Ukrainian troops conduct a drill with tanks while military activity continues in the Donbas region on April 18, 2021. Photo: AFP / Armed Forces of Ukraine / Anadolu Agency

ST PETERSBURG – The specter of “big war” is casting a long shadow as winter falls over Europe. 

On the Russia-Ukraine border, Western officials and observers are pointing at multiple signals indicating that a Russian military incursion into Ukrainian territory may be imminent.

Such a move would be a massive escalation in what has, so far, been a seven-year, low-intensity conflict that has pitted Russia-backed separatists against Ukrainian forces. 

Of course, “low intensity” is a relative term: The conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives. But an all-out military-military clash would be far bloodier.  

The signals are worrying. About 90,000 Russian troops – ie, a larger force than the entire British army – have massed on the border with Ukraine, according to Kiev’s foreign ministry. And the numbers keep on increasing, while alarming footage of Russian military hardware concentrating in the region is spreading across mainstream and social media. 

As reported by Bloomberg, US intelligence sources have warned their EU counterparts that Russia could be preparing for a “rapid, large-scale push into Ukraine from multiple locations.” 

Russian officials have rejected all allegations that an invasion is imminent, dismissing them as “hysteria.”

“Any movement of Russian troops inside our territory does not pose a threat to anyone and should not cause concern to anyone,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. 

However, most observers agree that these military maneuvers send, at best, a threatening message. At worst, they provide the Kremlin with forces in situ, able to attack with speed and tactical surprise, as soon as a political decision is made to attack – if such a decision is taken, that is. 

It is the second time this year that Russia has flexed military muscles in the region. 

A similar military build-up on Ukraine’s border in April alarmed the international community before de-escalating, following the summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. 

However, this time around matters are more concerning, given the new lows reached in relations between Russia and the West in recent months. 

Veterans of the Azov volunteer battalion, which took part in the war with Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine, salute during a mass rally called ‘No surrender’ in Kiev on March 14, 2020. Foreign right-wing extremists were reported to have joined the unit as well as adversary units on the pro-Russian side in the conflict in order to gain military experience. Photo: AFP / Sergei Supinsky

NATO provocations

In October, Moscow suspended its diplomatic ties with NATO, following the expulsion of Russian officers attached to the country’s mission to Brussels. That step followed a number of moves by NATO units on Russia’s western borders that have angered Moscow, which considers them provocations.

This summer, a Royal Navy destroyer – with members of the UK media corps aboard – skirted Russia’s territorial waters off Crimea, the strategic peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Weeks later, US strategic bombers were detected flying 20 kilometers from the Russian border. 

With a diplomatic stalemate surrounding the apparently endless conflict in the industrially important and Russian-majority Ukrainian region of Donbass, observers agree that Moscow is losing hope for a political solution. 

The 2015 Minsk peace agreements, agreed to between Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and overseen by the leaders of France and Germany, were never implemented. As a result, conflict has been ongoing for years, despite multiple ceasefires. 

The Kremlin also seems to have lost interest in a dialogue with authorities in Kiev, which it sees as “Washington’s puppets” with no real political weight. 

With any diplomatic solution to the conflict receding, maintaining the status quo in the region is becoming increasingly complicated. 

Pre-empting a pre-emption?

Growing military cooperation between Kiev and NATO countries remains the biggest concern for Moscow. Even if no formal commitment of membership has been made, NATO is holding out hopes that Ukraine could join the alliance at some point in the future – a scenario impossible to accept for Russia. 

And thanks to NATO support, the capabilities of the Ukrainian military have visibly improved. 

In October, Ukrainian forces deployed, for the first time, a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone against a separatist artillery unit. The weapon is widely praised in the field, having been used in multiple operations, most notably by the victorious Azeri side in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.  

While Kiev described the drone strike on the separatist howitzer position as a “defensive” move, Moscow interpreted it as a dangerous precedent. As well as that direct-action mission, Bayraktars are also being reportedly deployed by Kiev to surveil Donbass, and Kiev and Ankara have reached an agreement for joint production of the drone.

