July 31, 2014
Gulf of Aden Security Review
AEI Critical Threats Project
July 31, 2014
Yemen: Suspected AQAP militant opens fire on local trader’s house in Hadramawt; tribal gunmen detonate IEDs near oil pipeline in Ma’rib; Yemen officials extradite Saudi affiliates of AQAP
Horn of Africa: Al Shabaab militants attack AMISOM and Jubbaland security forces in Lower Jubba region; AMISOM and SNA forces seize territory from al Shabaab in Bay region; suspected al Shabaab militants kill Somali security officer in Mogadishu
Yemen Security Brief
- A suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militant raided the house of Ahmed Babkair, a local trader, and opened fire in the Mansoura neighborhood of al Shihr, Hadramawt on July 30, wounding Babkair’s son.
- Armed tribesmen detonated two improvised explosive devices (IED) near an oil pipeline in the Habab area of Wadi Abida, Ma’rib on July 30.
- Yemen authorities extradited to Saudi Arabia eight Saudi nationals, suspected of AQAP affiliation, on July 31. Seven of the detainees were male and one was the wife of a detained member of al Qaeda.
Horn of Africa Security Brief
- Al Shabaab militants attacked African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Jubbaland security forces near Kismayo, Lower Jubba region on July 30. Jubbaland Administration officials reported that at least ten al Shabaab militants were killed during the confrontation.
- AMISOM and Somali National Army (SNA) forces seized Qansadere district on July 30 after al Shabaab militants withdrew from the district. The militants vacated the area without confrontation as AMISOM and SNA forces prepared for an offensive against al Shabaab in the district.
- Two suspected al Shabaab militants killed a Somali security officer in Bakara Market in Mogadishu on July 30. Somali security forces, responding to the incident, killed the two suspects as they were fleeing the market. Afterwards, Somali security forces closed the market and conducted a security operation in the surrounding area, detaining an unspecified number of suspects.
July 31, 2014
Pakistan Security Brief
AEI Critical Threats Project
July 31, 2014
Prominent online jihadist explains al Qaeda pledge of allegiance to Taliban chief Mullah Omar; Kidnappings an increasingly significant source of income for the TTP; German government donates $1.3 million in aid to IDPs from North Waziristan; Obama administration officials pleased with Operation Zarb-e-Azb so far, but emphasize need to prevent Haqqani Network’s return; Sectarian assassination in Quetta kills two; VBIED injures four in Karachi; Indian troops reportedly fire upon Pakistani soldiers near Line of Control in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban
On July 28, prominent online jihadist and follower of al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri, Shaybat al Hukama tweeted his explanation of al Qaeda’s bayat or oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar. His tweets were made in reference to a video that al Qaeda’s media arm released of Osama bin Ladin discussing his bayat. Al Hakama explained that while all al Qaeda branches were required to swear bayat to Mullah Omar, they are free to work autonomously outside of Afghanistan. He later removed his tweets, saying “the brothers” had requested he do so. Though al Hakama claims not to be connected to any groups, previously he has acknowledged his ties to members of al Qaeda’s online media operation. In earlier tweets he has been a harsh critic of the so-called Islamic State.
North Waziristan Offensive
A Wall Street Journal article, quoting Pakistani law enforcement officials, reported on July 30 that as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has splintered over the past two years, kidnappings for ransom and militant-related criminal activity has increased in major Pakistani cities. It also speculates that the TTP’s flight from its base in North Waziristan, prompted by military action there, may lead to an increase in such activity as well. Kidnapping gangs either sell victims to militant groups, which in turn demand higher ransoms, or receive protection from Taliban groups in return for a cut of the ransom. A Taliban spokesman denied that Taliban groups provide protection to kidnapping gangs, but said that the kidnapping and murder of the group’s enemies was justified. Crimes are usually committed within the ethnic Pashtun community, which is easily penetrated by Taliban militants.
