Will Russia make a military move against Ukraine? Follow these clues.

For weeks, the eyes of the world have been on a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, as Western officials struggle to decipher Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intent: beef up his attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, or bluff his way to key concessions? 

Amid a flurry of diplomatic talks, fiery rhetoric, and movements of heavy materiel, we wanted to separate the signal from the noise. So we reached out to our military fellows at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, who are active-duty officers with the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, for a sense of what they’re tracking most closely—and what indicators we should all be monitoring to divine Putin’s intentions.

Jump to an expert reaction

Lt. Col. Tyson K. Wetzel: Pay attention to cyberattacks, military exercises, and evacuations of non-combatants

Col. John B. Barranco: Keep your eyes on Russia’s reserves

Col. Benjamin G. Johnson: Look out for sub-zero temperatures and medical prep 

CDR. Daniel Vardiman: Watch the waters around Odesa 

Pay attention to cyberattacks, military exercises, and evacuations of non-combatants 

Through the beginning of January, the Russian military had deployed tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of pieces of armor to its border with Ukraine. That’s a threatening force to be sure, but not a combined armed force that would be able to fight the type of high-intensity, multi-domain conflict that we would anticipate between Russia and Ukraine. Russia had not deployed crucial combat platforms and enabling capabilities and units, including modern fighters and air-defense systems; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic-warfare systems; and logistics and combat-sustainment capabilities and units.

Over the past week, however, Russia has addressed these shortcomings, setting the conditions to execute a multi-domain attack on Ukraine should that be Putin’s decision.

First, Belarus and Russia announced a large-scale joint military exercise, called Allied Resolve 2022, near the Ukrainian border. This type of exercise can serve two major purposes. First, it provides a cover for Russia to deploy high-end military capabilities to the region. To that end, Russia announced the deployment of advanced fighters (Su-35) and air-defense systems (S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems and Pantsir-S1 short-range air-defense systems) to Belarus to take part in the exercise. Second, the exercise, which is scheduled from February 10-20, provides Russia an opportunity to conduct an operational rehearsal of combined arms missions or their subcomponents. This exercise is the type of cover action I would plan if I were looking to execute a large-scale military operation.

Additionally, Russia recently deployed other critical combat capabilities to the region, including thirty-six Iskander-K medium-range ballistic-missile systems, as well as critical combat enablers such as ISR-collection and electronic-warfare platforms, and combat sustainment units and capabilities, including munitions, medical support, and security services.

Late last week, we also saw cyberattacks on Ukrainian government websites that were tied to a hacker group linked to Belarusian intelligence. It’s unlikely that the purpose of this attack was simply to deface Ukrainian government websites. It is highly likely that these cyber actors were testing accesses and leaving backdoors into various networks and websites that will be exploited in the immediate pre-invasion timeframe.

Another major signal of imminent military activity is the New York Times report that Russia is slowly evacuating its embassy in Kyiv. Though Moscow has denied the report, it is likely that Russia has begun to reduce its footprint of non-combatants within Ukraine. As the Times authors indicate, this move could be propaganda, a feint, or preparation for conflict, but it is likely driven by each of these considerations. As we saw in the hasty non-combatant evacuation from Kabul, Afghanistan in August, removing civilians and family members is a huge task and one that should not be rushed. The evacuation of non-combatants is often one of the last pre-operation actions because it can be an unambiguous indicator of imminent military action.

The reported cyberattacks in Norway and drones spotted near Swedish nuclear plants are similarly troubling. Though there are no established links between these events and the ongoing Ukraine crisis, it is likely that these actions are a part of Russia’s larger hybrid-warfare campaign targeting the United States and its allies and partners in the region. Expect this to continue, and even ramp up, as the United States and its allies and partners identify more activities that Russia is likely already conducting.

The bottom line is that Russia has already deployed the combat forces and systems, enablers, and sustainment capabilities to fight a multi-domain conflict. It has begun hybrid warfare activities that will support possible military action. Finally, it has announced military exercises that can and likely will be used as a cover to deploy more high-end forces and capabilities to the region—and to conduct a mission rehearsal for possible combat operations. While we do not know if Putin has decided to conduct another large-scale military operation in Ukraine, he has certainly set the conditions for such military action.

Lt. Col. Tyson K. Wetzel is the 2021-2022 senior US Air Force fellow at the Scowcroft Center. 

Keep your eyes on Russia’s reserves

Russia has roughly a million active-duty soldiers and about 250,000 reserves. Its army has about 280,000 troops. Ukraine has about 250,000 active forces and another 250,000 reserves. Roughly 180,000 of its active forces are in the army. Given the relative size of the two militaries, Russia is going to need to call up reservists out of civilian life if it is serious about invading and occupying all or most of Ukraine. That’s going to have an economic impact and cause discontent among the public, so Moscow is unlikely to do it unless it’s serious.   

Moving active forces around is one thing; that’s par for the course. The United States moves its own active-duty units around the country constantly during exercises. Pulling people out of civilian life—moms, dads, teachers, first responders—and deploying them for an unknown amount of time is a very different level of commitment. There are unconfirmed reports in the news that this is happening, but that could be deliberate disinformation by the Russians to give the world the impression that an attack is imminent.  