“We are deeply concerned about the provocative actions of the Ukrainian armed forces on the line of contact and preparations for a possible military solution of the Donbass problem,” the Kremlin spokesperson told the press last week. 

According to analysts, Moscow sees the possibility of Kiev launching a full-fledged attack on the breakaway republics as a serious threat.

“There may be, indeed, a perception in Moscow that the longer it waits before taking some action, the worse the situation will become for the Russian side,” pointed out Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies. 

Most military experts agree that in case of a new Kiev offensive, the separatist republics that make up Donbass – Donetsk and Luhansk – would be overrun by Ukraine’s military, unless Russia intervened.

Moscow may have come to the conclusion that only the real threat of an invasion can deter Ukraine from attempting to retake the pro-Russian republics by force. 

The question is, how far is Russia ready to go. Is the massing of troops just a demonstration? Or is an attack really imminent? 

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP / Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik

Upside precedents, downside risks

Moscow is clearly showing that it is ready for an incursion like the one it carried out against Georgia in 2008. 

Then, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempt to retake the pro-Russian breakaway republic of South Ossetia triggered an immediate Russian military response, sparking a short-lived conflict that saw Russian troops swiftly overawe the much smaller Georgian armed forces.  

Based on that precedent, the Russian side could respond to a real or perceived threat to the Donbass’ Russian-speaking population by sending troops to their defense. In such a scenario, Russian forces would probably try to inflict a devastating blow on Ukrainian forces and secure the territory of the separatist republics in a swift and overwhelming operation that would present the world with a fait accompli.

Russia certainly has recent form in such operations, as can be seen from the examples of Chechnya – where the “swift armored intervention” turned into a bloody, years-long campaign – as well as the less violent and more successful examples of Georgia and Crimea. 

Clearly, Moscow is extremely sensitive about breakaways and borders and is willing to go kinetic to resolve related issues. Its long-running campaign in Syria also shows that Russia can marshal the strategic patience needed for a longer campaign, if need be. 

But while the risk of an assault scenario is real, neither of the two sides has a real incentive to start the conflict first. 

Kiev knows that any attempt to take back the republics with major use of force – ie, beyond the units it is already deploying against the rebels in what is an ongoing, low-intensity conflict – will immediately trigger a Russian response. 

Moreover, as was the case of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the West would not send troops in their support.

But initiating a war has its downsides for Moscow, too. The human and economic costs could be very high, especially considering the risk of a prolonged conflict. 

As shown in a recent independent poll, an open war with Ukraine would likely not win the approval of the Russian people, as was the case with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which took place via a masterly and almost bloodless hybrid operation. 

And even if it stormed in, dug in and occupied parts of Ukraine proper, Russia would hardly improve the security situation on its western borders. On the contrary, any such attack would likely result in an escalation of NATO’s military support for Kiev. 

What is Moscow’s real aim? 

Speaking at an expanded meeting of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, Putin said that NATO has been taking Russia’s warning not to cross certain “red lines” too lightly. He also stressed the importance of gaining “serious long-term guarantees that should ensure Russia’s security on its western border.” 

The military build-up on Ukraine’s border is quite possibly the Kremlin’s latest attempt to gain those guarantees and force the West to respect its “red lines.” Most analysts see it as an attention-grabbing message directed primarily toward the US in an attempt to bring Biden to the negotiating table. 

According to analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik, Moscow wants a serious conversation with Washington, not just about Ukraine, but about Russia’s role as a global power with its own exceptional rights and sphere of influence.  

It is not clear what concrete concession the US might offer, especially considering the US president’s reiterated commitment to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Still, “Putin believes that the keys to solving the conflict are in Biden’s hands,” says Stanovaya. 

For now, with forces poised for a Russia-Ukraine conflict, but not unleashed, Russia’s actions are best interpreted as a form of deterrence. 

As director of the Carnegie Moscow Dmitry Trenin pointed out in a recent article, deterrence is effective only when the threat is believed to be real. 

In this sense – given the lack of a full-on assault by the Ukrainian military – Russia appears to be achieving its goal.