Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Russia in Review: Russia Poised to Escalate Ukraine Campaign

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Special Topic Update: Russia Poised to Escalate Ukraine Campaign

Author: Catherine Harris, Mason Clark, and Nicole Geis with the ISW Research Team

Key Takeaway: Russia will likely escalate militarily against Ukraine imminently. Russia is setting military conditions to prepare its forces for open conflict with Ukraine. Russia is already creating the pretext to escalate by circulating the false narrative that Ukraine and the West are preparing imminent attacks, including a chemical weapons attack, in Eastern Ukraine. Russia may fabricate evidence of a chemical weapons attack – or may itself conduct a chemical weapons attack -- near Russia-backed areas of Ukraine to create chaos, justify the overt involvement of the Russian Armed Forces, and set conditions for future military operations. NATO’s inaction following Russia’s escalation in the Sea of Azov is likely emboldening Putin to continue challenging the West in Ukraine. NATO must reassess the threat that Russia poses to European security and the rules-based international order and respond decisively to deter an increasingly likely Russian military escalation in Ukraine itself.

Russia is taking overt steps towards open conflict with Ukraine. Russia has been waging a covert war against Ukraine using proxy separatist forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The Russian military is now preparing its forces for direct military involvement. The Kremlin is reinforcing ground, naval, and air elements in its Southern Military District - the command likely responsible for managing its ongoing war in Ukraine. Moscow may calculate that the international community will not meaningfully respond if the visibility of its role in the war now increases.

  • Ground: Russia reportedly transferred an additional mechanized regiment to the 150th Motor Rifle Division (MRD) on December 2.[1] The 150th MRD is a uniquely tank-heavy unit subordinate to the 8th Combined-Arms Army located 20-30 kilometers from the Russian-Ukrainian border. ISW previously assessed that the 150th MRD could support a ground advance by Russia along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov if the Kremlin launched a large-scale offensive against Ukraine. The Kremlin has also increased the number of armored vehicles along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander General Viktor Muzhenko has publicly warned of a significant buildup of Russian T-62M Main Battle Tanks along the Russian-Ukrainian border that had occurred by October 2018. ISW had previously warned about this mobilization in September 2018. 
  • Air: Russia is likely integrating additional airmobile units into existing units in the Southern Military District (SMD). SMD Commander Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov announced earlier this year that new airmobile units would begin training with naval infantry in the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla beginning in December 2018.[2] It is not yet clear if these units have begun their training missions. 
  • Sea: Russia is also bolstering the capabilities of its Black Sea Fleet. Russia added a new corvette equipped with cruise missiles to the Black Sea Fleet on December 7.[3] Russia is expected to add four additional warships including patrol boats and minesweepers to the Black Sea Fleet by the start of 2019.[4] Russia also conducted naval and missile drills involving two submarines and Pantsir Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) in the Black Sea and Crimean Peninsula on December 5. 
Russia may also be preparing its Central Military District to support the Southern Military District in a conflict. Russia began snap preparations for its “Center-2019” military exercise on December 1.[5] These exercises will not take place until September 2019.[6] This early start to the exercises is atypical and may signal preparation for open conflict with Ukraine under the auspices of military exercises. Russia has previously used military exercises as cover to prepare for offensive operations. The initial phase of the Center-2019 exercise includes “moving from peace to wartime posture” and moving supplies and field hospitals to aid potential casualties in combat. Russian units conducted these exercises in the Volga region northeast of the Southern Military District.[7] Russia may intend to use resources in the Central Military District to support the Southern Military District in rear areas. Alternatively, Russia may be attempting to deter a Ukrainian military response to Russia’s escalation against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov on November 24-25. Russia may however calculate that conditions are set such that Russia should escalate now.

Russia may be preparing to fabricate or launch a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine in order to create a false pretext to escalate against Ukraine. Russia is currently flooding the information space with multiple narratives to alarm the local population in Ukraine and frame the West as the aggressor likely in order to set conditions for a future escalation by Russia. One Kremlin narrative claims that Western personnel are preparing to conduct a chemical weapons attack in territory currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists.[8] A spokesperson from the Russia-backed separatist region of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) claims that the Ukrainian Armed Forces will launch an assault on Mariupol on December 14. These false narratives may represent efforts by Russia to create a false justification for anticipated overt military involvement. This fabrication would be consistent with recent Russian provocations in Syria. Russia and the Syrian regime fabricated a chemical weapons attack in Syria on November 24. Russia responded to this fabricated chemical weapons attack with Russian airstrikes. The U.S. condemned Russia and the Assad regime for this fabrication but did not meaningfully respond. The Kremlin may therefore calculate that it can use the same play in Ukraine at this time.

Putin may seek to create a military distraction for Poroshenko’s government in order to disrupt an upcoming meeting that will formally announce the autocephalous status of the Ukrainian Orthodox church on December 15 in Kyiv. Ukraine’s recent autocephaly represents a loss of social influence that Russia formerly held over Ukraine. Putin may be attempting to cause widespread hysteria before the meeting in order to menace Ukraine and undermine its efforts to distance Ukraine from Russia. Russia may also seek to circulate these narratives to frame Ukraine as the aggressor ahead of a vote at the UN General Assembly to formally condemn Russian militarization of Crimea, the Sea of Azov, and the Black Sea on December 17. Russia is nonetheless demonstrating that it is preparing to engage Ukraine in open conflict.

Russia likely perceives the lack of a unified NATO response to Moscow’s aggression in the Sea of Azov as an opportunity to escalate against Ukraine and elsewhere in the future. NATO failed to agree on a unified course of action in response to Russia’s escalation in the Kerch Strait during a foreign ministerial meeting on December 4-5. Moreover, NATO member-states are signaling different degrees of concern over overt Russian escalation. None of the responses are likely sufficient to deter Putin, whereas the disagreement itself will likely embolden him.
  • United States: The U.S. has demonstrated the strongest response to Russia’s aggression, though it is likely insufficient to deter further offensive action by Russia in Ukraine. U.S. Commander of EUCOM and Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Scaparrotti will meet with Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in Azerbaijan on December 12.[9] The U.S. is attempting to constrain Russia and prevent it from making future illegal claims to other bodies of water. The U.S. is preparing the option of sending a warship, likely from the 6th Fleet, to the Black Sea in coordination with Turkey in a likely effort to deter Russia from expanding its aggression into the Black Sea. The United States also conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the Sea of Japan near the Russia-claimed Kuril Islands on December 5 in a move that U.S. officials called a direct challenge to Russian naval activity in the Pacific theater. This U.S. maneuver follows Russia’s announcement that it will pass legislation requiring foreign ships to notify the Kremlin before traversing the Northern Sea Route in 2019.[10] The U.S. with allies also conducted a flight over Ukraine under the Open Skies Treaty to reaffirm support for Ukraine and European nations on December 6. 
  • European Union: The EU will likely fail to pass additional sanctions on Russia. The UK called for the EU to enact “appropriate sanctions” in response to Russian aggression, though this effort will be unsuccessful. France and Germany have signaled their unwillingness to impose further sanctions on Russia and their preference to pursue a diplomatic solution to the escalation. French officials are furthermore currently distracted by large-scale protests in France that may be partially fueled by Russian disinformation.[11]
  • Turkey: Ankara is attempting to demonstrate Turkish resolve in the Black Sea. Turkey is currently conducting live-fire exercises in the southeastern portion of the Black Sea from December 10-14 and recently announced recurring small-scale exercises in the Dardanelles Strait throughout December.[12]
Russia will continue to divert attention away from Russia’s escalating pattern to undermine a stronger NATO response. Putin will likely use a mixture of incentives and pressures on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to increase the likelihood that Erdogan will not meaningfully challenge a future escalation by Russia against Ukraine. Russia likely already initiated this effort in the Syrian theater. Russia conducted airstrikes within hundreds of meters of a Turkish military position in Western Aleppo Province, Syria under the false pretext of retaliating against anti-Assad forces for using chemical weapons on November 26. Russia may have intended to use this set of airstrikes to test international reactions to a fabricated chemical weapons attack; to compel Turkey to back down in the Black Sea; and to divert international attention away from its military escalation against Ukraine and toward an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Kremlin will also likely use subversive methods to fuel protests in France and possibly other NATO member-states in order to create distractions and divert resources away from a future escalation by Russia.

The U.S. and NATO must be increasingly prepared for an emboldened Russia to escalate in multiple theaters. Russia has previously demonstrated its ability to simultaneously escalate its various malign campaigns against the West in multiple theaters. Russia likely feels more emboldened to do so at this time following NATO’s inaction. NATO must therefore be prepared for Russia to escalate in Ukraine but also in other theaters, such as Syria. ISW has repeatedly warned that Russia, Assad, and Iran are setting military conditions to ultimately expel the U.S.-led coalition from Eastern Syria. Russia may accelerate both of these efforts simultaneously in a most dangerous scenario. NATO must prioritize deterring an increasingly aggressive Russia in order to maintain the resolve of the NATO alliance and uphold the rules-based international order.

[1] Daria Mikhalina, [“A new regiment Formed As part of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division Near Rostov”,] TV Zvezda, December 2, 2018, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/201812021804-73o7.htm
[2] [“Shoigu Stated Strategic Exercises “Tsentr-2019” Will Be Held in September”,] Rambler, December 4, 2018,
[3] “Russia deploys Latest Cruise Missile Corvette in Occupied Crimea – Media,” Unian, December 10, 2018,
[4] “Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to Get Four New Warships,”TASS, December 3, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1033966
[5] Central MD Troops to Start Tarining for Tsentr 2018 CPX on December 1,” Russian MOD, November 30, 2018,
[6] [“Shoigu Announced Strategic Exercises “Center” in 2019”,] MKRU, December 4, 2018,
[7] [“The Second Army in the Volga Region Received a Rapid Deployment Hospital”,] RIA, July 6, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/20180706/1524084441.html
[8] “Kremlin’s Persistent Claim of “Expected Chemical Attack by Ukraine Armed Forces in Donbas” Worrying -MP,” Unian, December 10, 2018,
[9] “President Ilham Aliyev Received a Delegation Led by the Commander-in-Chief of the NATO Joint Armed Forces in Europe”, Azer Tas, November 12, 2018, https://azertag(.)az/ru/xeber/Prezident_Ilham_Aliev_prinyal_delegaciyu_vo_glave_s_glavnokomanduyushchim_Obedinennymi_vooruzhennymi_silami_NATO_v_Evrope-1223411
[10] “Russia Will Restrict Foreign Warships in Arctic Ocean, Defense Official Syas”, Moscow Times, November 30, 2018,
[11] “France Opens Probe Into Possible Russian Interference Behind “Yellow Vest” Protests – Media, Unian, December 9, 2018, https://www.unian(.)info/world/10369785-france-opens-probe-into-possible-russian-interference-behind-yellow-vest-protests-media.html
[12] “Gunnery Exercise, Between 10-12 DEC 18,” Turkish Naval Forces Office of Navigation, Hydrography and Oceanography,, “Firing Exercises, between 11-14 DEC 18” Turkish Naval Forces Office of Navigation, Hydrography and Oceanography,