Here is my rough translation of Vedomosti piece on why Russian invasion is unlikely followed by my own thoughts.
“Russian troops have been deployed to the border with Ukraine in order to exercise and to put pressure on Kiev. Angela Merkel says Vladimir Putin has promised her to withdraw troops from the border. That troops are being consolidated at the border doesn't mean they will be deployed to invade Ukraine, experts say.” Alexei Nikolsky and Polina Khimshiashvili, Vedomosti, April 2, 2014.
Vladimir Putin has promised to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to withdraw Russian troops from the border with Ukraine, according to a statement put out by the German leader's press service after her telephone conversation with Putin that took place on Monday evening at the initiative of the Russian president.
This became President Putin's first public statement on movement of troops on the Russian side of the border.
The Kremlin press service's account of the Monday conversation doesn't mention movement of troops, albeit it does say the two leaders discussed the situation around Moldova's Transnistria (separatist province) and Ukraine's internal structure. And a few hours later NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that he "unfortunately, can not confirm " withdrawal of Russian troops from the border.
But Tuesday evening saw Merkel personally tell reporters that "today I have no reason to doubt that it [the withdrawal of troops] will happen.” At the same time the German chancellor admitted that her judgement was based only on the information obtained from the Russian president. She then pledged to " gather more information in order to understand how credible” these (Putin's assurances) were.
The Russian Defense Ministry disseminated no reports on withdrawal of troops on Monday. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of defense ministers of the Shanghai Security Organization in Tajikistan, that “additional tensions have emerged because of hysterical media reports that falsely predict Russian occupation of the eastern regions of Ukraine."
Co-author of the book “New Russian Army " Anton Lavrov told Vedomosti that his analysis of photos and videos posted in social networks and by Ukrainian media suggests that there could be a number of Russian battalion tactical group ( BTGs ) exercising in the Russian regions bordering Ukraine. These include BTGs of the 4th Guards Tank Division and 2nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division – that are based in the Moscow region, BTG of the 76th Airborne assault division from the Pskov region, BTG of the 31th Guards Airborne Assault Brigade from Ulyanovsk, BTG of the 106th Guards Airborne Assault Division from Tula, 23th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade from Samara (it has been announced that the Samara BTG – that has been near the city of Rostov-on-Don since late February as part of a sudden inspection of combat readiness – would return to the home base).
There are not more than 10 BTGs of the aforementioned units as well as some additional Airborne Forces and Ground Forces units participating in the exercises in the areas that are adjacent to Russia's border with Ukraine and which stretch several hundred kilometers deep into Russian territory, according to Colonel (Rtd) Victor Murakhovski. Each of these units sent only one BTG.1
Rotation of these groups can create an impression that the Russian forces on the border are either increasing or shrinking. But at the same time, these forces do not constitute a combat ready grouping prepared to act on a single plan because they lack common command and control and logistical support. because now explicitly deployed and rear controls . What is happening is combat training at the tactical level, but units participating in this training have been shifted toward the border to exert pressure on the interim government in Kiev, according to Murakhovski….
I don't think lack of common C2 and logistics is an insurmountable obstacle.
Tactical groups representing brigades, regiments and divisions from all over Russia were the operational units during both Chechen wars. Adding command and control above them and logistics behind them should not be a problem.
That said, I'd put current odds that Putin would send troops to Eastern Ukraine at 30% even though
U.S Rep. Mike Rogers is concerned that such a move is likely and that Russia may event send troops from S. Ossetia to Armenia or Baltic Sea. And here is why:
A. Putin is using the forces deployed along the border with Ukraine as a bargaining chip to attain Ukraine’s military-political neutrality at the minimum or, preferably both its federalization and neutrality. Putin would prefer a whole Ukraine (minus Crimea) that is subjugated (or at least neutral) to controlling just eastern Ukraine.
§ Should, however, a massive riot erupt in eastern or southeastern Ukraine, Putin would be forced to intervene. Of course, Russia can also encourage unrest if Putin concludes West is determined to anchor Ukraine to itself militarily and/or isolate Russia.
B. If Putin’s goal all along was to annex the 3 Eastern Ukrainian districts (Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk) that are most pro-Russian, he would have made the move right after the February coup in Kiev when Ukraine was in disarray. Each day allows the interim government in Kiev to make progress in reviving the Ukrainian military, which was in such a bad shape in February that it had to launch a 50 cent call in service to raise fund to buy car batteries and had only 10% of its some 60,000 force combat ready.
C. Annexing eastern Ukrainian regions would be more difficult than Crimea, which had a distinct ethnic Russian majority and which functioned as an autonomous entity. There is no clear line separating pro-Russian parts of eastern Ukraine from others.
D. Putin is discussing presence of Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern frontiers with Western leaders and he has agreed to reduce its presence, albeit only by one battalion (1,000).
As said above, I find Rep. Mike Rogers’ 03.29.14 claim that “Russian troops in the northern region of Georgia, known as South Ossetia, are on the move, perhaps to go into Armenia or toward the Baltic Sea” rather puzzling. And here is why:
· There is no political goal that Russia can realistically fulfill by having its forces sent from S. Ossetia into Armenia. If Rogers meant that the Russian troops would actually march to Armenia to S. Ossetia, then it would require them to obtain passage through Georgia or Azerbaijan, neither of which are likely to grant such permission. Also there is a stable and staunchly pro-Russian government in Armenia and it already has plenty of Russian troops stationed at several locations in this republic. So unless Rogers foresees an unfreezing of the conflict in Karabakh, I don’t see why more Russian troops would be needed in Armenia. Nor is there a particular need to destabilize Georgia, given the defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili and ascent of more moderate political force to power in Tbilisi.
· Having Russian troops march all the way from Ossetia across southern and western Russia to the Baltic Sea would be rather inexpedient from the military point of view, unless it is an exercise. There are Russian troops deployed much closer to that sea than Ossetia and their deployment would be easier to conceal for that reason.
Having missed Russia’s intervention in Crimea, some of the US policy makers are now tempted to display an extra level of concern to hedge their bets, so that no one criticizes them in the unlikely event that their concerns will materialize. As the Russian saying goes: “burn yourself on hot milk, blow on cold water,” which can be translated as “once bitten, twice shy.”