Russia will annex all of Ukraine

Russia withdraws its troops - what does that mean for Ukraine?

Russia says it has started withdrawing troops from the borders with Ukraine and the annexed Crimean peninsula. During a visit to Crimea on April 22, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the objectives of the military maneuvers had been achieved. However, it remains unclear for the time being whether all newly deployed soldiers and weapons will leave the areas near Ukraine and whether the new military camps will be dismantled. Some weapon systems are to remain on the base near Voronezh until the "West 2021" maneuver with Belarus in the autumn, said Shoigu.

Due to the Russian troop deployment on the border with Ukraine and on the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia, numerous observers suspected that Russia was preparing an offensive.

Not enough troops to attack

However, experts from the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, wrote in a report published on April 20: "Despite the Russian tanks being brought to the border, the likelihood of the bloody ones seems slim to be low The battles that rocked Donbass in 2014 and 2015 will soon be repeated. " The number and positioning of the troops are cause for concern, but do not fit a template for an offensive.

The ICG recalled that observers had long believed Moscow was satisfied with the status quo in Ukraine. The Minsk agreements, which ended the bloody fighting in early 2015 and which were negotiated when Kiev was exposed to strong pressure from the Russian military, are advantageous for Russia's "representatives" in Donbass. "But recent troop movements and Russian rhetoric suggest that it may be increasingly frustrated and may be trying to force Ukraine to make concessions," the ICG said.

How many Russian soldiers are ready?

At first it was said from Kiev that there were more than 80,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine and Crimea, and on April 14, the Ukrainian Defense Minister Andrij Taran announced that there could soon be 110,000.

On the same day, the US representative to the OSCE said that Russia had transferred 15,000 to 25,000 soldiers to the border with Ukraine and Crimea in addition to the armed forces already in place. This week the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the US government was assuming 80,000 Russian soldiers. They are now "about twice as many as four weeks ago". The European Union assumes 100,000 Russian soldiers.

According to the Defense Ministry in Kiev, the Ukrainian armed forces had 195,000 soldiers in February of this year, 40,000 of whom were involved in the operation in Donbass. On April 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a law allowing reservists to be called up for military service more quickly. Kiev has a considerable reserve, as around 400,000 Ukrainians have already completed combat missions in Donbass.

New Russian military bases

In modern warfare, however, the number of soldiers alone says little. The number and type of weapons, the organization of the troops and their logistics as well as reserves of fuel and ammunition are also important. Here, too, Russia made progress. For example, the EU announced that Russia was building field hospitals. And the WSJ reported on the stationing of Su-30 fighter jets in the Crimea. Satellite imagery also shows airborne troops, attack helicopters, reconnaissance drones and electronic warfare equipment have been deployed on the peninsula.

A group of independent Russian bloggers from the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) has also discovered a new field camp for Russian troops south of Voronezh. Although the camp is about 250 kilometers from Ukraine's eastern border, a large part of the military equipment stationed there comes from the central Russian military district, ie "hundreds and thousands of kilometers" from Voronezh. According to the research, the camp was set up as close as possible to the Ukrainian region of Kharkiv and the part of the Luhansk region controlled by Kiev. The CIT therefore suspects that this indicates an offensive character rather than a defensive one. In addition, the CIT has found that paratroopers from Pskov with their equipment, in particular armored personnel carriers, have been transferred to the north of the Crimea. There are also reports that Russia is moving ships from the Caspian Flotilla to the Sea of ‚Äč‚ÄčAzov.

The magazine "Der Spiegel" reported on two new bases of the Russian military near Marfivka in the Crimea. In April, satellite images show more and more vehicles and bodies where the site was still empty in mid-March. In addition to accommodation, there are more than a thousand military vehicles in rows in fenced areas.

Russia capable of offensive in a few weeks

In an interview with DW, the former US General Ben Hodges did not rule out an escalation of violence between Russian and Ukrainian armed forces in the Donbass region. Hodges, now an expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told DW: "I no longer believe that these are just muscle games. When I look at the scope of the installation, the type of equipment and accessories, the logistics and the laying of naval ships from the Caspian to the Black Sea, this is more than just an exercise. "

Satellite image of the Russian air base Saki in the Crimea

The President of the Potomac Foundation, Phillip Karber, also thinks that it is no longer just a show of force on the part of Russia. He told the WSJ: "This is preparation for a major offensive." The head of the US think tank stressed that he did not predict an attack, but in two weeks this would be one of the options available to the Russians.

This agrees with the assessments of the leadership in Kiev. "We do not know for sure whether Moscow will start a new phase of aggression against Ukraine, but it will be able to do so in a few weeks," said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Military observers point out that the weather conditions in the spring are unfavorable for an offensive. But the situation could change as early as May, when the ground is dry and heavy military equipment can be moved more easily.

Adaptation from the Ukrainian: Markian Ostaptschuk