Large-scale intervention in eastern Ukraine by regular Russian troops began last August, reaching a peak of 10,000 in December, and Moscow has been struggling to maintain operations on such a scale and intensity, according to a report.
The report, by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), claims small teams of reconnaissance and Spetsnaz special operations units crossed the border earlier, in mid-July after Ukrainian government forces had won a series of battles and had pushed pro-Moscow separatists out of territory they had previously occupied.
The Rusi report also confirms the findings of a February investigation, based on analysis of satellite imagery by the Bellingcat group of investigative journalists, that Russian artillery shelled Ukrainian positions from inside Russian territory.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has admitted planning the invasion and annexation of Crimea last March, but his government continues to deny any direct involvement in the gruelling conflict in eastern Ukraine.
However, the Rusi report says that a total of 42,000 Russian troops from 117 combat and combat-support units have been involved, either being rotated in and out of the front lines in Ukraine or pouring artillery fire from inside Russia.
“The first operational successes of Ukrainian forces in late June and early July 2014 first prompted Russian artillery fire from within Russian territory, targeted against advancing Ukrainian troops on their own soil, from mid-July onwards,” the report’s author, Igor Sutyagin, writes.
“Direct intervention by Russian troops in combat roles then followed in the middle of August, when the prospect of rebel defeat had become realistic. The presence of large numbers of Russian troops on Ukrainian sovereign territory has, more or less, since become a permanent feature of the conflict.”
The report says that the Russian troops serve as the most capable strike force against the Ukrainian army, adding that “rebel formations have in essence been used as cannon fodder”.
Sutyagin said the effort of sustaining that level of involvement was beginning to put strains on the capacity of the Russian military.
“Indeed, it is obvious that there are insufficient resources – military and financial – under the Kremlin’s command to sustain military operations at the current level for over a year: the military capabilities required to carry out the operation are already reaching their limits,” the report says.
There have been increasing reports of conscripts having been pressganged or tricked into taking part in a covert war in Ukraine, and the Rusi report says enforcer units have been deployed to stop them fleeing the frontlines.
It says these “barrier squads”, or anti-retreat troops, are drawn from the interior ministry’s Dzerzhinskiy division.
Sutyagin, a Russian military researcher and arms control expert, spent 11 years in prison, mostly in a penal colony in Russia’s Arctic north, after having been convicted of espionage charges, which he has denied.
He was hired to write reports for a British company and says his reports were compiled from information in the public domain.
Moscow freed him as part of a spy-swap in 2010, but Sutyagin said he was included as a face-saving ploy by Russian intelligence.
He has lived in Britain since his release.
Source: The Guardian