Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine is different this time, say experts

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Tensions have been rising again along the Russian-Ukrainian border, with Kyiv and Washington raising the alarm at what they say is an unusual build-up of Russian troops.

Ukraine’s defence ministry claimed earlier this month that about 90,000 Russian soldiers were stationed near their border and in rebel-controlled areas in Ukraine’s east.

Units of the Russian 41st army have remained in Yelnya, a town 260 kilometres north of the Ukrainian border, according to the ministry.

“What we see is a significant, large Russian military build-up. We see an unusual concentration of troops. And we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capabilities before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last week.

The comments came after reports that the United States warned the European Union that Moscow might be planning an invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbour.

Russian officials have denied they are planning incursions into Ukraine, citing what they called many threats from Ukraine and allegedly provocative actions by US warships in the Black Sea.

Russia has supported a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that erupted shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The conflict has left more than 14,000 people dead.

In the spring of this year, a massive build-up of Russian troops near the border raised concerns in Ukraine and in the West, fueling fears of an escalation of hostilities.

But the troops were eventually pulled out after a few weeks as US President Joe Biden held a summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Could the latest military build-up be of a different nature, namely a prelude to a Russian invasion?

Euronews spoke to military and foreign policy experts to shed light on the Russian troops’ movements and their implications for Ukraine and its Western allies.

What do we know about Russia’s troops build-up?

“Some of the important deployments we actually only know from satellite imagery, which is, of course, not the most accurate way to know about things,” said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

“Often it’s just radar imagery. So you know that there are of sort of military formations there because the vehicles they operate are full of iron, so they are not the typical lorry-type of reflection. But you don’t know whether that’s actually a self-propelled gun or a tank, a main battle tank, or another armoured fighting vehicle,” the expert told Euronews.

“When it concerns the situation in Ukraine, Russian military forces around Ukraine are quite sizeable, even without Russia pulling any special build-up,” Gressel told Euronews.

“However, that said, we still have a lot of movement and deployment of at least certain assets of the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA) that was deployed into the Western Military District in spring this year that go round Yelnya in the Smolensk region.

“We know that on the Pogonovo training range, there are a lot of exercises and we have spotted some elements of different formations of the First Guard’s Tank Army there,” the Russia expert went on.

“And we see that some elements of units of the 48th Army, which is based in the northern Caucasus, have been moved to Crimea and we see an influx of equipment and people into Crimea.”

“We also see a lot of military aviation traffic in Rostov-on-Don — not attack planes, but transport aircraft going in and out.

“We know that Russia has mobilised some parts of the National Guard, both local as well as from other parts, and sent them to Rostov-on-Don.”

The expert described Rostov-on-Don as “the central hub”.

“Things that come there basically end up being infiltrated into the Donbas,” he said.

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Gressel wrote in a recent article that the mobilisation of the National Guard units is a sign the Kremlin is at least considering incursions into Ukraine

“In addition to operational intelligence basically showing the movement of troops, there is what you call strategic intelligence,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, chairman of the Centre for Defence Strategies, a think-tank, and former Ukrainian defence minister (2019-2020).

He pointed to strategic intelligence recently shared by the US that Russia was allegedly getting ready for an invasion operation.

Washington’s warnings, Zagorodnyuk said, came around the same time as a rare visit of CIA director William J. Burns to Moscow two weeks ago.

“That means that they received information about decisions made at a strategic level in Moscow, basically the Minister of Defence of Moscow or the Presidency, and that intel was passed by the United States to all key partner allies — basically NATO countries,” the former minister told Euronews.

But Katharine Quinn-Judge, an analyst who specialises in Ukraine at the International Crisis Group, told Euronews that she took “comments from officials on all sides about the extent of the build-up with a grain of salt”.

“In the spring, Ukrainian and EU officials were throwing around some slightly misleading figures for the number of Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders, figures that included troops near the frontline in Donbas. The latter is indeed at Ukraine’s de facto border and inside its internationally-recognised border. But they’re *always* there, so it’s misleading to include them in the number of troops Russia has supposedly amassed in recent weeks,” she told Euronews.

“Knowing this makes me more sceptical of comments I’m seeing from Ukrainian and European officials today — not that I find Russian statements reliable either,” Quinn-Judge added.

Is the latest troop movement different from last spring?

The experts interviewed by Euronews said the latest military build-up was different in many ways from what happened last spring.

One difference, Zagorodnyuk told Euronews, is that Russia connected last spring’s developments with military exercises, “which honestly wasn’t the case because the exercises started much later, but at least they gave us gave some kind of explanation”.

Furthermore, he added, “we didn’t have that sort of strategic intelligence about Russian preparations of a planned invasion. Now we do. So that’s the difference, and that’s why everybody is concerned,” the former official noted.

“Compared to the situation in March and April 2021, when it last moved troops close to the Ukrainian border, Russia seems to be making much less effort to ensure the current assembly is visible. This may hint towards a significantly more serious intention than simply a wish to appear threatening,” Gressel noted in his article.

Another difference, he told Euronews, is that “the movements of the 41st rather concern NATO than Ukraine this time.”

“If you look, Smolensk Oblast is not the closest way to put this army to Ukraine. And actually in spring, when the signal was only about Ukraine, the 41st Army was deployed further east and further south.”

The expert noted that the military unit was currently closer to the border of Belarus than to that of Ukraine and linked it to the ongoing border crisis pitting EU countries Poland and Lithuania against Minsk.

According to the expert, their presence there serves a training purpose, namely practising an “attack on Poland”.

“If Russia did start a war with NATO in the west, the 41st CAA’s task would be to lead the advance from Belarus towards the Suwalki gap. This is the Poland-Lithuania border area that separates Belarus from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. The 41st CAA would likely advance in conjunction with the 11th Army Corps in Kaliningrad; its aim would be to crush the Polish and Lithuanian defences,” the expert explained in his article.

