Russia Further Ramps Up Military Pressure on Ukraine

Moscow could just be strong-arming Kyiv and Washington—or preparing another invasion.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy., and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian warships and military jets take part in a military exercise.
Russian warships and military jets take part in a military exercise called Kavkaz on the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea, on Sept. 9, 2016. Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops at its border with Ukraine and blocked a strategic choke point in the Black Sea to naval and state-owned vessels, heightening tensions with the United States and its NATO allies and fueling concerns of a new military offensive against Ukraine. 

The Russian military buildup near Ukraine is expected to reach a combined force of 120,000 in a week and has already exceeded levels seen in 2014, when the conflict in Ukraine first broke out, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday. The buildup includes potential offensive capabilities, such as paratroopers, Iskander ballistic missiles, advanced fighter jets, and electronic warfare systems capable of jamming communications across Ukraine. 

“We cannot know for sure whether Moscow will decide to begin a new stage of aggression against Ukraine, but it is certain that they will be prepared already to do so in [a] few weeks,” Kuleba said. 

The motivation behind the very public saber-rattling is harder to discern. Some believe it is simply posturing, meant to test U.S. President Joe Biden and ramp up pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It could also be a bid by Russian President Vladimir Putin to deflect criticism over domestic woes with another foreign adventure as he did successfully in 2014. Others fear it is the precursor to new offensive operations against Ukraine.

“I’ve become much more worried now than I was a week ago,” said Jim Townsend, the former top U.S. Defense Department policy official on NATO and Europe during the Obama administration. Russia’s military buildup has “reached a critical mass,” he said, with a mixture of military forces and missile systems that could indicate Russia is planning a full-fledged operation, not an exercise.

“I just can’t believe they are going to use that much force for a little bit of coercion. … It’s not just about the numbers; it’s also the type of forces Russia is deploying,” he said.

On Tuesday, Russia announced it was blocking flights over Crimea and parts of the Black Sea surrounding the Crimean peninsula during naval exercises set to take place between April 20 and April 24. More than 20 warships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet conducted exercises with fighter jets on Tuesday, Interfax reported. The number of Russian warplanes moved to the Crimean peninsula is greater than previously thought, according to commercial satellite imagery reported by the Wall Street Journal, as images from April 16 show Su-30 fighter jets lined up along a runway at a Crimean air base. 

Other indicators are driving concerns among Western officials. A regiment of Russian paratroopers was recently relocated from Pskov, near the border with Estonia, to Crimea, and Russia is moving naval vessels from the Caspian Sea, capable of operating in the shallow waters of the Sea of Azov, to the region by river, Ukraine’s Kuleba said on Tuesday. The Sea of Azov borders the Crimean peninsula, already annexed by Russia, as well as rebel- and government-held Ukrainian territory. 

The new tensions pose an early foreign-policy test for the Biden administration as it seeks to balance a hard line against Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and open new diplomatic channels to Putin’s government. On Monday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, about arranging a “presidential summit” between Biden and Putin, according to a National Security Council spokesperson. But mounting tensions in the Black Sea are quickly dashing hopes of any sort of early Biden-era detente between the two former Cold War rivals.

The Biden administration joined NATO in sharply criticizing Russia’s moves and called on Moscow to deescalate the situation. The U.S. State Department condemned the military buildup and Moscow’s decision to block the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea, to naval and state-owned vessels as an “unprovoked escalation” in the region. 

“Russia’s ongoing militarization of Crimea, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov are further threats to Ukraine’s independence and undermine the stability of the broader region,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement.

The United Kingdom reportedly plans to send two Royal Navy warships to the Black Sea next month in a show of force aimed at Moscow and to reassure NATO allies. The news came after the Pentagon dropped plans to send two U.S. destroyers through the Black Sea this month amid concerns the move could escalate tensions with Russia, Politico reported.

For all the West’s concern, Russia’s moves could simply be a calculated ploy to flex its military might and remind Kyiv, Washington, and European capitals it is still in the driver’s seat in Ukraine’s long-simmering conflict. 

“I think it’s mostly saber-rattling; I don’t see why it would be in the Russian interest to invade Ukraine right now versus any other time over the last six years,” said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based think tank.

“I think this is a test for the new U.S. administration, a reminder that Russia still matters. They’re still a military power that shouldn’t be discounted,” she said. “And of course, a reminder to Ukraine: ‘Don’t think because you have a new administration in the United States, this changes anything about the kind of leverage we have over you.’”

Polyakova said Putin may also be factoring domestic political calculations into his Black Sea plans. Putin’s approval ratings soared after annexing Crimea in 2014, and defending the peninsula is a top priority for the Kremlin. But his popularity has since dwindled amid economic hardship and prominent political opposition from jailed activist Alexei Navalny and his supporters.

“There’s a lot of domestic unrest over economic issues, over COVID, over declining standards of living; and the Kremlin, often when they see trouble at home, want to deflect with foreign policy,” Polyakova said.

Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA’s Russian studies program, said he will watch Putin’s speech to the Russian federal assembly on Wednesday for any indicators of Moscow’s intentions. Much of the current buildup is massing in staging areas near the Russian city of Voronezh, some 155 miles from the border with Ukraine. Any movement to positions closer to the border would be an early warning sign of potential military action.

“That’s not something that they can do in hours from their current position,” Kofman said. 

Russian officials have explained the big deployment as military exercises that will be over “within two weeks,” according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Moscow has used the Black Sea to diplomatically squeeze Ukraine in the past. In 2018, Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels as they attempted to sail through the Kerch Strait off the coast of Crimea, and 24 Ukrainian sailors were imprisoned in Russia for almost a year.

The strait remains open to commercial shipping, but Kuleba said there was no guarantee Russia would not decide to implement a full blockade, choking off access to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer