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Is Russia about to launch an attack in eastern Ukraine?

Elena Barysheva | Alexander Savitsky
April 8, 2021

Russia is reportedly amassing thousands of troops at its border with Ukraine, but the Kremlin denies that the buildup poses a threat. Is Ukraine facing the possibility of a Russian invasion?

A Ukrainian tank in the mud in the Luhansk region
Russia has been making life hell for Ukraine but is Vladimir Putin really prepared to launch an invasion, or is he just bluffing?Image: AFP

The United States and EU are watching reports of Russian troop movements on Ukraine's border with increasing concern. NATO has assured Kyiv that the alliance will continue to support the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity and monitor the situation closely. The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has also given Ukraine's government his assurances. Germany and France, which are mediating between Kyiv and Moscow in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine as part of the so-called Normandy Format, have made similar pledges.

In a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, President Joe Biden recently affirmed the US's unwavering support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression in the Donbass and Crimea."

But reports of Russian troop deployments to the regions of Bryansk, Voronezh and Rostov, as well as the annexed Crimean Peninsula, are circulating on social media. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has insisted that Russia, "moves its armed forces within its own territory at its own discretion," adding that this, "shouldn't worry anyone and does not pose a threat to anyone."

'New means of exerting pressure on the West'

Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts thinks Russia's activities are demonstrative in nature. Before Russian authorities arrested Alexei Navalny in January, for instance, the Kremlin threatened to increase pressure on the country's opposition in response to Western sanctions over his poisoning.

Golts says, "Russia needed a new means of exerting pressure on the West" and the threat of a war against Ukraine is one way to do so.

"There is a lot at stake, Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue to pursue the politics of blackmail and pressure, even if he is not, in principle, prepared to engage in hostilities," says the analyst.

Golts says combat could commence nevertheless, though he does not believe there will be any military activity in the Donbass region before mid-May because of the nature of the terrain: "It is not possible to launch an offensive there before the steppe is dry. They would just get stuck, as has happened so many times in the past," says the analyst.

Recently, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Ruslan Khomchak, said Russia had already deployed 28 tactical battalions to the Ukraine border, to Donbass territories not under Kyiv's control and to Crimea.

Citing Ukrainian intelligence, Khomchak added that Russia was now deploying an additional 25 tactical regiments to Ukraine's borders under the pretext of its "West 2021" military exercises with Belarus. He said that this, "together with the forces already deployed near the border of Ukraine, poses a threat to the military security of the state."

'Threat to the entire eastern flank of the EU'

Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says he cannot rule out the possibility that Russia is preparing an escalation in the Donbass region. "The military is ready but will the politicians issue the orders?" he asks, before adding: "For about six months — from July / August until New Year — there was a real ceasefire in Donbass. There was hardly any shooting. Then in January, the escalation started — at the front  and in terms of propaganda — above all on the Russian side."

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the PENTA Center of Applied Political Studies in Kyiv, says Moscow is trying to force the Ukrainian government to make concessions in negotiations over Donbass. The political scientist assumes Russia is hoping this approach will also prompt a new round of negotiations with the West. Fesenko says the Kremlin is worried about Western sanctions, including those targeting the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2.

Fesenko, too, says he cannot rule out the possibility of military conflict, explaining that Crimea has become a huge Russian military base since Moscow invaded in 2014: "Modern strategic and tactical weapons are concentrated there, not just the Black Sea fleet but big military units, too, as well as combat air forces." In addition, he says maneuvers carried out in recent years with Belarus not only threaten Ukraine but the Baltic States, Poland and the entire eastern flank of the European Union.

'Russland has long been preparing for an invasion'

Mykhailo Samus of the Kyiv Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, is convinced that Moscow has long been preparing for an invasion and has already begun concentrating equipment and troops along the border with Ukraine.

The analyst says "Russia has effectively created three new armies encircling Ukraine." He says six submarines armed with Kalibr cruise missiles — which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads — have been dispatched to Crimea. But Samus does not believe Putin will dare engage in open escalation. He says the Russian president prefers provocation through "hybrid proxy forces" — that is, through allies or via cyber or propaganda attacks.

Susan Stewart of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a Berlin-based think tank, believes Russia wants to show that it has additional means of destabilizing the situation in eastern Ukraine. When it comes to the West — and in particular, the new Biden administration — Stewart concludes: "If Russian leadership intended this as a test, then the Kremlin no doubt saw that it did indeed garner a response from the West."

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