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Russia’s military build-up on the border with Ukraine: intimidation, imminent escalation or both?

It has become clear to Ukraine with regards to Russian scare tactics that concessions will not solve any problems, but rather display the weakness of the West.

April 21, 2021 - Alisa Muzergues - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Ukrainian servicemen ride armored personnel carriers at the artillery range near the village of Divychky, Kyiv region, Ukraine. Photo: home for heroes / Shutterstock

It has been seven years since the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and initiation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which according to official UN data has thus far claimed more than 14,000 lives and left approximately 3,4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection services. Despite the Minsk Agreements which were signed in 2014-15, which were supposed to introduce an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, as well as the gradual disappearance of coverage of the conflict from the international media, this only led to the latter. And while the violation of peace has been a daily occurrence in the eastern regions of Ukraine, the beginning of 2021 brought growing escalation. As of April 16th, 30 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed since the beginning of the year.

Furthermore, the substantial Russian military build-up along Ukraine’s border, from the north, east and illegally occupied Crimea, has raised alarm not only in Kyiv but also in NATO capitals. The Alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concern over “the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and called on Russia to immediately de-escalate the situation. The US military’s European Command has raised its watch level for Ukraine to its highest level — potential imminent crisis. Ukrainian leadership has been actively engaged in talks with their western partners in regard to these developments and the possibility of further escalation, including US President Joe Biden. It was the first phone call between President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Biden, during which the latter “affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.” 

Moscow can no longer deny this escalation on the border with Ukraine, which is now widely documented: satellite images and the numerous videos showing movement of Russian tanks, missile systems and various military equipment in the regions bordering Ukraine have circulated too widely on social media in recent days to be ignored. Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Ruslan Khomchak, during his address to Ukraine’s Parliament, announced that under the guise of preparing for future military exercises “Zapad-2021,” Russia had carried out a significant reinforcement of troops on the border with Ukraine, more precisely in the Bryansk and Voronezh regions of the Russian Federation and also in occupied Crimea. According to Ukrainian intelligence, Russia will mass more than 120,000 troops on its border within the next days.

Commenting on the military build-up, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that “the Russian Federation transfers the Armed Forces on its soil as it wants to. This should not concern anyone, and this is not posing any threat to anyone.” He also alluded to the increased activity of NATO armed forces along the perimeter of Russia’s border, a statement which was picked up and actively disseminated by Russian state media networks and social media bot networks. In recent weeks, the news agencies of the Russian state have multiplied the reports on Ukraine, in particular, false information according to which Kyiv “recognised joint preparation with NATO for the war over Crimea,” or even a fake story of a child death in the occupied territory of Donbas by a Ukrainian drone which was immediately debunked by a fact-checking organisation. This disinformation was mainly disseminated by the Kremlin in Russia itself to cause a feeling of insecurity among the Russian populace and thus justify its aggressive actions as self-defence, but also outside the country to distort reality and sow mistrust among external populations. The more they have a confused impression of events in Ukraine, the more leeway the Russian army will have in the Donbas and elsewhere.

We are now witnessing an active proliferation of these fake news stories and other “alternative narratives,” as Ukraine has become the No.1 subject in the Russian media, obscuring other information much more embarrassing for the Kremlin, especially ahead of this year legislative elections. These stories include the massive demonstrations which followed the poisoning and then the detention of Navalny and the current economic difficulties, which are more and more palpable for the Russian population. But in Hybrid Warfare as conceived by Russian HQs, this type of propaganda is not just a diversion — it is also about shaping a new reality to legitimise subsequent actions. Experience shows that Russian media “coverage” often precedes the actual events.

While there are a lot of speculations among external observers on the true nature of Russian intentions with the current military build-up and the possible pretext which might be used for an assault, it is almost impossible to predict further development of the situation. Among the main theories discussed are the exercise of pressure on President Zelenskyy to make political concessions in the Donbas considering the current deadlock in diplomatic negotiations to solve the ongoing conflict, and at the same time, a test of President Biden’s new administration. The timing seems particularly favourable, as Europe remains focused on countering the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination campaign, while the two European actors involved in resolution of the conflict in the framework of the Normandy Format, France and Germany, face their own political struggles. Germany’s electoral campaign is in full swing, with Angela Merkel losing her influence and the succession turning out to be much more uncertain than expected. On the other side of the Rhine, Emmanuel Macron has also entered a pre-electoral campaign that promises to be a tough one, with a social situation that remains particularly tense following the “Yellow vests” crisis. Moreover, Mr. Macron’s vision for a new security architecture and calls for renewed dialogue with Russia raised a lot of suspicion among Central and Eastern European countries, particularly Ukraine. 

What has become quite clear with regard to Russian tactics is that concessions to Russia will not solve any problems but will only show the weakness of the West and encourage further actions in its “immediate” neighbourhood and beyond. The Kremlin understands only the language of force and concrete actions, the strength of which can actually define further development of the situation. These deterrence actions might include moratorium on the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and more targeted sanctions and visa bans for senior Russian officials and their families, who generally enjoy spending their lavish time in the “enemy” West. What is more, the potential consequences should be made crystal clear for Russia, so that they understand the price they would inevitably have to pay for further escalation.

While the Ukrainians have good reason to be alarmed by the possibility of a wider war, they have also learned their lesson during the six years of conflict with Russia — they do not have any illusions, despite all the support of their allies. They know that it is up to them to protect their sovereignty and are determined to do this, as they did in 2014 — and now, they are much better prepared and equipped for that. 

Alisa Muzergues is an Associate Fellow at Euro Créative think-tank. Her areas of specialisation include the EU political affairs, Neighbourhood Policy, democratisation and rule of law promotion, counteraction of malign influences.  

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