Russia’s war in Ukraine—or as President Vladimir Putin has termed it, “special military operation” (Kremlin.ru, February 24)—not only spotlights the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation but also lays bare the apparent lengths Moscow is ready to go to when confident of its supposed righteousness and impunity.
It now seems obvious that in mid-December, when Moscow sent the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) drafts of agreements on security guarantees, it was already preparing a military response, presumably knowing full well that its maximalist ultimatums would not be accepted by the West. The ships of the Russian Pacific Fleet went on “exercises” in the Mediterranean at the end of that month (Flot.com, February 18). And news about the future Russian-Belarusian drills (eventually identified as Allied Resolve 2022) was announced around the same time (Vzglyad, December 29, 2021). At the February 21, 2022, meeting of the Russian Security Council, during which Putin’s inner circle took turns speaking out for recognizing the independence of the Moscow-backed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR), Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin frankly admitted, “We have been preparing for many months for a possible reaction, respectively, to the recognition of the LPR and the DPR” (Kremlin.ru, February 21).
Operational preparation for the severe escalation in the war with Ukraine, which the Kremlin kicked off on February 24, covered all troops and fleets in Russia but was carried out in the Western Military District (Mil.ru, February 18). A series of training maneuvers of the Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea began in January. During the exercises, the participating forces practiced maritime communications protection, including in crisis situations (Izvestia, January 26). A few days before the war, about 20 Russian ships entered the Barents Sea to search for foreign submarines and to establish control over navigation in this body as well as the airspace above (RIA Novosti, February 15). It is now possible to conclude that those activities were to prepare the ground for potential Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBM) operations. During the attack on Ukraine, the Project 1144 cruiser Peter the Great notably remained in the Barents Sea to protect the Russian SSBMs in case NATO were to attempt to enter the conflict. The Pacific Fleet has taken comparative steps (Mil.ru, February 11, 16, 25).
From February 10 to 20, the Russian-Belarusian Allied Resolve exercises were held, with the involvement of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and Iskander tactical complexes. Some of these assets remained in Belarus past that date and have taken part in the attack on Ukraine (Vesti, February 24).
From February 17 to 26, a detachment of ships of the Northern, Black Sea and Pacific fleets, supported by naval aviation aircraft and Tu-22M3s, conducted “exercises” in the eastern Mediterranean, effectively controlling the passage to the Black Sea. At the same time, forces in western Russia as well as the Strategic Missile Forces increased their combat readiness amidst the attack on Ukraine (Defencenet.ru, February 24).
In retrospect, clearly anticipating its planned attack on Ukraine, Moscow had postponed its annual Grom nuclear triad exercise from autumn 2021 (the season when it has normally been held for the last ten years), to February 2022 (TASS, January 2; Defence-blog.com, February 18). Russia apparently felt it was important to showily remind NATO and the US of its nuclear arsenal in order to prevent their interference over Ukraine. For the first time, the Southern Military District and the Black Sea Fleet took part in such exercises. Neither of them wields strategic nuclear forces within their structures. Ships of the Black Sea Fleet launched Kalibr cruise missiles and Zircon hypersonic missiles at sea and land targets. Their participation was meant to signal that Ukraine has strategic value for Moscow, which can be defended with nuclear weapons.
In justifying the looming war, President Putin said, on February 21, that the US and NATO may deploy medium-range missiles in Ukraine that could reach Russian strategic facilities within only 4–5 minutes (Kremlin.ru, February 21). And since the US did not agree to his demands for security guarantees, Putin apparently decided that an attack on Ukraine represented the only solution to Russia’s strategic security problem.
In the early morning of February 24, Russia carried out its first strikes on designated targets inside Ukraine, using Iskander-M mobile ballistic missiles concentrated near the border as well as Kalibr missiles fired from ships and submarines of the Black Sea Fleet. These complexes and ships had notably participated in the February exercises in Belarus, Black Sea Fleet naval drills or the Grom strategic nuclear exercise. Russia specifically aimed to suppress Ukrainian air-defense systems for the purpose of a subsequent direct attack by assault and bomber aviation. This was followed by massive missile strikes on the infrastructure of the Ukrainian Air Force: Long-range Russian attack aircraft (Tu-95MS strategic bombers) launched Kh-101 cruise missiles at military airfields. According to the US Pentagon’s assessment, announced at the end of the day, more than 160 different types of Russian missiles were involved in the strike. Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed the missile attacks obliterated 83 military infrastructure objects of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (TASS, February 24).
During the run-up to the Russian re-invasion, US President Joseph Biden argued that Putin hoped to utilize military maneuvers in a demonstrative fashion, to convince the world of his ability to change the power dynamics in Europe (Whitehouse.gov, February 18). But the Kremlin leader not only sought to demonstrate Russian power and frighten the West, but also to use these exercises to prepare for the invasion and to protect its operations from possible outside interference. The use of medium- and short-range cruise and ballistic missiles, along with strategic carriers capable of hitting targets at a distance of 500–3,500 kilometers, was supposed to rapidly destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure as well as, importantly, showcase that Russia can do much more than simply “resolve” the issue of the DPR-LPR.
Yet not having been able to force a quick defeat of Ukraine, and dissatisfied with the unified and vigorous reaction of the West, Putin, on February 27, ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces to go on a “special regime of combat duty” (TASS, February 27). By demonstrating his strategic capabilities, Putin is openly threatening both Ukraine and NATO. Without seeing a mirror response from the West, Putin will feel he is operating from a position of strength—increasing the likelihood that he will continue to escalate the crisis while heightening his demands for concessions from the other side.