On July 31, the German government announced a donation of one million Euros ($1.3 million) in humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) displaced from North Waziristan by Operation Zarb-e-Azb. The aid will support the efforts of the UN’s World Food Program in Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas
According to a Los Angeles Times report on July 30, Obama administration officials believe Operation Zarb-e-Azb has succeeded in disrupting militant strongholds in North Waziristan, but must prevent the Haqqani Network and other militant groups from regrouping and resettling in North Waziristan to be ultimately successful. The United States government remains unconvinced and has still received no direct evidence from the Pakistani government that the operation has targeted the Haqqani Network. The report speculated that Pakistan is taking action against the Haqqani Network now because a significant portion of U.S. counterterrorism funding to Pakistan requires U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel to certify that Operation Zarb-e-Azb has “significantly disrupted the safe haven and freedom of movement of the HAqqani network.”
On July 30, unidentified gunmen shot and killed two members of the Shia community in a suspected sectarian assassination on Spini Road in Quetta’s Hazara Town.
Protestors continued to stage demonstrations on July 31 in Kurram’s Parachinar area, demanding the release of 23 tribal leaders and imam of a mosque whom police detained on July 28. National Assembly member Sajid Hussain Toori advised the government and tribal leaders to address the issue through a Jirga.
A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) detonated near a cinema and injured four people in Karachi’s Nazimabad area on the night of July 30.
On July 31, Indian military troops reportedly fired on Pakistani security forces at the Line of Control in Gultri, Astore, Gilgit-Baltistan. The Inter-Services Public Relations reported that Pakistani troops effectively handled the incident and did not report any casualties from the incident.
The Financial Times reported on July 31 on speculation within Pakistan that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to deploy the army into Islamabad for three months in order to reinstate law and order is actually a cover for suppressing anti-government protests. A political and national security pundit, Hasan Askari Rizvi, said that by deploying the army to Islamabad, the government is capitulating to the army and relying on the army for its survival. Farhatullah Babar, a leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), said that Sharif’s decision represents a total failure of the civilian administration. The article also alleged that with his decision, Sharif risks ceding political control to the military, whose generals have ruled Pakistan for much of its history as an independent state. Sharif’s decision also accompanies his recent failure to end a nationwide energy crisis and nationwide power outages. In an interview with The Financial Times, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan criticized Sharif’s performance as Prime Minister and said that Pakistani citizens are frustrated with the current energy crisis and employment problem.
July 31, 2014
Russia in Fresh War Games as Ukraine Lodges Complaint
July 31, 2014
Ukrainian servicemen sit on an armored vehicle drive July 30 toward the eastern city of Debaltceve, in the region of Donetsk. (Genya Savilov / AFP)
July 31, 2014
Libya Islamic Militias Declare Control of Benghazi
July 31, 2014
BENGHAZI, Libya — Islamic hard-line militias, including the group accused by the United States in a 2012 attack that killed the ambassador and three other Americans, claimed control of Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, after overrunning army barracks and seizing heavy weapons.
The sweep in the eastern city is part of a new backlash by hard-liners against their rivals ahead of the sitting of a new parliament. In the capital Tripoli, escalating battles Thursday between militias prompted multiple foreign governments to scramble to get out their citizens as thousands of Libyans fled across the border into Tunisia.
The weeks-long surge of violence renewed fears that Libya, which has been in chaos since the 2011 civil war that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, is plunging deeper into civil strife.
With a crippled central government and weak army and police, the country’s numerous rival militias have held sway in Libya for the past three years. Though they battled each other frequently, a balance of fear among them prevented any from going too far and forced them to divide areas of power. But now, there militias led by Islamist and extremist commanders appear to be trying to gain a more decisive upper hand.
The Health Ministry said in a statement Thursday that the death toll in Tripoli since the violence intensified in the past month reached 214, with more than 981 people wounded.
Militias allied to Islamist politicians have been fighting for weeks to wrest control of Tripoli’s airport from rival militias, destroying much of the airport in the process. On Thursday, witnesses said that random rocket fire hit houses and vehicles in western Tripoli, sending residents fleeing. Shelling hit a funeral in a southern district, killing four children and three women from a single family, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Thursday evening, thousands of residents marched into Tripoli’s central Martyrs Square in a protest denouncing militias. They raised banners reading, “Libya only” and “Enough bloodshed.”
Tripoli residents said fuel and gasoline shortages were worsening, and food prices had leaped. “All of this is caused by political parties that are fighting for power,” said Abdelfattah Alghanai, a man shopping for vegetables.
By noon on Thursday, more than 10,000 Libyans fled by land across the border into neighboring Tunisia over the previous 12 hours, Tunisia’s state news agency reported. They joined thousands of other Libyans who have already streamed into Tunisia in recent days. Spain announced it was pulling its ambassador and most embassy staff out of Tripoli, a step already taken by the United States. China has chartered a Greek vessel to evacuate hundreds of Chinese citizens, and the Philippines is working to get out some 13,000 Filipino workers inside Libya.
The militias’ moves in both Tripoli and Benghazi reflect an attempt to “rearrange the equilibrium,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It was prompted by two factors, he said. One was June parliament elections, in which Islamist political factions are believed to have lost their dominance over parliament. There is also a strong element of regional divisions in the fighting: The militia fighting to capture the airport is from the western city of Misrata, allied to Islamist politicians, while the militias defending it are from the western town of Zintan.
The other factor was an offensive launched earlier this year by a renegade general, Khalifa Hifter, who vowed to crush Islamic hard-line factions. Numerous units in the weak and fragmented army pledged loyalty to him, as did some militias, and his forces have been attacking hard-line militias in Benghazi.
Islamic militias in Benghazi responded in June by forming an umbrella group called Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, made up of multiple armed factions led by Islamic extremist commanders.
Among the factions is Ansar al-Shariah, the group accused by the United States of leading a Sept. 11, 2012 attack on a diplomatic facility in the city that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
For weeks, the coalition has been battling back. The past week, the coalition’s fighters overran five major army barracks, most importantly including the barracks of the Special Forces, the strongest government force in the city, which backs Hifter.
The extent of the militias’ control over Benghazi was not clear. Military officials denied militia control, and it appeared the fighters had withdrawn from some of the barracks after looting them. Hifter loyalists continue to control Benghazi’s airport, but appeared to have been driven out of the city.
On Thursday, the city’s streets were nearly empty, with residents staying indoors and no sign of checkpoints by either militiamen or security forces. The main police headquarters was still smoldering after it was hit by militia shelling a day earlier, and smoke rose from the barracks of the Special Forces.
"We are the only force on the ground in Benghazi," a commander of one of the coalition’s factions told The Associated Press on Thursday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. He said the coalition’s fighters had driven all army forces and fighters loyal to Hifter out the city.
Ansar al-Shariah’s commander, Mohammed al-Zahawi, proclaimed victory in a video released by his group late Wednesday. Speaking in front of a tank inside the Special Forces base, he urged Hifter’s allies to abandon him, accusing him of trying to “loot the fortunes of Libya” and put the country under the influence of the West.
Another militia commander, Wissam bin Hamid, was also shown in the camp in the video, proclaiming in front of his masked fighters, “We will not stop until we establish the rule of God.”
On its Twitter account, Ansar al-Shariah posted photos said to show its fighters taking large amount of weapons and ammunitions from the bases, including rockets, hundreds of brand new assault rifles, and shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets. Militiamen drove bulldozers and other vehicles from inside the barracks, videos showed. The photos and videos conformed with the AP’s reporting from the city.
The new parliament is supposed to convene by Monday, but it is unclear where it would do so, with both Tripoli and Benghazi in turmoil. There has been talk of holding it in the eastern city of Tobrouk, a power base for Hifter. All candidates in the election had to run as independents, so the political leanings of the winners are not certain, but it is widely believed Islamist politicians lost their earlier dominance.
