As Ukrainian government websites came under a cyberattack Friday, the White House accused Russia of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine to create a pretext for invasion. For months, maps highlighting Russian troop deployments near Ukraine’s border have shown Russian forces massing east of Ukraine — as well as along the northern border, close to the capital, Kyiv.
Over the past year, Russia has been gradually shifting troops, adding to an already robust and permanent military posture. Russia first deployed additional forces in significant numbers in early March 2021. Some of these military units never left the area. In late 2021, the Russian military presence increased further, and additional forces continue to move toward Ukraine, many traveling all the way from Russia’s Far East.
At the same time, Russian diplomats have been sending contradictory signals, assuring the media and Western nations that Russia has “no intentions to attack Ukraine” while claiming that the West must answer Russian demands for security assurances — or Moscow will be forced to pursue a “military-technical” solution of its own.
These parallel developments raise two big questions: What is the nature of Russia’s military buildup? And how long can Russia keep its forces in these forward positions? Our research on Russia’s military capabilities offers some clues.
The key factors to consider are those most relevant to a potential Russian military campaign. These involve force readiness — the extent to which a military force is prepared to fulfill its missions, such as engaging in combat — along with the ability to maintain training, whether the deployed forces include personnel or primarily consist of prepositioned equipment, and the operational implications of keeping them in the area for a prolonged period.
While maintaining its current buildup is not especially taxing for Russia, keeping troops in forward positions comes at a cost and may also harm Russia’s military prospects in a potential operation against Ukraine.
What do we know about the Russian troops?
Russian forces near Ukraine total at most 60 battalion tactical groups (BTGs), along with support elements. BTGs are task-organized combined-arms formations, each averaging 800 personnel in size. This translates into roughly 48,000 troops. Adding the supporting units, the total number of Russian troops is likely to be 85,000 — with more on the way. Aside from these regular Russian troops, there are about 15,000 separatist forces, or Russian-led formations in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Media outlets are reporting around 100,000 troops in total, but estimates vary widely.
This means approximately 35 percent of Russia’s total available BTG formations (60 out of 168) are stationed near the Ukrainian border, plus additional aerospace forces and naval units in the area. The forces deployed within approximately 125-200 miles of the Ukrainian border fall into two categories. Divisions and brigades permanently stationed in the area figure substantially into the total but come at no added cost or disruption. These account for about half of the number of battalion tactical groups and most of the supporting ground troops in the area.
A second set of forces are units that have been temporarily deployed near Ukraine’s border from formations elsewhere in Russia. These include armies based in Russia’s North Caucasus, units based outside of Moscow, those in the St. Petersburg regions, and units based far away in Russia’s central regions and even the Russian Far East.
The addition of these forces more than doubles Russia’s offensive potential near Ukraine. For example, since April, units from Russia’s 41st Combined Arms Army have been in the region, deployed some 1,800 miles from their home bases. But some of these forces may be constrained in the time they can spend in the area before having to return to their home bases.
Temporary deployments disrupt other planning
A forward deployment of this size inevitably comes at a financial cost — but these costs may be relatively low because the deployment is still on Russian territory. More significant, however, are disruptions to troops’ regular training and equipment upkeep, which may limit Moscow’s willingness to maintain current deployments for long.
Much of the recent buildup of forces has involved the pre-positioning of equipment, while personnel remain at their normal garrisons, ready to be deployed at short notice to forward locations. Although deploying equipment costs less than sending manned formations, there are nonetheless challenges to sustaining the deployment. For example, without equipment, troops that remain at their normal garrisons may not be able to maintain their skills and qualifications.
Temporarily deployed units that include equipment and personnel probably will need to return to their permanent bases sooner. This is because of a combination of constraints, including conscript rotation, training schedules and potential morale issues after personnel are away from their families for an extended period.
Russian military conscripts serve one year, including basic training, which means they can participate in military operations for approximately six months only before beginning the demobilization process. However, most of the Russian armed forces are contract service members (380,000) rather than conscripts (250,000).
While some training can be conducted in forward-deployed locations, this is limited by the availability of suitable training facilities. The military may be willing to sacrifice combat readiness in the short term, but the downsides of disruptions to training will compound over time, impairing troops’ combat performance.
Over the past year, Russian deployment has been slow and deliberate. This allows Moscow greater freedom to select the potential timing of an operation while retaining some element of surprise. Of course, seasonal weather, hardening of terrain, the presence or absence of foliage for camouflage, and other factors may affect the Russian calculus on what the optimal time might be for a military campaign. However, the more forces mass on Ukraine’s border, the less sustainable the deployment will be over time, and the more disruptive it will be to Russia’s military readiness and to Moscow’s actual ability to conduct a large-scale military operation.