Report

U.S. Eyes Russian Military Movement Near Ukraine

Echos of the spring’s equipment movements are seen as tensions escalate between Moscow and Kyiv.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a session of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 21. Maksim Blinov/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

U.S officials are closely monitoring Russian military activity near the border with Ukraine, which has sparked concern about Moscow’s intentions after months of escalating tensions between the two countries. 

Videos and public satellite imagery that began circulating online in late October show a substantial quantity of Russian military equipment being moved near the border with Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have waged war against the Ukrainian military since 2014. The purpose of the equipment movements is not clear, but it echoes a massing of troops along the border this past spring.

The last equipment movement was initially interpreted as a bid by Moscow to test the mettle of the new Biden administration. But equipment movements and bellicose rhetoric from Moscow has led some experts to believe Russia is taking an increasingly hawkish line with its neighbor. “March and April appears not just to be a coercive deployment but a bit of a dress rehearsal,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the CNA think tank. “If we look over the course of the year, it appears as if the Russian military has been told to prepare for a much larger scale contingency with Ukraine.”

U.S officials are closely monitoring Russian military activity near the border with Ukraine, which has sparked concern about Moscow’s intentions after months of escalating tensions between the two countries. 

Videos and public satellite imagery that began circulating online in late October show a substantial quantity of Russian military equipment being moved near the border with Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have waged war against the Ukrainian military since 2014. The purpose of the equipment movements is not clear, but it echoes a massing of troops along the border this past spring.

The last equipment movement was initially interpreted as a bid by Moscow to test the mettle of the new Biden administration. But equipment movements and bellicose rhetoric from Moscow has led some experts to believe Russia is taking an increasingly hawkish line with its neighbor. “March and April appears not just to be a coercive deployment but a bit of a dress rehearsal,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the CNA think tank. “If we look over the course of the year, it appears as if the Russian military has been told to prepare for a much larger scale contingency with Ukraine.”

The U.S. Defense Department is monitoring the equipment movements. “We are aware of public reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine but cannot speak to Russian intentions,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Defense Department spokesperson. “As the administration has said, any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of great concern to the United States.” 

In remarks to the traveling press pool on Monday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the administration has consulted with key allies and partners over the weekend and the United States would continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

Russia’s massing of more than 100,000 troops and military equipment earlier this year, a larger mobilization than during Russia’s initial invasion in 2014, sparked fears of a renewed Ukraine invasion. Some forces were withdrawn by late April, but an estimated 80,000 troops stayed in the region. Experts believed some components, such as the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA), usually based in Siberia, were left in the area to take part in the Zapad strategic exercise with Belarus in September. The 41st CAA remains in the region several weeks after the conclusion of Zapad, and in late October, it began withdrawing from the Pogonovo training ground, with elements of the army thought to be repositioning west to Yelnya near Russia’s borders with Ukraine and Belarus.

On Monday, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence said it had not observed any additional Russian weapons, units, or military equipment being transferred into the region.

In a speech to the Valdai Discussion Club on Oct. 21, Russia President Vladimir Putin claimed Western military expansion in Ukraine posed a threat to Russia. “Formal [Ukrainian] membership in NATO may not take place, but military development of the territory is already underway,” he said. His remarks came days after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Ukraine, where he acknowledged the country’s right to make its own decisions on foreign policy and future NATO membership, which is still seen as a long way off. “We expect that they will be able to do that without any outside interference,” Austin said. 

Tensions between Russia and NATO have flared in recent weeks after the alliance withdrew the accreditation of eight Russian officials posted to its headquarters in Brussels, accusing them of espionage. In response, Russia closed the alliance’s information office in Moscow and suspended its mission to NATO, which was first opened in the wake of the Cold War as a trust-building exercise. 

Russian military movements along the border with Ukraine come as Kyiv conducted its first-ever drone strike on Oct. 26 against separatist militants in the embattled Donbass region, destroying a Russian-made piece of artillery equipment with a Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2.

Inexpensive, ready-to-use Turkish armed drones have been used in battlefields from Syria and Libya to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, where they gave Azerbaijan the upper hand against Armenian forces in a renewed outbreak of fighting over the disputed territory last year. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced in September that work was beginning to establish a factory to produce the unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky defended the move as an act of self-defense, but the use of drones promoted statements of concern from both France and Germany, which have served as mediators in the conflict. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Ukrainian leaders were trying to drag Russia into the conflict. “We observe attempts to carry out provocations, elicit some reaction from the militia, and drag Russia into some kind of combat action,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv urged both sides of the conflict to abide by the terms of a 2020 cease-fire agreement and added, “the Russia-led side has repeatedly deployed howitzer artillery and drones against Ukrainian forces, in direct violation of the enhanced measures agreed last year.”

Kofman was skeptical the drone strike was the impetus for renewed Russian activity near Ukraine, pointing to potential political causes instead. 

“I think we have to look holistically over the year,” he said. Russia is chafing under Western sanctions imposed after Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, but little progress has been made on resolving the conflict. Recent remarks by Russian officials underscore increasing displeasure with Ukraine’s military cooperation with the West and NATO partners. 

“There is a real chance for a renewed conflict for Russia and Ukraine on a larger scale,” Kofman said. “Not in the coming days and weeks but down the line.” 

Update, Nov. 1, 2021: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.

Update, Nov. 1, 2021: The Ukrainian military issued a statement clarifying there is no new gear or troops being moved into the region. Language throughout the piece has been updated.

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

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