Ashur Shway, a former interior minister and now a professor at Benghazi University, said Islamic militias were trying to prevent parliament from meeting. “The bottom line is that those who lost elections want to make gains on the ground,” he said.
July 31, 2014
2 Azerbaijan Rights Activists Charged With Treason
July 31, 2014
BAKU, Azerbaijan — Two prominent human rights activists in Azerbaijan have been charged with spying for Armenia, with one of them jailed for three months pending trial.
In a joint statement issued Thursday the general prosecutor’s office and national security ministry outlined the charges against Leila and Arif Yunus, accusing the couple of recruiting citizens of Azerbaijan to work for the secret services of Armenia. Tensions between the neighboring former Soviet republics remain high over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Human Rights Watch said the charges “are bogus and intended to silence them” and called for an end to “this campaign of intimidation against Azerbaijan’s leading human rights defenders.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the charges are “deeply concerning and represent a further restriction on peaceful civil society activities in Azerbaijan.”
"These charges appear to be connected with their participation in constructive people-to-people programs that aim to ease tensions and build confidence in the region," she said. "We urge the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the universal rights of its citizens, ensure they are afforded all the fair trial guarantees to which all citizens are entitled, and allow them to freely express their views in accordance with international human rights commitments and obligations."
Leila Yunus was detained Wednesday and ordered held for three months. Her husband was allowed to remain free under police supervision.
July 31, 2014
C.I.A. Admits Penetrating Senate Intelligence Computers
Mark Mazzetti and Carl Hulse
New York Times
July 31, 2014
WASHINGTON — An internal investigation by the Central Intelligence Agency has found that its officers improperly penetrated a computer network used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to prepare its damning report on the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program.
The report by the agency’s inspector general found that C.I.A. officers created a fake online identity to gain access on more than one occasion to computers used by members of the committee staff, and tried to cover their movements as they rooted around the system, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation’s findings.
Document: Summary of Inspector General ReportJULY 31, 2014
A statement issued Thursday morning by a C.I.A. spokesman said that John O. Brennan, the agency’s director, had apologized to the two senior members of the intelligence committee and would set up an internal accountability board to review the issue. The statement said that the board, which will be led by former Senator Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, could recommend “potential disciplinary measures” and “steps to address systemic issues.”
John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, in March. Credit Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
The Justice Department has already declined to investigate the matter, so the inspector general report brings a degree of closure to the issue — and vindication for Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the committee who excoriated the C.I.A. in March when the matter became public.
The C.I.A. statement gave almost no specifics about the findings of the report, written by Inspector General David Buckley.
Officials said there was a tense meeting earlier this week when Mr. Brennan briefed the two senators — Ms. Feinstein, a Democrat of California, and Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia. The officials said Ms. Feinstein had confronted Mr. Brennan about past public statements on the issue, in which he defended the agency’s actions.
When the C.I.A.’s monitoring of the committee became public in March, Mr. Brennan said, “When the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”
Days earlier, he said that lawmakers were making “spurious allegations about C.I.A. actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.”
On Thursday, Senator Feinstein called Mr. Brennan’s apology and decision to set up an accountability board “positive first steps,” and said that the inspector general report “corrects the record.” She said that she expected that a version of the report would be declassified, but gave no further details.
Committee Democrats have spent more than five years working on a report about the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation program during the George W. Bush administration, which employed brutal interrogation methods like waterboarding. Parts of that report, expected to conclude that the techniques yielded little valuable information and that C.I.A. officials consistently misled the White House and Congress about the efficacy of the techniques, are expected to be released in August.
The current crisis erupted late last year, when C.I.A. officials came to suspect that the committee’s staff — sifting through millions of documents at an agency facility in Northern Virginia — improperly obtained an internal review of the program that the C.I.A. never intended to give to Congress. In response, C.I.A. security officials penetrated a secure computer server that had been set up to allow the Senate investigators to work on their report without being monitored by the spy agency.
