Now that two months have passed since the Russian invasion on Feburary 24th, 2022, let’s review the conflict so far. In this brief, we’ll cover the story leading up to the eve of the Russian invasion.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine began effectively in 2014, with the annexation of the Crimea and the establishment of two separatist states in East Donbas: Luhansk and Donetsk. Fighting continued in a limited manner across this Eastern front for 8 years, with notable news events including the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.
Background and Preparations
During this time, both militaries evolved significantly. The Ukrainian military benefited from an influx of NATO weaponry and training, with hundreds of thousands of troops trained by the US Army in Yavoriv military base and in the United States, while the UK trained 22,000 troops through Operation Orbital. The Ukrainian military was not fit for purpose in 2014: of its standing strength of 155,000 men, only an estimated 6,000 were capable of immediate combat operations. When Russia seized the Crimea, up to half the Ukrainian garrison defected, while others surrendered or fled. Minimal resistance was offered.
By 2022, the Ukrainian army boasted a standing strength of 190,000 men under arms, with a further 900,000 reservists. It had been reorganised into a modern fighting force, with well-maintained armoured divisions and four Naval Infantry Brigades modelled after the US Marines. Ukraine’s oligarchs — the real power players in its politics, and owners of most of the country’s industry — stepped up to the plate by providing finance for specific military formations, reminiscent of how mediaeval barons equipped their own personal fighting forces.
Immediately before the commencement of hostilities in 2022, Ukraine further benefited from a swathe of military aid, including MANPADs and ATGMs (of which the 2,000 British-supplied NLAW anti-tank weapons proved particularly inmpactful in the early stages of the invasion). They also benefit from what appears to be the combined military intelligence of the whole of NATO, from satellites to cryptology to AWACS.
Russia also reorganised its army to a considerable degree during this 8 year period. Following 2014, Russia became more committed to intervention in Syria to protect its longstanding ally Bashar al-Assad. This saw several elite formations deployed to the conflict, and operational lessons learned regarding the deployment of combat drones alongside precise artillery fire, and the co-ordination of ground forces with VKS airstrikes.
The ‘Rosgvardia’ militia was also formed in 2016; a bizarre hybrid of militarised police or police-ified military, that has recently been responsible for holding occupied territories in Ukraine. It has been theorised that the primary purpose of the Rosgvardia is to prevent US-backed ‘colour revolutions’ in Russia and its allied nations, such as that seen in Ukraine in 2013-14, and across the Arab world in 2011.
The heavily-equipped Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) formation was used extensively during the proxy war between Russia and Ukraine, and experienced a reasonable degree of tactical success against Ukrainian Army formations. Partly motivated by this experience, Russia expanded its BTG complement from 96 groups to 168.
The Eve of War
In the spring of 2021, shortly after President Biden had taken office in the United States, around 50 Russian BTGs were deployed to the regions of Russia bordering Ukraine (approximately 100,000 troops). Two Russian military exercises were held in 2021, with the second exercise (ZAPAD-21) taking place in September. Each exercise saw large numbers of Russian troops arrive near the border of Ukraine, with relatively small numbers withdrawing once the exercise was completed. Military analysts across the West were alarmed, with many theorising that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would commence in 2021.
However, there was no invasion. Analysts pointed out the fact that the necessary logistics, medical, and supply infrastructure for an invasion had yet to be built. The overall impression in the West was that this buildup of military force constituted a case of ‘coercive diplomacy’ with Russia demonstrating its military strength in order to force concessions regarding Ukraine’s drift towards NATO.
In response to the spring buildup of troops, America and NATO commenced a series of joint exercises in and around Ukraine. A large NATO naval exercise took place that summer in the Black Sea, codenamed Sea Breeze, and included 40 vessels from 32 NATO countries. The Rapid Trident exercise saw 300 American soldiers working with 6,000 Ukrainian and other NATO troops in a military exercise in Yavoriv, Western Ukraine.
During late 2021 and early 2022, Russia gathered the remainder of its invasion force around the borders of Ukraine, with a large military exercise in Belarus prompting much speculation regarding their intentions. Ultimately, many thought that this was another case of coercive diplomacy, and that the diplomatic and economic costs of military action far outweighed the potential benefits (the military cost of an invasion were rarely considered worth mentioning). Yet invade they did, at dawn on February 24th, 2022, shortly following a state visit to China’s Winter Olympics by President Putin.
In the second part of this analysis, we will summarise the early stages of the Russian invasion in light of more recent developments in the conflict.