How Secret Services See Putin’s Military Deployment

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In this video still released by the press service of the Russian Defense Ministry, a Russian howitzer is fired during a military exercise at a military training area in the Rostov region. © –/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/dpa

Russia says it doesn’t want war in Eastern Europe. However, the information gathered by Western secret services is anything but reassuring.

Brussels – A big war or just a big bluff? No one in the West knows what Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to do with the soldiers and weapons he is having deployed west.

Moscow denies plans to invade Ukraine. However, thanks to spy satellites and other reconnaissance methods, the secret services have a very good overview of the current situation. And this looks bleak – especially when combined with the analyzes that have been made of Putin himself. An overview:

The march

The intelligence services from the USA and other NATO countries assume that between 112,000 and 120,000 Russian soldiers are now stationed in areas not far from Ukraine. Heavy weapons, tanks and, most recently, landing ships and units of the medical service with blood reserves were transferred with the troops, as is evident from talks with Western intelligence officials. More Russian soldiers are expected to take part in military maneuvers in Belarus, north of Ukraine, which are about to begin. They will also be used to move S-400 and Pantsir air defense systems and Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft.

There are no indications of an end to the march, a senior Western secret service representative told the German Press Agency. In concrete terms, it is therefore considered likely that the number of tactical battalion groups (BTG), which is currently estimated at around 60, could be increased to more than 100 by mid-February. The BTG are fast and highly flexible combat units with 600 to 1000 soldiers.

In the event of a Russian attack, the BTG could be supported by the approximately 35,000 armed forces of the Kremlin-affiliated separatists in Donbass. They are not included in the more than 100,000 Russian soldiers.

The military options

According to military experts, if the deployment continues as feared, Russia could be in a position to launch a full-scale invasion and subsequent occupation in just two weeks. However, it is also considered possible that only half of the country will be taken, or that only a corridor should be created from the already annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea towards Moldova and Romania.

Another option is an official entry into Donbass, which is already controlled by the separatists, where Russian soldiers would then see themselves as a kind of peacekeeping force – possibly even after the separatist areas have been expanded. According to the analysts, a possible attack on the Ukrainian capital of Kiev could come from Belarus, but also from north-eastern Ukraine.

According to the analysts, whether Putin chooses one of these options – and if so, which one – will depend on the one hand on risk tolerance and on the other hand on what goal he actually wants to achieve. Any attack is likely to be accompanied by extensive cyber attacks on the power supply system, government authorities, as well as on the telecommunications system, TV and radio stations. “The aim would be to quickly isolate the country and create a lot of chaos and concern among as many people as possible,” explains one intelligence official.

The possible motives

Why might Putin risk attacking Ukraine? From the point of view of the Western services, this is very clear. “He wants Ukraine back,” is the analysis. From Putin’s point of view, the Russians and the Ukrainians are one people, Ukraine does not exist at all, just as there is no independent Ukrainian people. That is why Putin is committed to returning Ukraine to Russia, or at least to his sphere of influence.

There is a glimmer of hope that precisely because of this way of thinking, Putin probably has no interest in destroying the country too much in the event of an attack. It is therefore seen as a very likely option for Russia to launch an offensive that will only last a few days or weeks and then go to the negotiating table. There it could then give the other negotiators a choice: either there is a capitulation or the offensive continues. Possibly, Putin’s main concern is to remove the pro-Western Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Kremlin boss seems to be personally quite fixated on Zelenskyj, it is said.

According to the services, Putin’s claim that he must protect the Russian minority from an imminent “genocide” by “mad Ukrainian fascists” could be used as a pretext for a limited military operation in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s narrative would then be: He had no other choice.

The regular Russian assurances that they have no plans for an attack are not taken seriously by the secret services – especially since Putin himself threatened shortly before Christmas: “If the rather aggressive line of our Western colleagues is continued, we will respond with adequate military-technical measures.”

The weather and the Olympic Games

Some experts were recently convinced that the appropriate time window for a large-scale Russian attack should close at the end of February for the time being. After that, as the snow melts, the ground softens and tanks and other heavy vehicles would have a very hard time advancing. However, other experts warn against thinking this way. They point out that the Russian armed forces have large quantities of modern guided missiles and could parachute large numbers of troops to their destinations. “They would find a way to deal with the snowmelt,” it says.

On the other hand, it is considered possible that the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, which begin next Friday, will play a role in the upcoming decisions. The reasoning: An attack during this time could damage Putin’s image even more and antagonize the entire West as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Russia has backed a UN resolution calling for an Olympic ceasefire during the Olympic Games (February 4-20) and Paralympics (March 4-13) in Beijing. “As part of the Olympic ceasefire, all sides are called upon to cease hostilities throughout the Games,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently. dpa

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