The C.I.A. and lawmakers spent months trading accusations in private, until the fight became public in March and Ms. Feinstein took to the Senate floor to deliver a blistering speech accusing the agency of infringing on the committee’s role as overseer.
Calling it a “defining moment” in the committee’s history, Senator Feinstein said that how the matter is resolved “will show whether the intelligence committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”
The White House publicly defended Mr. Brennan on Thursday, saying he had taken “responsible steps” to address the situation, including suggesting an investigation, accepting its results and appointing an accountability board. Asked whether the results of the investigation present a credibility issue for Mr. Brennan, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said, “Not at all.”
Crediting Mr. Brennan with playing an “instrumental role” in helping the United States government destroy Al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mr. Earnest said, “He is somebody who has a very difficult job, who does that job extraordinarily well.”
But Democrats who have been critical of the C.I.A.’s actions said the inspector general report reinforced how Mr. Brennan’s initial statements about the matter were untruthful.
Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat of Colorado and another member of the intelligence committee, said he had “lost confidence” in Mr. Brennan, and was concerned about the C.I.A. director’s “inability to find any flaws in the agency he leads.”
Mr. Udall also called for the Obama administration to appoint an independent counsel to explore possible violations of the Constitution’s separation of powers as well as federal criminal statutes.
July 31, 2014
World’s biggest spy center is Vienna, book says
July 31, 2014
VIENNA, July 31 (UPI) — Vienna, Austria, is the world’s foremost spy hub with over 7,000 agents working undercover, a new book says.
Emil Bobi, author of De Schattenstadt (The Void), cites the city’s history as an espionage center and a lack of laws against the practice.
"Every second diplomat in Vienna can be linked to his or her country’s intelligence agencies. Every embassy is overcrowded with personnel," he said.
Gert Rene Polli, former chief of Austria’s counter-terrorism agency BVT, disputes Bobi’s figures, suggesting they may be too low.
"Vienna is a stock exchange of information. We have the most liberal laws governing this activity in the world. It is also a nice place for spies to live and bring their families with good education and health services after difficult postings in Serbia, Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said in an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph.
The city was an intelligence hub during the Cold war, when Austria was officially neutral and both Allied and Warsaw Pact operatives could trade secrets relatively openly. Its history of espionage dates at least back to its prominence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It remains the world leader in espionage by its proximity to the Balkans, the headquarters of the organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as some curious laws about the practice of spying.
Dating back to World War I and never amended, laws regarding spying involve only the direct targeting of Austria’s state secrets. The laws have not changed, in part, because espionage is a part of Vienna’s culture and tradition.
"Viennese society is built on secrets and people live to have secrets. If you have a secret in Vienna you are somebody," Bobi said.
July 31, 2014
Iraq Situation Report
Institute for the Study of War
July 31, 2014
July 31, 2014
The website cryptome.org has placed online some great color satellite imagery of the joint CIA-USAF drone base at Chabelly in the East African nation of Djibouti. It’s not much of a base. There are seven very large hangers at the station capable of housing the large PREDATOR or REAPER drones now flying from the isolated base. The imagery shows anywhere from 3 to 5 PREDATOR and/or REAPER drones operating from the base at any one time.
July 31, 2014
Russia Has 15,000 Crack Troops on the Ukrainian Border
Andrew S. Bowen
July 30, 2014
As Malaysia Airlines’ 298 passengers died over the skies of eastern Ukraine, so did the last trace of hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin would back down from his support of eastern Ukraine’s separatist rebels or agree to a negotiated settlement to the seven-month-long conflict. Since the deadly incident, it is no longer in doubt whether or not the future of eastern Ukraine — or Novorossiya (New Russia), as pan-Slavic nationalists call it — will be decided by force. The only question remaining is how deadly the fight will be.
At the moment, the government in Kiev is ramping up its fight to reclaim Ukraine’s restive eastern regions. At the same time, thousands of Russian troops are amassed along Ukraine’s eastern border, and not just the elite Airborne or Spetsnaz troops that took over Crimea in February, but also units designed to fight conventional wars and armies, like Ukraine’s. The result could be explosive.
