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The Russians Are Coming! Why Putin Might Be Massing 180,000 Troops Near the Donbas

For millennia, fear of the unknown has surrounded the battlefields of war. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel wondered where the Allies would strike in northern France ahead of D-Day on June 6, 1944. General Robert E. Lee anxiously awaited the long overdue return of his cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart for intelligence on Union troop strength and positioning before the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Perhaps in recent times, the Ardennes Forest  covering in part Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France  proved that these nightmares can turn into reality. They did on Dec. 16, 1944, when Nazi forces, in what is now commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge, emerged from the darkness of the winter woodlands to assault allied positions in one last desperate attempt to avoid losing World War II.

Now, in Ukraine, there is a fear that it is the Russians who are coming.

Late Monday, reports began emerging that the Kremlin was staging 180,000 Russian troops along the eastern front in the Donbas. According to Serhii Cherevatvy, spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Moscow has amassed 120,000 troops along the Lyman-Kupiansk corridor and 50,000 soldiers in and around Bakhmut.  Some military analysts and reporters are suggesting Russia intends to pre-emptively launch its own counterattack against Kyiv before President Volodymyr Zelensky’s counteroffensive can fully take shape. 

But in a world of disinformation and deception, is there anything to this?

Ukraine could be feinting to mask the true intentions of its developing counteroffensive. Or Russia, fearing the loss of Crimea, could be attempting out of desperation to fix a sizable number of Ukrainian forces in Donbas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been vexed by the strategic failures of his “special military operation” either to secure the Donbas or Crimea, two goals that he probably cannot accomplish together. The Donbas represents the vast mineral and industrial wealth of pre-war Ukraine, whereas Crimea and the Kremlin’s naval port at Sevastopol is what has allowed Moscow to dominate the Black Sea since 1783.

After Yevgeny Prigozhin’s strange and short-lived uprising against Putin, it is likely the badly weakened and humiliated Russian president is being forced to choose Crimea as his main objective, given its strategic significance. Crimea’s symbolic importance to Putin also goes to the very heart of his regime and the myth of the Kievan Rus that he has been weaving since his first days in office.

Putin has intentionally set out in his propaganda to co-opt the origins of the Kievan Rus as though they were Russia’s own. As with the proto-state of Kievan Rus, the founding of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe is said to have occurred in Crimea when its founder, Volodymyr the Great (Vladimir in Russian), was baptized there in or around A.D. 988. 

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, is a willing partner in Putin’s hijacking of Ukrainian heritage. In exchange for Putin seizing what Kirill believes to be Holy Ground in Crimea  and obtaining Russian control of similar religious sites in Syria  Kirill supported the Kremlin’s invasions of Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea. The patriarch, who is himself corrupt and under Western sanctions, now strongly backs the war in Ukraine and justifies atrocities committed by Russian troops.

Russia undoubtedly still wants it all. The Donbas, Crimea, and likely all of Ukraine. Yet it is unlikely Putin can succeed in taking or keeping all three. Moreover, as retired U.S. Army Lt. General Ben Hodges has long maintained, he knows that Crimea is the “decisive terrain” of this war. The Russians may be indeed coming to the Donbas, but the real questions are why and to what purpose the Kremlin is overtly demonstrating numbers and strength there.

In all likelihood, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu desperately needs to draw Ukraine into fighting in the Donbas. It would keep Kyiv away from the “decisive terrain of Crimea, while shortening his own supply lines to the key Russian military depot and logistics hub of Rostov-on-Don (the same city Prigozhin temporarily seized during his mutiny).

Yet in the end, aside from needlessly making this illegal war of Russian aggression even bloodier on both sides, it may not matter from Ukraine’s perspective. As retired U.S. Army Brig. General Peter Zwack aptly noted during an appearance on Erin Burnett’s CNN show, these 180,000 purported Russian troops “look to be out of their reserve formations that were not stood up long ago,” and that “these are not elite first-string troops that they are committing.”

If so, then now more than ever, Zelenskyy needs the tools to forestall any Russian machinations in the Donbas so as to continue to ensure that Crimea remains the “decisive terrain” of this war and Kyiv’s path to victory. Moscow, ineptly, is foreshadowing that it does not want to fight on the Crimean Peninsula, due to a myriad of growing and compounding issues.

These include severe supply challenges. The Kerch bridge could be soon taken out. And multiple potential new paths into the Perekop Isthmus have appeared as the floodwater’s mud of the destroyed Kakhovka Dam has hardened into baked clay along the Dnieper River. 

While reports of these 180,000 Russian soldiers allegedly amassed in eastern Ukraine may seem daunting, the reality is less so. The majority of these soldiers would likely be poorly equipped mobilized reservists and conscripts with minimal training. 

Also, 180,000 soldiers and their supporting equipment will be hard to hide. Their staging positions will probably be lucrative targets for Ukrainian artillery. The current suite of HIMARS munitions available to Ukraine is the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS), which has a range of 70 kilometers. Russian staging positions are likely outside the 70 km range of GMLRS. 

Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) munitions extend the range of HIMARS to 300 kms, and would put staging points for Russian troops and their equipment in range of Ukrainian artillery. The only problem is that they are in Russia. State Department spokesman Matt Miller made U.S. policy clear on this subject when he said, “As a general policy matter, we have been clear that we don’t support the use of U.S.-made equipment being used for attacks inside of Russia.”’

Zelensky and his generals could eliminate this threat before they cross the border. They have the intelligence and the weapons platform, but they need ATACMS to close the deal. It is unconscionable to deny them the ability to strike targets presenting a clear and present danger to their nation.

The Biden administration must do everything it can to ensure that Ukraine can maintain the initiative. Shoigu is likely betting on another Bakhmut-like meat grinder scenario in the Donbas. Kyiv needs solutions to avoid a repeat. For now, the Russians might well indeed be coming. But if Biden acts boldly, then it will be Zelensky and his generals alongside their valiant Ukrainian troops telling them where to go. 

Source : The Hill