Confidential

Russia and Ukraine Escalation: Q1 Outlook

Ukrainian SOF operator before exercises

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have remained high since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 [source]. Since then, Russia and Ukraine have signed multiple ceasefire agreements to prevent further conflict within the region. Throughout 2021, multiple ceasefire violations by both Russia and Ukraine were recorded, and satellite imagery shows a marked increase in Russian military build-up surrounding Ukraine. There is, therefore, concrete reason to believe that tensions are rising. As a result, this report considers how the situation will escalate over the next two months.

Graph showing Ceasefire violations in Donbas, 2018-present. There is a clear escalation throughout Q3-Q4 2021
(Img; Graph showing Ceasefire violations in Donbas, 2018-present. There is a clear escalation throughout Q3-Q4 2021; via USA Today)

Key Judgements

  • KJ-1 – Tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to escalate rapidly during Q4 2021 and Q1 2022. Russia is almost certainly building its military presence at the border of Ukraine.

  • KJ-2 – There is a realistic possibility that Russia will begin a military offensive against Ukraine in the next two months.

  • KJ-3 – Russia is highly unlikely to be receptive to international peace discussions.

Military Build-Up

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to escalate rapidly during Q4 2021 and Q1 2022. Russia is almost certainly building its military presence at the border of Ukraine. There are now around 100,000 Russian troops amassed at the border of Ukraine [source]. Such military build-up is clear from satellite imagery of Russian strongholds, currently stationed north, east, and south of Ukraine.

Satellite imagery showing military build-up surrounding Ukraine
(Img; Satellite imagery showing military build-up surrounding Ukraine; via BBC News)

In addition, on the Ukrainian border, Russia has 1,200 tanks and hundreds of other military vehicles stationed. Finally, Russia has some of the most advanced air defence systems of any nation, allowing a strategic advantage in the event of an offensive [source].

US military intelligence suggests Russia plans to rally a further 75,000 personnel in the coming months [source]. Ukrainian intelligence officers claim to have captured a Russian agent, claiming that Russia plans attacks in the Southern city of Odesa, Ukraine [source]. These reports are realistic as it is closer to existing Russian stations in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk.

Current military build-up surrounding Ukraine as of January 7th
(Img; Current military build-up surrounding Ukraine as of January 7th; via NY Times)

An Imminent Offensive?

There is a realistic possibility that Russia will begin a military offensive against Ukraine in the next 2 months. Whilst its military build-up strongly suggests early signs of readying for a military offensive, this is more likely to occur in Q2 or Q3 2022.

There are multiple reasons that Russia may be delaying a military offensive. Whilst the current force of 100,000 to 175,000 troops would almost certainly overthrow Ukraine [source], the risk of a civilian uprising in Kyiv would require a much larger 325,000 personnel [source].  Civilian armed resistance to such an invasion is likely based on strong nationalism, instilled largely due to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 [source]. In addition, this year, the winter is particularly mild, meaning that there is still muddy quagmire conditions that make the movement of offensive vehicles challenging [source].

Russia will also face issues concerning its military abilities. Russia has a limited amphibious military ability [source]. Similarly, capturing the capital city, Kyiv, would require intervention with bordering Belarus due to logistic issues with traversing the Dnepr river [source].

Peace Negotiations

Russia is highly unlikely to be receptive to international peace discussions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov stated on January 10th that there is no imminent plan for an offensive, explaining the increase in numbers on the Ukrainian border as “combat training […] being carried out within our national territory” [source]. This has been reiterated on multiple occasions by Moscow representatives during diplomatic negotiations.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attend peace talks in Geneva
(Img; US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attend peace talks in Geneva; via Defence News)

However, there is little progress towards a diplomatic conclusion following these statements and discussions [source]. Following talks with the US, Russian forced conducted a live-fire military exercise near the Ukrainian border, in apparent contravention of US demands [source]. Russia demands that Ukraine cannot join the NATO alliance, although NATO and Ukraine have countered that Russia cannot dictate these relations [source]. Further discussions are scheduled to take place on the 12th and 13th of January 2022, though Russia states there is “no reason for optimism” [source].

Summary

The political and military situation between Russia and Ukraine is volatile and may change rapidly. However, there is likely a delay in military action due to current conflict conditions. As a result, military action is more likely to happen in Q2-Q3 2022.

(Intelligence Cutoff Date: January 12th 2022 (GMT))

Author

Abbi Clark

Abbi is a graduate in Chinese Studies from the University of Nottingham, specialising in Asian politics and International Relations. She is currently studying MA Intelligence & Security Studies at Brunel University London. Her research interests focus on geopolitics and modern defense issues.

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