the illegal seizure of Sevastopol and aggression around the Kerch Strait, would leave Ukraine only a single major port (Odesa) outside the Russian area of military influence.
Russian and proxy forces remain poised on Ukraine’s eastern border, near the contested port city of Mariupol and to its north, although ISW has not noted any further major military movements in this area, apart from mining activities and reports of the deployment of an additional sniper unit into this area. It is possible but less likely that Putin could be aiming to seize the areas around this port city, perhaps bypassing the city itself, in an effort to establish control over the coastline along the Sea of Azov.
The risk of Russian offensive operations in the last week of December is modestly mitigated by weather. The weather for the next few days appears marginal for an air-ground operation of the sort that would likely be needed for Russian forces to take Kherson, with temperatures forecast to be between 21 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit with periods of rain and snow showers.
The disadvantages of weather are temporary. The well-known challenges of fighting in Russia in the winter largely do not apply to southern Ukraine. Rostov-na-Donu, home of the largest concentrations of Russian conventional military power in the region, is roughly 600 miles south of Moscow. The region’s position on the ocean tempers its climate further, compared to the bitter cold of interior Russia. Frozen ground, even with snow, allows rapid armored movements. The Soviets launched the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, 250 miles northeast of Rostov-na-Donu, in late November 1942 and continued it in subsequent operations through February 1943. The principal climatological challenge of fighting in Ukraine is not winter but the spring thaw, which turns vast areas into deep mud. If Putin intends to invade southern Ukraine, climatological considerations would cause him either to move during winter itself or after the thaw.
The U.S., NATO countries, and the international community have taken some steps to attempt to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine following the Russians’ illegal seizure of Ukrainian coast guard ships off the Kerch Strait on November 25, 2018. The United Kingdom is sending HMS Echo to the Black Sea, increasing port visits and protecting freedom of navigation. And the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on December 17, 2018 calling for Russia to withdraw its armed forces from Crimea and another on December 22, 2018 reaffirming the UN’s position that Crimea is Ukrainian territory and condemning Russian human rights violations during its unlawful occupation of the peninsula. It is possible that Putin is conducting a show of force in response to that resolution, although the buildup is somewhat more extensive and expensive than pure posturing warrants.
ISW therefore assesses that Russia has the capability to go on the offensive in Ukraine imminently and is conducting military maneuvers consistent with that intent.
 “Lavrov Discusses Ukraine’s Plans to Instigate a Provocation on the Border with Crimea in December” (https://www(.)kommersant.ru/doc/3833809)
 “Russian submarines conducting drills off coast of occupied Crimea”
 “More than 10 Fighters Transferred to Crimea” (https://www(.)kommersant.ru/doc/3833957?from=hotnews)
 “Russia sends Chechen snipers to positions outside Ukrainian-controlled Mariupol” (https://www(.)unian.info/war/10380195-russia-sends-chechen-snipers-to-positions-outside-ukrainian-controlled-mariupol.html)