Five lessons from Russia’s Ukraine military escalation

Russia shows readiness and an ability to move at speed when needed, but key to its strategy is retaining control of both military and diplomatic manoeuvres.

Explainer Published 29 April 2021 Updated 13 October 2022 3 minute READ

1. Attention is focused where Russia wants it to be

In mid-April, international media reported Russia will invade or ‘go to war’ with Ukraine, without realizing this is already effectively the case. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas back in 2014 essentially created a war – although it remains undeclared – with Ukraine.

This apparent short-term memory loss is accompanied by a stubborn habit of focusing almost exclusively on numbers and capabilities, which comes to the fore every time Russia moves troops and hardware close to NATO or European borders. Even the European Union (EU) High Representative Josep Borrell fell into this trap by floating bogus numbers before having to admit his mistake.

This is the essence of Russia’s reflexive control because, to achieve information dominance, Russia saturates the rest of the world with what Moscow wants everyone to focus on – namely shock and awe and fear-mongering. The message becomes the weapon which then has the tendency to limit options in terms of pushing back against Russia. Focusing too much on military capabilities and numbers only leads to self-deterrence.

2. Deployment does not fit an invasion plan

Few analyses looked at which troops and capabilities Russia actually deployed in occupied Crimea, as well as on the Pogonovo training grounds close to Voronezh, which is a few hundred kilometers from the Ukrainian border.

To achieve information dominance, Russia saturates the rest of the world with what Moscow wants everyone to focus on – namely shock and awe and fear-mongering

The main force in Pogonovo was made up of disparate elements from Russia’s central, southern, and western military districts. The temporary staging area there hosted impressive displays of military hardware, but not enough logistical and support units to stage a full-on and sustainable invasion. In this, Russia does not win its battles by massing troops, but by using well-thought-out, pre-positioned military logistics.

Furthermore, no rear movement would happen without activating the spearhead first, whether this is local proxies in Donbas – the 1st Corps in Donetsk and the 2nd Corps in Luhansk – or resupply nodes around the Debaltseve and Yasinovata railway links in Donbas.

As evidenced by a CSIS satellite images analysis report, recent deployments demonstrate a readiness and quick deployment capabilities rather than an invading force. If Russia wants to invade Ukraine again, it would not be signposting it weeks before but rather use more covert means. Small incursions into Ukraine – either to create an imagined ‘land bridge’ through Mariupol or secure access to the water reservoirs in mainland Ukraine – are also out of the question, at least for now.

3. Russia wants to retain control on its terms

Beyond deployed capabilities, the recent stand-off reminded policymakers the Kremlin retains complete escalation dominance over eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and beyond. The Kremlin laid the blame for the crisis on Ukraine, arguing that Kyiv ‘moved first’ by carrying out seasonal military rotations to the frontline. Moscow also claims it was responding to a supposed threat from NATO in the context of the DEFENDER Europe-2021 military drills.

For the Kremlin, there was a clear incentive in showing Ukraine that no country – especially the new Biden administration in the US – would rush to save Kyiv should tensions escalate further. But this objective was only partly achieved as the US Senate quickly introduced a bill aimed at increasing military assistance to Ukraine.

However, further discussions on the now-moribund Minsk process will continue to take place on Russia’s terms. Short of a war with Russia that Ukraine will lose, the Kremlin has proved the only way forward for Kyiv is to accept the situation and prepare for potential compromises – a situation seen before.

4. Moscow achieves tactical gains in the Sea of Azov

Largely escaping international attention, Russia announced the unilateral closure of the Kerch Strait to non-Russian vessels from 24 April until 31 October, reportedly to avoid ‘accidental clashes’ from upcoming naval drills there. But this reveals a tactical gain – Moscow turning the Sea of Azov into a ‘Russian lake’.

For the Kremlin, there was a clear incentive in showing Ukraine that no country – especially the new Biden administration in the US – would rush to save Kyiv should tensions escalate further

Initial moves to this end took place in 2018, with the highest-profile act being when the Russian coastguard reportedly assaulted Ukrainian surface vessels and temporarily closed navigation through the Strait in November 2018.

Air superiority assets deployed to Crimea in April are another sign the recent deployments have more to do with wider Black Sea security and extended strategic depth than specifically with Ukraine. But this situation is inflicting immense cost on Ukraine, especially for maritime commerce between Azov coastal cities and the rest of Ukraine, and will only deteriorate in the coming months.

5. Despite Russia’s partial withdrawal, tension remains high

Now President Vladimir Putin and defence minister Sergey Shoygu have announced partial withdrawal of the forces from the Voronezh staging grounds and Crimea by 1 May, the fact Russia did not invade Ukraine enables Moscow to try to look like a peacemaker.

Russia is leaving troops and military hardware in Pogonovo – mostly from the 41st Combined Arms Army – to prepare for the upcoming Zapad-2021 strategic military exercise in late summer. But this also allows Russian forces to demonstrate increased presence and readiness ahead of NATO’s DEFENDER-Europe 2021 drills.

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With the recent deployments, Russia has strengthened its tactical foothold along Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea and can now achieve an even quicker reaction time in terms of rear military deployments.

Although Russia does not need to invade Ukraine again, the risk of escalation does remain real. Future surprise incursions cannot be entirely ruled out, especially should Moscow’s aim be to provoke Ukraine even more, push Kyiv into responding, and then exploit the situation to its advantage. This could also offer Moscow a convenient excuse to deploy Russian ‘peacekeepers’ on the contact line.

Putin made it clear in his annual address to the Federal Assembly on 21 April that the ‘red line’ concerning Russia is defined on Russia’s terms, even though he did not detail what that line was. And the same applies to Ukraine, where the Kremlin is highly unlikely to surrender its complete control over both military and diplomatic developments.