The move of Russian amphibious ships from the Baltic Sea toward the Black Sea is another overt action that does not make much sense militarily unless Russia is trying to convince NATO that Moscow plans to invade. It would be much easier and less detectable to move the forces onboard those ships internally by rail than to have them travel through the English Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, and Bosporus, all of which are controlled by NATO allies. Amphibious assaults are among the most complicated and costly of military operations, and the Russians have never mounted one in their history. With the large land border Russia shares with Ukraine, such a risk makes no sense. 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine eight years ago and occupied close to 7 percent of its territory, Ukraine has benefited from billions of dollars in US defense aid and is much better prepared for a Russian offensive than it was in 2014. The Russians are sophisticated opponents, but the Ukrainians are competent and they do not have any other security concerns that will divide their attention and their forces from resisting a Russian invasion. The Ukrainians will also have a much easier time of mobilizing their reserves if they have not already. Their population is likely much more in favor of resisting a Russian invasion—even if it means reserve mobilization—than the Russian population is about attacking Ukraine. Logistically, the Ukrainians are also able to deploy more quickly based on the distances involved. 

Russia knows all of this. Yet rather than try to quietly engage in a military buildup and regain some element of surprise, it is telegraphing to everyone that it plans to launch a challenging mid-winter offensive that risks its mechanized forces getting bogged down in a March thaw if it does not achieve rapid success. There’s a lot of discussion about the consequences that the West will impose on Russia if the Kremlin takes such action, but there’s a very good chance that Ukraine imposes even greater costs in blood and treasure if Moscow continues this course. It is not a foregone conclusion that Russia wins this battle if it chooses to fight it, and Russia could potentially not even hold on to the Ukrainian territory that it has already occupied.    

I think Russia is testing Western resolve given how few ramifications it suffered after its military invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and in light of the recent Western military withdrawal from Afghanistan. This suggests to me that Putin will stop short of a full-scale invasion and use this most recent provocation to try to divide the United States and its allies.        

Col. John B. Barranco is the 2021-2022 senior US Marine Corps fellow at the Scowcroft Center. 

Look out for sub-zero temperatures and medical prep 

Russia will want favorable weather conditions for moving around heavy armor, which is why we should be looking for weather reports that the ground is fully frozen and a good stretch of sub-freezing temperatures. Weather conditions in Ukraine are not optimal for a Russian ground attack with heavy forces right now, and there is a short window before the normal March thaw. The ground is not fully frozen yet due to a mild winter; even if it does freeze in the next two to four weeks, that only gives the Russians a maximum of one to two months until March. When the ground thaws, heavy forces would slow significantly, extending the invasion timeline and making it a riskier campaign. 

We also haven’t seen any evidence that Russia is making final medical preparations for a ground invasion. If it intends to attack Ukraine with a heavy force, the presence of large amounts of medical equipment and manned mobile field hospitals will be an indicator. Field ambulances are easy to identify because of the red crosses. There have been sporadic reports of Russian field hospitals, but we should be looking for reports that they are fully manned with medical personnel. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be a difficult decision to pull medical personnel from civilian or garrison hospitals for a feint or a training exercise. 

Col. Benjamin G. Johnson is the 2021-2022 senior US Army fellow at the Scowcroft Center. 

Watch the waters around Odesa 

Russia appears to have recently rerouted amphibious forces loaded with equipment and personnel from the Northern and Baltic fleets to the Black Sea. This mirrors its actions in March and April 2021, when the world was similarly concerned about an invasion of Ukraine and the naval deployment provided reinforcements and resupply. It’s worth noting that Russia has never conducted an opposed amphibious landing in its history. This effort would be foolhardy without significant investment in training and landing exercises. However, it is just as foolhardy to assume away a threat. What is more likely is that Russian amphibious forces are conducting a feint to draw Ukrainian ground forces away from the main effort, which would likely be in the north and central parts of the country with the objective to capture Kyiv. 

The Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa is a strategic prize second only to Kyiv. Russia may attempt to blockade Odesa at the beginning of a conflict and hold that position until its ground forces can assert control there. Russian naval incursions into Ukrainian territorial waters around Odesa could be a sign of Russia’s intent to escalate. If Russia can take Odesa, this would cut Ukraine off from any sea lines of communication or maritime resupply with the rest of the world. Additionally, if Russia controlled Ukraine’s ports, amphibious forces could move personnel and equipment closer to the front lines faster while leapfrogging over some roadblocks that its ground forces will face in southern Ukraine. 

The question remains: Has Russia lost the element of surprise, or do its current moves constitute an attempt to preserve it? Russia has conducted a large buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border twice in less than a year. Any military strategist knows how critical the element of surprise is to success. If you don’t have surprise, then the only substitute is overwhelming odds. And Russia has neither. If Russia were to attack this winter, it would have only a minimal level of surprise.  

However, there is an alternate view to consider: that Putin is the boy who cried wolf. Each time Russia conducts a large exercise, it gives the Russian leader a platform to push his agenda with NATO while simultaneously sending a message to his people about the need for further action. If Russia doesn’t attack Ukraine this time, will the United States and European countries send aid to Ukraine during future Russian military buildups? Or will they soften their approach and fall into the trap of taking a wait-and-see attitude? If the latter occurs, then Russia may regain some of the element of surprise in a future buildup.  

CDR. Daniel Vardiman is the 2021-2022 senior US Navy fellow at the Scowcroft Center. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of their parent service departments, the Department of Defense, or the US government.    

Further reading

Related Experts: Tyson Wetzel, John B. Barranco, Benjamin G. Johnson, and Daniel Vardiman

Image: A Russian T-72B3 main battle tank drives during military drills at the Kadamovsky range in the Rostov region, Russia on December 20, 2021. Photo via REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov.