Is Russia Preparing to Go to War in Ukraine?
Troop buildup near Ukraine’s border is the largest since 2014.
Russia’s military buildup near the border of Ukraine continued this week, deepening global concern about Moscow’s ultimate intentions as senior Russian officials and state media dial up their incendiary rhetoric.
What seemed like a show of force to the new Biden administration has become, perhaps, something bigger. Videos posted on social media appear to show convoys of military vehicles arriving in the region from as far away as Siberia, according to an analysis by the open-source investigative group the Conflict Intelligence Team. Troops are massing just south of the Russian city of Voronezh, some 155 miles away from the border with Ukraine—far enough away that an immediate invasion seems unlikely, but close enough to set nerves on edge.
The movement of troops from western and southern military districts far exceeds what would normally be expected for a standard exercise of the sort Russia has been carrying out of late. What is both puzzling and troubling about the buildup in Voronezh is its apparent offensive posture, said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team. The region borders government-controlled Ukraine, not the breakaway regions in Donetsk and Luhansk, where local proxies are dependent on Russian support.
The military buildup has been accompanied by increased saber-rattling by Russian officials. On Thursday, senior Kremlin official Dmitry Kozak warned a major escalation in the conflict would mark the “beginning of the end of Ukraine.” At the same time, Russia, which has sought to paint Ukraine as an aggressor with warnings that Kyiv is preparing to ethnically cleanse the Donbass of Russians, has flagged intervention. On Friday, Russian press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, warned Russia could be forced to intervene in the event that a “human catastrophe similar to Srebrenica” arises, referring to the genocidal slaughter of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in July 1995.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the United States is increasingly alarmed by “escalating Russian aggressions” in the region. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, in which they emphasized the importance of standing by Ukraine against “unilateral Russian provocations.”
The conflict and bellicose rhetoric have flared periodically since a 2015 peace deal brought the worst of the fighting to an end and ushered in an uneasy stalemate. But Western leaders are clearly rattled. On Thursday, CNN reported the United States is considering sending warships to the Black Sea in a display of support.
Long-time observers of the conflict say an all-out invasion is unlikely. “I think everyone is in a similar place where we’re watching closely. I still think it’s more signaling and demonstration, but obviously no one is willing to exclude the fact that it could turn into 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 continued to slump to an all-time low. The Kremlin is still grappling with the pandemic and, in January, saw mass street protests across the country in the wake of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s arrest, who went on a hunger strike last week to demand medical treatment as his health has deteriorated.
“There is a whole slew of increasingly confrontational steps coming out of 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 indefinitely recall the Russian ambassador to the United States for consultations. “It feels like Putin is drumming up the besieged Russia narrative.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has taken an increasingly hard line against Russia, sanctioning Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk and shuttering three TV stations controlled by the oligarch as his own approval ratings have fallen and he has struggled to end the war.
Moscow may believe it can provoke Zelensky into making a knee-jerk move in the Donbass, which would justify a Russian response—much as it did in Georgia in 2008 when former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stumbled into war over the breakaway territory of South Ossetia.
“[It] seems that leading elites in Moscow perceive Zelensky as a Saakashvili type,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA. “This perception, inaccurate though it may be, has real world consequences,” he said.
And then there’s the new administration in Washington. U.S. President Joe Biden is familiar with Ukraine, having served as former President Barack Obama’s point person on the conflict. “I think there could be some concern in the Kremlin that with the incoming Biden administration, that Zelensky may feel like he has more leeway to do things that Moscow doesn’t like,” Kendall-Taylor said.
Putin, in the end, may want to replay 2008 but does not have the cards on the table.
“What Putin would love to do is not invade but repeat 2008 in Georgia,” said Taras Kuzio, a professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, speaking at an event hosted by the German Marshall Fund on Friday. But “Zelensky is not Saakashvilli,” he said.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack