Reports show a significant increase in the number of Russian convoys sent into eastern Ukraine's Donbas region between late October and early November. These convoys included armor, mechanized forces, artillery and air defense systems as well as ammunition and supplies. From early November, the convoys have continued, although at a much lower rate.
On the Russian side of the border, forces and supplies continue to travel into the Rostov region — which borders Ukraine — by road, railway and air. Based on local reports and statements by Ukrainian security services, the latest troop movements are a relief in place for existing Russian units, part of a normal rotation of forces. Moscow's attempts to hide direct involvement in eastern Ukraine have also been scaled back. Prior to the Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement, the separatists claimed to have acquired their sophisticated military equipment by capturing it from Ukrainian forces. Now, however, Russia is deploying weapons systems to the Donbas region that have never been part of the Ukrainian military's inventory, showing less and less concern for plausible deniability.
A large portion of the deployments into the Donbas region consist of artillery units. These multiple rocket launchers and howitzers have already been used in the ongoing reciprocal artillery fire between separatist or Russian forces and the Ukrainian military all along the front line. The logistical effort to deploy and resupply these units likely accounts for a significant portion of the continuing convoys of Russian military trucks reported in the area. These artillery units, as well as several armored and infantry formations, have reportedly been deployed mostly around the main cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as further south on the coast of Novoazovsk, not far from where Ukrainian forces continue to man positions around Mariupol.
Russia has also deployed a significant number of air defense systems to eastern Ukraine, based on reports from local sources and the Ukrainian security services. Medium-ranged Buk M1-M2 air defense systems covering most of the separatist-held areas as well as shorter ranged systems such as the Pantsir-S1, Osa and Tor clustered around the strategic supply lines running from the Russian border into the main cities of Luhansk and Donetsk combine to create a layered air defense infrastructure that prevents the Ukrainian air force from using its assets over separatist-held areas. Even though the Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement explicitly rules out Ukrainian air operations over separatist-held areas, and the Ukrainian military has not attempted any such operations since then, the Russian move to establish this air defense presence indicates strong commitment to defending the separatist-held territory.
The deployment of these air defense systems, as well as the artillery units' capability to prevent the Ukrainian military from massing forces for an attack on the separatist-held areas, seems to serve a mostly defensive objective. However, separatist units continue to fight to expand their territorial hold over smaller areas along certain positions on the frontline. They have continued to encircle and then take over Ukrainian checkpoints in areas near Luhansk, while bitter fighting between both sides continues at the Donetsk airport. The Ukrainian military's positions at Debaltseve, a strategic town that controls the main highway directly connecting Donetsk and Luhansk, have also been contested. As the separatist and Russian forces seek to consolidate their positions there, they may still make significant attempts to seize this location.
Despite this, both sides of the conflict lack significant incentives to return to large-scale combat. Ukraine continues to lack the military power to confront the separatist forces, especially with the Russian military backing them. At the same time, Russia does not want to become more overtly involved in operations that would draw it deeper into Ukraine and make it subject to greater responses from the West, particularly measures such as new sanctions and a NATO buildup. This means Russia will continue to back the separatist forces to maintain the threat of military action as a lever over Kiev.