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What is Russia trying to achieve?

Gressel told Euronews that Russia’s troop movements coincided with “a certain rhetoric” from Moscow, including “accusations against Ukraine leaving the Minsk Treaty” and “very specific demands on which legislation Ukraine would need to change, what laws it should adopt, which laws it should not adopt, how it should recognise the puppet republics in the Donbas, etc.”

“So all that is giving a picture that Russia really wants something and is underpinning this demands with military might,” he told Euronews.

Moscow, Gressel said, wants to have the Minsk agreement implemented on its own terms.

The 2015 deal, which was brokered by France and Germany to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, stipulated that Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories only after the election of local leaders and legislatures.

Kyiv recently introduced plans to adopt a law on transitional administration, promising to transition towards new authorities after elections under Ukrainian law.

“Moscow dislikes the contents of the draft legislation because they do not effectively allow it to retain the republics it set up in eastern Ukraine,” wrote Gressel.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov leaked correspondence with his French and German counterparts on the negotiations known as “Normandy format”.The group was organised by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to settle the conflict.

According to Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, the publication of the letters aimed to debunk Western claims that Moscow had declined to cooperate for a Normandy Format meeting.

“Leaking such cables is a severe breach of trust and protocol. It indicates the Kremlin has given up on Normandy/Minsk and will not further negotiate. On the other hand, it communicates the demands of Russia again — Moscow has been demanding very forcefully in recent times,” Gressel told Euronews.

Zagorodnyuk said there was “an acceleration of the propaganda against Ukraine” on Russian TV, with the Russians “portraying themselves as the subject of Ukrainian aggression, which is obviously not the case.”

“They are basically preparing people for the fact that Russia needs to defend itself,” Zagorodnyuk said.

On Thursday, Putin accused the West of “escalating the Ukraine conflict.”

“(Our) Western partners are escalating the situation by supplying Kyiv with lethal modern weapons and conducting provocative military manoeuvres in the Black Sea,” Putin said in a speech to the foreign ministry. He claimed Western bombers are flying “20 km from our border.”

Asked if Russia planned to invade Ukraine, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, replied last week that it “never planned, never did, and (is) never going to do it unless we’re provoked by Ukraine, or by somebody else”.

Putin also has ramped up his dismissal of an independent Ukraine in recent months. A lengthy essay the Kremlin published in July asserts that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia”.

How much could it escalate?

“The fact that they’re getting ready [for an invasion] does not mean that they will start it,” said Zagorodnyuk.

“Making a preparation decision is a strategic military activity. But starting an operation of that scale is a political decision. And it has to be a very, very well calculated decision because the risks for Russia are huge,” the former Ukrainian minister told Euronews.

With Moscow well aware of the risks, the objective might be to raise the stakes in negotiations, he said, “by showing that they have enough power to destabilise the situation.”

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Zagorodnyuk said the Geneva summit with President Biden, “which basically was portrayed as a meeting of two superpowers together,” was an example of how the Russians used the previous military build-up “in order to get their place at the table and at a level which they think is proper for them”.

According to Gressel, a full-fledged escalation is not the most likely outcome of the recent troops’ movements.

“So a limited escalation, one to destabilise Ukraine rather than to conquer, seems very likely. It would signal to Kyiv ‘you can’t hide behind your army, you can’t hide behind France and Germany, either do as we say or have war,'” Gressel told Euronews.

What are the options for Ukraine and its NATO allies to respond?

“What the West can do and is already doing is sending political signals to Russia, saying they will not tolerate that, that they are monitoring the situation very closely and they are ready to help defend Ukraine,” said Zagorodnyuk.

“We need a strong Western reaction” to prevent an escalation, Gressel told Euronews.

Part of this response could be on the military front, Gressel said, “basically signalling to Russians: ‘look, you could escalate but there might be ramifications to that. And if you attack eastern Ukraine further and deeper, we might send paratroopers. We can put them on readiness”.

The US has already sent ships to the Black Sea as part of NATO activity alongside Ukraine. In recent weeks, Washington has delivered military equipment as part of a $60 million (€53 million) package announced in September.

Both Zagorodnyuk and Gressel furthermore referred to unconfirmed media reports claiming that the UK was allegedly ready to send special forces to Ukraine.

“In the last round of escalation, the American deployed a nuclear-signed aircraft to Poland to show that NATO is not completely spineless and we actually have means very close in place,” the expert told Euronews.

“That also was a very powerful signal, as the Russians read this immediately and they reacted to it,” he said.

A summit with Putin, similar to his Geneva meeting with Biden earlier this year, could be another option to give the Russian leader “a face-saving exit”, according to Gressel.

“One caveat with Western governments, the US included, unfortunately, is that when they meet with the Russians, they put themselves under enormous pressure to have a result. And such a summit that just serves as a means to massage the ego of Putin and give him a face-saving exit that he can sell to the Russian public and to his own pals that he was not defeated and he wasn’t deterred — even if in fact, of course, he was — that will not bring any results,” the expert nuanced.

What’s the situation on the ground?

Quinn-Judge was just in Luhansk Oblast, in the easternmost part of Ukraine, when she spoke to Euronews.

“There wasn’t a sense of threat there – things were very subdued,” she said in an email to us.

“One of the people I spoke to lives on the west side of Donetsk city, which is near one of the worst parts of the frontline. He said that the ceasefire agreement of July 2020 brought relief, but in the past few months ‘they’re firing all the time’.”

“To sum up, the people I spoke to were more concerned with the daily grind of poverty, isolation and low-level warfare than with some new threat of escalation/invasion,” Quinn-Judge said.

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.

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