Russia builds mostly useless border fortifications, costing billions
March 22, 2023
Russia is spending billions on building up border defenses that analysts consider mostly useless.
Over the past year, Russian authorities in regions neighboring Ukraine have built defense fortifications in areas that military experts doubt will ever see fighting given their distant location from the current frontline in Eastern Ukraine.

Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov announced on March 9 that his region had completed construction of a system of border defenses, called “zasechnaya line,” a reference to the 16th century chain of fortification lines created by the Grand Duchy of Moscow during its war against Crimean Tatars. The fortifications in Belgorod reportedly cost 10 billion rubles (about $132 million) to construct, with officials claiming that its completion was necessary to defend against any potential Ukrainian attack on the region.

According to the news outlet 7x7, locals in Belgorod found work digging trenches for the defense line through social media posts and the Russian classified advertisements website Avito. One man who dug trenches told journalists that the job listing he found promised a daily salary of 3,000 rubles. However, as the man claims, he received that amount for just four days of work, while the employer promised to pay the remaining money later. Journalists discovered that this was not an isolated incident, as a number of social media users claiming to have worked on the construction of the border fortifications in Belgorod have also complained of not receiving the initially promised wages.

Because of regular shelling along the Ukraine-Belgorod border, authorities were unable to construct fortifications directly on the border. Therefore, they built fortifications deeper on the Russian side, which resulted in some border towns and villages being isolated from the rest of the region. No Belgorod official has publicly announced plans to protect or evacuate people living in these settlements in the event of an attack, according to 7x7. Belgorod governor Gladkov said that the fortifications were necessary to "sober up our enemies," adding that their presence near settlements did not mean anyone had been abandoned or was unprotected.

Earlier, authorities in Belgorod rejected a proposal from a company associated with Wagner PMC head Yevgeny Prigozhin to build a defensive line along the region’s borders. Prigozhin's company, which has ties to the Russian military, had proposed constructing a line of fortifications, including bunkers, watchtowers, and fences to defend the region against potential threats. However, the Belgorod government declined the proposal, citing concerns about the cost and the potential impact to public infrastructure. Prigozhin later accused Belgorod and Kursk businessmen of obstructing the preparation of volunteer fighters in the region at the Wagner training facilities.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have reported on Russian fortifications being built along the Kursk region’s border with Ukraine, while occupied Crimea head, Sergey Aksyonov, implied that Vladimir Putin ordered the construction of a defensive line along the peninsula's coasts. These fortifications are far from the current frontlines in southern Ukraine, and any Russian personnel and equipment deployed to these lines would be better used elsewhere in Ukraine, writes the Institute for the Study of War.

Some military analysts speculate that Russian officials in Belgorod and Kursk Oblasts are constructing defensive fortifications in support of information operations that aim to portray Ukraine as a threat to Russian territory. They explain that while the defense lines might slow down the advance of enemy ground equipment and infantry, they will not protect against existing threats in the form of drones and artillery.

Military analyst and founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, Ruslan Leviev, told 7x7 journalists that not even trenches and anti-tank obstacles much closer to the current frontline in Luhansk and Donetsk have been stormed by Ukrainian forces. Leviev explained that in the event of a pushback by Ukrainian forces, they are unlikely to see attempts to storm and break through these fortifications. Instead, more artillery warfare will probably occur. “After that, you can safely drive up and pull them [concrete obstacles], without fear of anyone. Therefore, in the current realities, these trenches are useless,” said Leviev.

Another researcher from the Conflict Intelligence Team, Kirill Mikhailov, told journalists that the construction of the fortifications inside Russia is part of a PR campaign by regional authorities. He believes that the Kursk and Belgorod governors want to demonstrate to the Kremlin that they are serious about defending the country and to the population that the borders are secure. “For the complacency and reassurance of the Kremlin and the local population, maybe this has some psychological meaning,” said Mikhailov.

All of the military analysts that 7x7 spoke to cited corruption as one of the likely reasons for the construction of the border fortifications, and some suggested that similar defensive structures might appear in other regions as both companies and officials look to exploit concerns of national defense as a way to line their own pockets. However, as the analysts argue, the Kremlin may be willing to overlook this corruption given the context of war.

Meanwhile, continued Russian fortifications in Crimea may suggest that Russian forces are unsure of their ability to hold occupied territories in southern Ukraine in the long term. However, the fortifications are currently inconsequential for Russian operations in Ukraine, according to the Institute for the Study of War, which does not report observing forces deployed to any of these defensive lines.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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