Russian tanks and troops have once again put eastern Ukraine on high alert.
Since the end of March, the Kremlin has sent thousands of soldiers and heavy artillery to the Donbas region, the unstable area where the 2014 war took place, which left more than 14,000 dead and not yet finished.
But the military dislocation that triggered warnings from the Western NATO military alliance (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is not limited to this area: Moscow has also strengthened its regiments in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.
Among the large group of more than 42,000 soldiers who sent to the region in less than three weeks, is one of its most legendary combat battalions.
It is the 56th Air Assault Brigade, which was based in the Volgograd region, almost 1,500 kilometers away.
However, in late March, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that his country planned to turn the brigade into an airborne assault regiment and that it would be sent to Feodosia, on the Ukrainian peninsula.
It is not the first time that Russia has sent troops to the territory it annexed. However, the context in which a detachment of one of the battalions that the country used in recent wars takes place has caused fears both in Ukraine and in the international community.
The arrival of the airborne battalion in Crimea was the protagonist of numerous videos and photos posted on social networks, in which a large number of heavy weapons and tanks are seen crossing the bridge that Putin built between Russian territory and Crimea.
But what is known about this brigade and why did its arrival on the peninsula increase concern about the Russian military detachment?
The largest shipment
According to experts and journalists from the BBC’s Russian and Ukrainian services, the transfer of the battalion to Fedosia should be seen in a broader context: that of the mobilization of more than 80,000 Russian soldiers to the outskirts of Ukraine in the past three weeks.
Ukrainian intelligence sources told the BBC that with the deployment of the 56th Airborne Brigade, the additional Russian forces add up to 16 tactical battalions, which would consist of up to 14,000 soldiers.
In total, according to the Ukrainian presidency, Russia now has about 41,000 soldiers on the eastern border, in addition to 42,000 in Crimea.
“It is probably the largest military mobilization that Ukraine has seen in its neighborhood since 2015,” Anders Åslund, a researcher at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research entity, told BBC News Mundo (BBC’s Spanish service).
Russia’s intentions with this deployment of troops are not clear, but they have begun to cause concern in the West.
A few days ago, a senior Russian official assured that his country could intervene to defend people of Russian origin in eastern Ukraine and said that an escalation of the conflict could be “the beginning of the end for Ukraine”.
Dmitry Kozak compared the situation of Russian separatists to that of Srebrenica, the city in Bosnia and Herzegovina where 8,000 Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995.
“If, as our president says, there is a Srebrenica there, we will probably have to go and defend them,” said the official.
Following reactions by the US State Department, President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin on Tuesday – the second time since he took office – to “ease tensions” after the Russian military concentration.
“President Biden emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the White House said in a statement.
The 56th brigade
According to data from the Russian Ministry of Defense, the 56th Brigade was formed in 1946 from two infantry regiments, one of which had previously fought in Hungary as part of the Ukrainian Front.
In the 1980s, it was one of Soviet Russia’s battalions in the Afghanistan war and then in the two Chechen wars (first in 1994 and then in 1999).
“The units of this brigade were those that covered the border with Georgia in Chechnya,” explains Shramovich.
His actions there, however, were not limited to guarding the border.
The brigade also advanced the forces by land, which put into practice the so-called “Grozny doctrine”, which consisted of destroying the Chechen capital with bombings to facilitate the entry of troops and heavy artillery.
After the Second Chechnya War, the battalion was stationed in the city of Kamyshin, in the Volgograd region.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the brigade consists of:
- Two air assault battalions
- An airborne battalion
- A battalion of tanks
- A reconnaissance battalion
- A snipers company
- An artillery battalion
- An anti-tank battery
- An air defense battery
According to the group of Ukrainian researchers InformNapalm, the fighters of the 56th Brigade were part of the tactical groups of the Russian battalion that operated in the Donbas in 2014 and among those concentrated near the eastern border.
Russia denied the battalion’s participation in the war.
Mykola Beleskov, the chief consultant to the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Ukraine, says that one of the characteristics of this battalion is its high-level training and its deployment to areas where Russia is interested in starting a conflict.
“This is a battalion that actively participates in high-level exercises. The entire Russian army receives high-level training, but in this case, they go a step further,” he told the Ukrainian BBC service.
“They prepare brigade soldiers and their commanders to act at the full depth of enemy defenses, to capture bridges, to enter the flank or the rear,” he adds.
The sending to Crimea, however, took the analyst by surprise, although he says it is consistent with Moscow’s previous military plans.
“The Russians have officially declared that they are preparing a scenario for the defense of the entire Black Sea coast. In other words, they foresee an increase in their troops in Crimea and in the territory of Krasnodar (southwest Russia).”
This, he believes, can “pave the way for additional plans” in the long run.
However, the expert guarantees that it is still too early to determine whether the relocation of the 56th Brigade in Crimea can be considered the final stage of preparing the Russian army for decisive action.
“So far, we cannot say that everything we see means preparing for a large-scale aggression. Although the basis for this may be being laid, it is still too early to talk about it,” he says.
Source: with Agencies