Russia’s military build-up near the Ukraine border continued this week, deepening global concerns over Moscow’s ultimate intentions as senior Russian officials and state media picked up on their incendiary rhetoric.
What seemed like a show of force to the new Biden government may have become something bigger. Videos posted on social media appear to show convoys of military vehicles entering the region from Siberia, according to an analysis by the open source investigation group Conflict Intelligence Team. The troops are gathering south of the Russian city of Voronezh, about 250 km from the border with Ukraine – far enough that an immediate invasion seems unlikely, but close enough to get on your nerves.
The movement of troops from western and southern military districts goes well beyond what is normally expected for a standard exercise such as Russia has been conducting recently. What is both confusing and unsettling about the Voronezh setup is its obvious offensive stance, said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team. The region borders on government-controlled Ukraine, not the breakaway regions in Donetsk and Luhansk, where local proxies rely on Russian support.
The military build-up was accompanied by increased saber rattling by Russian officials. On Thursday, senior Kremlin official Dmitry Kozak warned of a major escalation of the conflict that would mark the “beginning of the end of Ukraine”. At the same time Russia, which has tried to paint Ukraine as an attacker with warnings, for which Kiev is preparing ethnically clean The Russian Donbass has announced the intervention. On Friday, Russian press secretary Dmitri Peskov warned Russia that if a “human disaster similar to Srebrenica” occurs, which relates to the genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in July 1995, he may be forced to intervene.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States was becoming increasingly alarmed about “escalating Russian aggression” in the region. On Friday, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken spoke to his German counterpart Heiko Maas, in which he emphasized the importance of standing by Ukraine’s side against “Unilateral Russian provocations.”
The conflict and bellicose rhetoric have flared up at regular intervals since a 2015 peace deal ended the worst fighting and ushered in a troubled stalemate. But the Western leaders are clearly unsettled. On Thursday, CNN rreported The United States is considering sending warships to the Black Sea in support.
Long-time observers of the conflict believe that a large-scale invasion is unlikely. “I think everyone is in a similar place that we look closely. I still think it’s more signaling and demonstration, but obviously no one is willing to rule out the fact that it could become something more serious, ”said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security. who previously served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council.
The reason for the buildup remains unclear, but experts point to domestic factors in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have fallen further to an all-time low. The Kremlin is still grappling with the pandemic and mass street protests erupted in January after the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who went on hunger strike last week to demand medical treatment as his health deteriorated whole country.
“There are a number of increasingly confrontational moves from the Kremlin,” said Kendall-Taylor, including the recent humiliation of the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, on his trip to Moscow and the decision to become the Russian ambassador for an indefinite period call back USA for consultation. “It feels like Putin is stirring up the beleaguered Russia narrative.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has taken an increasingly tough line against Russia, sanctioning Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk and closing three oligarch-controlled television networks as his own approval ratings have fallen and he has tried to end the war.
Moscow might believe that it can get Zelensky to jolt Donbass, which would justify a Russian reaction – similar to what happened in Georgia in 2008, when former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stumbled across the breakaway territory of South Ossetia to war.
“[It] It seems that leading elites in Moscow perceive Zelensky as the Saakashvili type, ”said Michael Kofman, senior scientist at CNA. “This perception, as imprecise as it may be, has real world consequences,” he said.
And then there is the new administration in Washington. US President Joe Biden is familiar with Ukraine as he was former President Barack Obama’s main character on the conflict. “I think there may be concerns in the Kremlin that with the new Biden administration, Zelensky feels that he has more leeway to do things Moscow doesn’t like,” said Kendall-Taylor.
In the end, Putin might want to repeat 2008, but the cards are not on the table.
“What Putin would like to do is not invade Georgia, but repeat the year 2008,” said Taras Kuzio, professor at the National University of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, at an event organized by the German Marshall Fund on Friday. But “Zelensky is not Saakaschwilli,” he said.