There was little Ukraine could do to stop the “little green men" who invaded Crimea. By the time Kiev had realized what was going on, Russia’s most elite and best-trained Naval Infantry, Airborne, and Spetsnaz troops (including the new Senezh unit, which seized the Crimean parliament) had prevented Ukrainian reinforcements from entering Crimea. But the separatist militiamen in eastern Ukraine, despite being equipped, trained, and funded by Moscow, are a different story. There, Kiev retains a vast advantage in firepower, materiel, and troops, along with the implicit backing of the international community against an increasingly fragmented and uncoordinated separatist movement.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has shown he is willing to use every available resource to retake the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk from the separatists. But does he have the force and commitment necessary to do so?
The best estimates place Ukraine’s military strength at around 35,000 ground personnel, although only about 10,000 to 12,000 are able and ready to conduct offensive combat operations at any given time. So far, Kiev has committed six mechanized brigades, a tank brigade, and various special-forces units (such as the Interior Ministry’s “Snow Leopard” brigade) to retaking the east. That’s in addition to the one airborne and three airmobile brigades that have carried out much of the fighting and borne many of the casualties, such as on June 14, when separatists shot down an Ilyushin-76 transport plane, killing 40 paratroopers of the 25th Airborne Brigade and nine crew members. Additional forces along the lines of National Guard units have been hastily created, financed, and trained from the various groups and protestors who took part in the protests and clashes with police last winter that led to the current crisis. These units were put together to fill the manpower shortages created by years of corruption and inattention to Ukraine’s military.
Ukrainian forces’ recent gains against the separatists are a testament to Kiev’s commitment and the strengthening of its army: The situation began to turn in Kiev’s favor whenthe Ukrainian army repelled the Vostok Battalion’s attack on Donetsk International Airport in May and caused significant casualties among the rebels. Since then, the Ukrainian army has continued its advance, gradually dislodging separatists from their bases, such as when the infamous rebel commander Igor Strelkov was forced to retreat from his stronghold in Slovyansk on July 5. These successes speak to Ukraine’s distinct advantage in heavy firepower and airpower over the rebels, even despite Russia’s supplying of tanks, rockets, and air defense systems to the separatists.
But these victories took place among the relatively open landscape of Donetsk and Lugansk. Because the rebels have retreated from their control of the countryside into the cities, the upcoming fight will take place not in the fields of Ukraine’s eastern farmland but in its cities and urban areas — where no modern army was designed to fight. An urban battle reduces the advantage of Ukraine’s superior firepower and increases the potential for civilian casualties, making further gains for Ukraine a bloody and horrifyingly slow endeavor.
As Simon Saradzhyan, a Russia expert at Harvard’s Belfer Center, notes, if Ukraine continues to suffer troop casualties at its current rate, it would “surpass 1,560 per year. That would be more than what the Russian army acknowledged losing in the deadliest year of the second Chechen war.”In view of the increasing casualties on the horizon, Ukraine’s parliament has just approved a call-up of a further 50,000 reservists and men under the age of 50, just 45 days after its last mobilization. But just how long Ukraine’s cobbled-together military will be able to sustain increasing casualties is questionable at best — especially if they suddenly find themselves up against more qualified Russian soldiers.
Throughout the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have watched from just over the border, implicitly threatening intervention.
Throughout the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have watched from just over the border, implicitly threatening intervention. Since the beginning of the rebellion, Russian troops have been conducting maneuvers and setting up the logistics network that would be needed for an incursion. Things have ramped up in recent days, with Russia conducting large-scale exercises with some of its most advanced helicopters. The threat hasn’t been lost on Kiev.
