If you’ve turned on the TV over the last month, you’re probably aware that Russia has conducted a massive military buildup on the borders of its neighbor, Ukraine. Thousands of Russian tanks, artillery and other military vehicles have been shipped from as far away as the Pacific to staging grounds in southwest Russia and Belarus. By some accounts, 70 percent of the country’s entire military power now rests ready to strike Ukraine within days, should the order be given. Moscow now possesses somewhere in the region of 170,000 professional soldiers alone in areas adjacent to Ukraine, not to mention National Guard militia and support units.
There are signs that a major operation may not be as imminent as once thought: Russia’s defense ministry announced on Tuesday that some of its assets in Belarus had finished exercises and would be withdrawing. However, President Joe Biden said the withdrawal had not been verified and that Russian forces remained in a threatening position with an attack still “very much a possibility.”
With such an overwhelming buildup of firepower across such a vast area, below are some of the objectives the Russians would be likely to attack in the event of a war.
A large contingent of Russian forces are present in Belarus, as the two allies conduct 10 days of joint war games named Allied Resolve 2022. These include the 35th Combined Arms Army (CAA) in south-central Belarus and the 5th and 36th CAAs near the Belarusian city of Gomel. Also nearby are the 41st CAA and 90th Tank Division, just across the border in Russia itself. In the event of an all-out offensive, these are the units that would likely combine for a drive on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, only 80 kilometers from the Russian border. There are no major natural obstacles barring their path, and the only significant settlement between the capital and the border is the city of Chernihiv on the Dnieper River’s left bank. If an assault is ordered, an immense amount of artillery and guided rocket fire would precede an advance, utilizing Russia’s major advantages in heavy weaponry before a ground assault commenced.
Further to the east, Russian forces have also massed near the city of Belgorod, roughly 15 kilometers from Ukraine’s northeast border. Units here include the 6th CAA and 1st Guards Tank Army, a formation best known for its operations in the same area against Nazi German forces in World War II. Also nearby is the 20th CAA further southeast. These units would likely be tasked with conducting a broad sweep across the plains of northeastern Ukraine, capturing or surrounding the country’s second largest city Kharkiv, before driving to the Dnieper river that splits Ukraine roughly in two.
While Ukrainian troops have fortified their positions in the area in recent months, the nature of the terrain – open and without natural barriers – makes defense across such a vast area difficult. Russian forces would likely seek to exploit this via a lightning offensive employing maneuver warfare; again, after a devastating opening barrage designed to destroy or degrade as many Ukrainian units and static defenses as possible.
On Ukraine’s eastern border, we come to the longest-running conflict zone in the country: The Donbass, where the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR/LNR) have eked out a miserable, Moscow-backed existence since 2014. The front lines in this area are properly fortified, having had roughly seven years to settle since large-scale combat in the first phase of the Donbass conflict stopped in early 2015.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which conducts a ceasefire monitoring mission in the area, also estimates that the region is one of the most landmine-saturated in the world, slowing heavily a possible assault. Furthermore, these areas would probably be lower priority for Moscow in the event of a full-scale invasion, making the resources allocated to them lower. Nevertheless, the Russian 8th and 49th CAAs are both stationed in the area and could be employed to at least tie down Ukrainian forces in the area, threatening to sweep across into the port of Mariupol and elsewhere if Kyiv redeploys its forces.
Finally, the Crimean theater. Moscow has deployed a wide range of assets in the peninsula since annexing it in 2014 and has recently reinforced them, meaning Crimea currently plays host to both the 58th CAA and 22nd Army Corps. These units have also received two unique assets to bolster them: First, one of the largest contingents of attack helicopters seen anywhere in the recent buildup, and secondly, extensive naval power amidst ongoing Russian drills in the Black Sea, including amphibious assault craft. This gives the forces in Crimea the ability to threaten not only a ground assault towards Kherson and central Ukraine, but also a potential landing at Odessa, the Russian-speaking port that is Ukraine’s third largest city and a widely speculated Russian target. Even if such an operation does not come to pass, the credible threat of an amphibious landing would again tie down Ukrainian forces which would be unable to deploy elsewhere.
Ukraine, then, finds itself in an extremely unenviable position. Russian forces currently have the ability to conduct full-scale assaults on the country across three of its four borders, with only a few hours’ notice required. Whatever Moscow’s true intentions, however, Russia’s military capabilities vis-a-vis Ukraine leave the Kremlin with nearly any conceivable option at its disposal.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Kyiv, Ukraine. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.