On April 6, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian Federation would hold 4,018 military exercises in all military districts during the month of April. The Southern Military District (SMD) which is responsible for the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian regions of Russia, announced the drills would involve around 15,000 military personnel. The actual deployment has reached 80,000 troops, including artillery and tanks, with 40,000 stationed in Crimea and the other 40,000 along the northern and eastern Ukrainian border.
The Kremlin then announced on April 8 artillery boats and amphibious landing craft from the Caspian Flotilla would join the Black Sea Fleet for naval exercises. Fifteen ships have been dispatched with marines, and are sailing through the deteriorating Volga-Don Canal which connects the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov. Russia has also engaged in GPS jamming of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring mission.
This has prompted extreme concern in Kyiv, Washington, and other Western and NATO capitals. Washington has so far dispatched two ships to the Black Sea to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine. While the Kremlin maintains the troops are deployed for exercises only, March has seen mass violations of the ceasefire by the Russian-backed separatists, with 28 Ukrainian casualties since January.
Russian media has also ramped up its propaganda against Ukraine, warning that if Moscow sees human rights violationslike the Srebrenica Massacre (referring to the Serbian massacre of 8,000 Bosniak Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica during the 1995 Bosnian War), Russia would have no choice but to intervene to save Russian citizens. Russian President Putin’s point man for Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, said that if such an escalation occurs, Russia would shoot Ukraine “not…in the leg, but in the face.”
The ships from the Caspian Flotilla being deployed are precisely the ships Russia would use for an amphibious invasion of Ukraine. The convoy, according to videos of the ships, seems to comprise of Serna-class amphibious landing craft and Smel-class artillery boats.
The Serna-class amphibious vessel is 84-feet long and displaces 100 tons with a full combat load. The Serna can either carry one T-72/T-90 or T-80 main battle tank, two BTR-80 wheeled armored carriers, or up to 92 troops. The Shmel, which displaces about 71 tons, has a primary armament of a 76mm D-56TS gun on its bow, and two 25mm cannons on the stern. The Shmel is designed especially for coastal bombardment and is capable of laying sea mines.
While the Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet both fall within the jurisdiction of the SMD, troops have been deployed to the region from well without its jurisdiction. Convoys of troops and hardware have journeyed to the Ukrainian border from Siberia and the 76th Air Assault Division based in Pskov was deployed to Feodosia in Crimea. The last time the 76th Air Assault Division was deployed to the SMD, they took part in the amphibious assault on Abkhazia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.
As always, it is difficult to ascertain the true intentions of the Kremlin. This is because the Russian leadership makes sure never to reveal their true objectives. This policy brings Moscow two primary benefits: it prevents a coherent response from its adversaries who have to spend time preparing for numerous contingencies, and it lets Russia select the least costly option without losing face.
Russia could simply be sending a message as Ukraine continues to call for NATO membership, demonstrating what Russia is capable of doing to Ukraine. The very lack of secrecy behind these troop deployments gives credence to the idea that this is a shakedown. However, the current troop deployments are even larger than those used to invade Crimea in 2014. Russia could be preparing to seize Mariupol, finalizing its total control of the Sea of Azov and establish a land bridge to Crimea. This would also allow Russia to restore the freshwater flow to Crimea; Ukraine has dammed the North Crimean Canal that provided the peninsula with between 85-90 percent of its freshwater. Alternatively, Russia might attempt to seize all of Ukraine’s Black Sea littoral. This would also connect Transnistria, occupied by Russia and effectively detached from Moldova since 1992, to the Russian mainland.
If Russia believes that the West will not respond to a Russian invasion, then the invasion will come. The United States must rally its allies around Kyiv and show Russia that not only does Ukraine have the firm support of the West and NATO, but that real, actionable consequences would follow an invasion. The principles of freedom and self-determination are being tested. The West must decide whether these principles are something we wish to keep.