During the July 22 debate in the Ukrainian parliament on calling up reserves, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Parubiy, said that Moscow was once again building up its reserves on the border with Ukraine. Parubiy claimed that the Russian force consisted of up to 41,000 troops, 150 tanks, and 400 armored vehicles. Washington and NATO have also backed up that assertion, although estimates on numbers differ: The Pentagon and NATO military commander U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove put the estimates of Russian troops at the border at 12,000 to 15,000. This may be the best estimate, as the United States has no incentive to downplay the level of troops at the border and American satellite imagery is likely to get the most accurate picture.
Even if the number of Russian troops at the border is far lower than the 41,000 discussed by Ukrainian security officials, there is still good reason to worry. “These battalion groups consist of infantry, armor and artillery, and also have organic air defense capabilities,” the Pentagon notes. These are the units that comprise Russia’s “New Look” army and exemplify the Kremlin’s effort to modernize its armed forces over the past six years. The units on Ukraine’s borders are far more advanced than the Soviet divisions that were pointed at NATO. While skeleton crews manned the old Soviet forces, the New Look army is supposedly manned at 90 to 100 percent. And these troops can also be mobilized more quickly.
Since 2008, the Russian military has reformed its army from old, unwieldy divisions and regiments into a brigade structure that would allow for full manning and quicker mobilization. At full strength, these brigades consist of 4,200 to 4,300 servicemen each, with 2,200 in tank brigades. But the biggest difference between the New Look brigades and their predecessors is that each was created with the intent that they would be able to operate independently, with their own artillery, armor (tank), and anti-air capabilities. This makes them much more dangerous and maneuverable: Instead of individual infantry or tank units, these are nimble, deadly, all-in-one brigades.
The rationale behind this move was to more effectively engage in the threats that Russia envisioned in its future. Rather than facing off against NATO tanks in lowlands, the Russian General Staff envisioned focusing on regional conflicts that require mobility and flexibility — exactly like Ukraine right now. The special-forces troops that invaded Crimea are not designed to fight a heavily armed and armored force. They are meant to strike fast and hard, and then be quickly supported by regular brigades with heavier firepower. The troops currently on Ukraine’s borders are the support that typically follows behind the “little green men.”
Russia does not have the force ready at the border for a full-scale invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine. But it doesn’t need to. Putin does not want to annex the large and economically depressed region, despite the increasingly vocal calls from Russia’s nationalist right and the Russian commanders in charge of the insurgency. Even if he did, from a strategic point of view, he has missed his best opportunity. In May and June, Russia had its best units poised and positioned on Ukraine’s borders. Since then, however, the rotation of conscripted soldiers has put fresh, less-than-battle-ready soldiers into the field.
But what the Kremlin really wants in Ukraine is to foster anarchy and instability, putting pressure on the new regime in Kiev and the West to acquiesce to Russia’s dominance in the east and to stop what Putin and many in his circle believe are EU and NATO incursions into Russia’s backyard.
That means that the forces currently amassed on the border are capable of launching a quick incursion into Ukraine to halt the progress of Kiev’s forces and allow the rebels to reassert some control, along with effectively signaling Moscow’s dominance over events in the region. Whether this is a quick strike or a longer-term incursion, these new brigades have the firepower and logistics support to effectively deal a blow to Ukrainian forces.
Political analysts and intelligence agencies alike were surprised when the Kremlin annexed Crimea. The economically depressed region, already under Moscow’s influence, seemed like an unnecessary addition to the Russian Federation. And then Putin surprised the world. Another surprise may be possible soon. The Russian president is stuck in a dangerous position between the vocal proponents of Russian revanchism and the international community that condemns interference in Ukraine. He can ill afford to allow eastern Ukraine to return to Kiev’s hands and he may be willing to use the troops he has built up along the border to stop that.An incursion by Russian troops to stunt the Ukrainian advance would be well within Russia’s capabilities, and very likely would not meet much resistance by the international community, other than further sanctions.
And while it may seem farcical to some, not too long ago so was the notion of Russia training the separatists and giving them rocket launchers. In Ukraine, the farcical becomes reality.