Russians have 120,000 troops on its border, increased intel gathering, Ukraine ministry says

The Russians now have about 120,000 troops arrayed around Ukraine, and they are increasing their intelligence gathering activities, according to the latest Ukrainian military assessment, obtained by Military Times.

Those figures, updated Wednesday, include some 98,000 ground troops and about 22,000 air and naval forces, according to the assessment.

In addition, Russia has carried out 2,500 military exercises “of different scales” along the border with Ukraine, according to the Ukraine Ministry of Defense, “including series of strategic table top offensive exercises this year.” Another 3,000 are planned for next year.

“Situation on the temporary occupied territories and around Ukraine remains difficult,” according to the assessment. “Moscow regularly demonstrates its military power and readiness for aggression. The main goal of [the Russian Federation] is to restore the full control over Ukraine and to thwart its Euroatlantic aspirations.”

While the latest assessment does not indicate the likelihood or timeline of a potential invasion, Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence, previously told Military Times that Russia is preparing for an invasion by late January or early February.

The latest Ukrainian assessment provides an update on what that nation’s military says the Russian troops are doing.

“The Russian Federation periodically redeploys and accumulates its military units to maintain tension in the region and political pressure on the neighboring states,” the assessment states. “Redeployment of Russian military personnel is being carried out from the military exercise areas.”

Leaving weapons like Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems, tanks and other armored vehicles near the border of Ukraine, “allows Russian leadership to create striking forces rapidly and lays ground for quick reinforcement (1–2 weeks) by engaging forces ready for offensive actions.”

The Pentagon declined comment on the Ukrainian assessment and the Russian embassy did not respond to a request for comment. Russian officials, however, have denied any intent to invade Ukraine, instead saying it is Ukraine that is fomenting trouble.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday insisted that sending U.S. troops to Ukraine to fend off a Russian invasion is “not on the table” but still promised a strong American response to Russian President Vladimir Putin if such a military advance occurs.

“I made it very clear, if in fact he invaded Ukraine, there will be severe consequences,” Biden told reporters. “There will be economic consequences like none he’s ever seen, or ever have been seen.”

Biden will speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday to discuss Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, according to the White House press pool. He will then convene a call with the leaders of the Bucharest Nine group of eastern flank NATO allies —Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia — to brief them on his call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, hear their perspectives on the current security situation, and underscore the United States’ commitment to Transatlantic security.

Increased intelligence gathering

“Intelligence activity of [the Russian Federation] against Ukraine is intensified,” according to the assessment. “Additional maneuver SIGINT units were redeployed next to the Ukrainian border. Reconnaissance aircraft of [Russian Federation] fly along the border of Ukraine and above the … Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.”

The frequency of such activities, according to Ukraine’s MOD, “have increased 3 times compared to the same period last year.” The assessment does not specify the exact number of such incidents.

In his interview with Military Times, Budanov disclosed that the Russians may attack through Belarus. The Wednesday MOD assessment says the Russians are also increasing their coordination with Belarus, opening a “northern theater of operations” from inside that nation, which shares a long border with Ukraine.

“Integration of military components of Belarus and Russia is in progress,” according to the assessment, and a “unified regional air-defense system” of the two nations was put into operation. “Russia and Belarus established a Joint Belorussian Air Defense and Russian Air Space Force Command Center during the ‘Zapad-2021′ exercise.”

In addition, Russian and Belarusian air forces have conducted joint patrols along the borders of Belarus since Nov. 25, according to the MOD assessment.

“Russia increases its military contingent in Belarus,” according to the assessment, noting that Russian military equipment was left in Belarus after the Zapad exercise.

“Under the guise of joint exercises, the Russian Federation is assessing the preserved Belarusian military camps for the possible deployment of Russian units there,” the assessment states. “Russia deploys its aviation and anti-aircraft components in Belarus on a regular basis.”

Ukraine claims that C-400 air defense systems (in Grodno) and Su-30 fighter jets (at the airfield in Baranovichi) “remain on the territory of Belarus after ‘Zapad-2021′ strategic exercises.”

The Ukraine military also claims the reconnaissance mission against Ukraine from Belarus has intensified.

Situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions

Some 2,100 Russian troops from the 1st and 2nd Army Corps of the Southern Military District in eastern Ukraine oversee the activities of about 35,000 Russian-aligned separatists, according to the assessment.

“About 2,100 personnel of the Russian Armed Forces are constantly fighting against Ukraine” there, according to the MOD assessment. “Russian generals and officers are taking the key positions. The special units of all Russian law-enforcement agencies, especially sniper groups, have ‘combat practice’ on the separation line.”

The Russian Federation “permanently aggravates [the] situation,” according to the assessment. “Recently, Russian troops and their mercenaries have increased shelling.”

Ukraine said that there about five to 10 artillery firings every day on the line of contact in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, 30% from weapons larger than 100mm, which are prohibited by the Minsk agreements.

As of Dec. 2,, a total of 2,369 shellings have been recorded this year, resulting in 65 troops killed and 263 wounded.

“The enemy has reinforced advanced units with tank groups and actively uses drones and snipers,” according to the assessment. “This year, 29 Ukrainian defenders were lost and 13 more were wounded from sniper fire.”

The assessment does not include estimates for Russian forces killed and wounded, and Ukrainian officials declined to elaborate

Situation in occupied Crimea

“Russia continues militarization of occupied Crimea peninsula and the Black Sea region,” according to the assessment, which claims there are about 33,000 Russian troops there. The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the temporary occupied territory of Crimea “is not excluded,” the assessment states.

“The Russian Federation prevents free shipping in the area,” according to the assessment. “Completion of the construction of illegal Kerch Bridge has led to full Russian control over the Kerch Strait and restrictions on the passage of ships to the Sea of Azov. Russia’s practice of closing down maritime areas in the Black and Azov Seas around the occupied Crimea under the guise of conducting exercises continues. This ‘pirate’ practice violates the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Military Times reporter Leo Shane contributed to this story.

Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.

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