Argument

Russia Has 15,000 Crack Troops on the Ukrainian Border

And Putin’s itching for a fight.

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 when the 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. 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.

DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Too Big to Fall

Aleppo was the Syrian rebels’ first big prize. If Assad retakes it, is the war as good as over?

Is the Syrian opposition about to lose Aleppo? With the world's attention focused on the war in Gaza and the aftermath of the downing of a civilian airliner over Ukraine, President Bashar al-Assad's regime has made great strides in recapturing the country's largest city. Earlier this month, and without much of a fight, the regime took the strategic industrial area of Sheikh Najjar in northeastern Aleppo, and for the first time in a year it attempted to enter the rebel-held neighborhoods of Salaheddin and Bustan al-Basha.

The regime's recent gains mean that it may be able to strangle the opposition's strongholds in Aleppo, and threaten its support networks outside the city. Sheikh Najjar is a strategic gateway for the regime into Aleppo's northern countryside, and if it can capture the still rebel-held Infantry School and Handarat camp, it can secure northeastern Aleppo and encircle the rebels. It can also disrupt the rebels' supply lines to Turkey, which represent their main source for arms and supplies.

Thus, the rebels in Aleppo find themselves squeezed from all sides: They are facing pressure from much of the city's surrounding countryside, the loss of strategic territory on the outskirts of Aleppo, and now regime incursions into the city's internal districts. The regime has also successfully opened a supply route into Aleppo from the southern countryside, which activists say was one of the key reasons for the regime's latest advances in the city. To make matters even worse, the Islamic State (IS), previously known as ISIS, is advancing toward Aleppo from the east, from its strongholds in the cities of Raqqa and al-Bab.

Aleppo's recapture by the regime would be catastrophic for the opposition. From the opposition's point of view, the city is too big to fall: The takeover of the country's northern economic hub in 2012 helped the opposition to establish itself as a viable challenge for the regime. If it now falls to the regime, the opposition would have lost four main provinces -- after Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Homs -- to its rivals in the regime and the Islamic State. According to activists, fighters, and residents of Aleppo, there are three primary reasons for the precipitous decline in the opposition's fortunes in the city.

The first reason is that the rebels are fighting on three fronts. Besides the regime, rebels are concerned about the Islamic State making a comeback. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around 7,000 people have died during the rebels' fighting against IS -- battles that have sapped the rebels' strength in the fight against the regime. Fresh from the capture of large swaths of northern Iraq, the jihadist movement is also resurgent in Syria: It controls al-Bab, 50 miles from Aleppo, and appears to be trying to take the areas near Aleppo International Airport on the way to Sheikh Najjar. If that happens, the Islamic State will be in the regime's backyard, and the rebels' movement from Aleppo to the northern countryside will become more restricted.

The rebels are also beset by internal conflicts. Some of the main opposition factions have launched a campaign against rogue groups affiliated with them over robbery and looting. The Islamic Front, a merger of some of Syria's most powerful Islamist brigades, kicked out one of its constituent brigades, Qabdat al-Shamal, and has clashed with it because the group rejected a trial. The Tawhid Brigade (Liwa al-Tawhid), which was credited with the takeover of Aleppo in 2012, is also struggling. The group has been drained by fighting with IS and by infighting: After the death last November of its charismatic leader, Abdul Qader Saleh, the coalition lost many of its fighters to other groups, and has recently split into two factions.

The second reason for the opposition's setbacks is a sharp drop in military help from foreign sponsors. Although rebel groups had enough fighters to prevent the regime from entering some areas around Aleppo, they said they were forced to concede the battle because they did not have sufficient ammunition. The Islamic Front, in Aleppo and elsewhere, has been affected by U.S.-backed measures to ensure resources reach only vetted groups. Aside from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, the only two groups that appear to be doing well are Harakat Hazm and Harakat Noureddin al-Zinki, both of which are supported by the Saudis and the Americans -- and both of which have received U.S.-made anti-tank guided missiles. Although it has few fighters compared to other groups, Harakat Hazm is fighting on the front lines, especially in the Handarat camp, the hot spot closest to Sheikh Najjar.

The alienation of the local population from the rebel groups is another important factor that has played into the hands of the regime. Most of the fighters in Aleppo come from the countryside, and it is common to hear from residents that the fighters pay little attention to the destruction of their home city. "The countryside has been marginalized for 50 years, and [so fighters from there] dealt with the city residents out of spite in many cases," said Ahmed Hasan, an activist from the northern countryside, who spent six months in a regime prison in Damascus before he was released in mid-July. "They did not try to win the population's hearts and minds."

As a result, the regime's "barrel diplomacy" -- a caustic term used by Syrians to describe Assad's strategy of bombarding Aleppo with barrel bombs -- has pushed some people to welcome peace deals with the regime. According to Hasan, who said he was privy to such moves, delegations from some rebel-held areas have been visiting Damascus as part of negotiations for peace deals similar to the ones struck in districts around the capital. "Now there are delegations visiting the [presidential] palace from [the border town of] Azaz and from many areas in [the] Aleppo countryside."

Hasan adds that the regime has offered residents reassurances of safety, security, and stability -- unlike the opposition. Despite Assad's use of barrel bombs, the prospect of an end to the violence is tempting for civilians who have spent the past months coping not only with fighting between the rebels and the regime, but also with robbery and looting from rebel sub-factions. As one frustrated activist put it, "Maybe the regime's controlling of Aleppo would be the best thing that happens to the civilians."

Collaboration between local forces and the regime may be one reason why the regime took Sheikh Najjar with such ease, activists suspect. "There were rumors of a treason from within the industrial area," one activist said. "Some people no longer trust the rebels because they proved to be a failure in managing liberated areas, in addition to the miserable security situation."

Whether the regime can make good on its promises to rebuild the industrial area, however, is an open question. "The regime has reassured people and businesses in these areas to repair and protect their property," another activist said. "Barrels are getting people to surrender to the regime, [and] reach out to it."

While these dynamics have played out elsewhere in Syria without affecting the military situation significantly, the combination of all of them at once makes the possibility of the regime's recapture of Aleppo ever more real. To be sure, this will not happen quickly or easily: The regime's strategy does not appear to involve a complete takeover of Aleppo in the short term, and the rebels still have cards to play -- such as their ability to open quiet fronts inside Aleppo if the regime encircles them at the outskirts. Meanwhile, the rebels inside the city still have an extremely tight grip over several key districts. As one rebel fighter jokingly put it: "It is easier to smuggle heroin from Gaza to Israel than to enter some rebel-held districts, especially in the Old City and eastern Aleppo."

But the rebels risk being transformed from a force dedicated to pushing back regime advances and attacking regime-held areas into one trying to break a siege. If the regime can link the areas loyal to it, such as the Shiite villages of Nubl and Zahraa, to areas that favor the regime but are currently under rebel control, the rebels' lives will become much harder.

It is hard to predict what will happen in Aleppo, but the situation does not look good for the opposition. Unless something fundamental changes in the dynamics of the conflict, it may lose its most important foothold in the battle against Assad.

FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images