Russia has sent troops more than 4,000 miles to Ukraine’s borders and announced sweeping naval drills as Moscow expands its preparations for a potential attack on Ukraine as negotiations appear at a deadlock.
Six Russian landing ships capable of carrying main main battle tanks, troops and other military vehicles travelled through the Channel en route to the Mediterranean last week in a deployment that could bolster an amphibious landing on Ukraine’s southern coast if Vladimir Putin orders an attack. Ukraine’s military intelligence has claimed that Russia is hiring mercenaries and supplying its proxy forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with fuel, tanks and self-propelled artillery in preparation for a potential upsurge in fighting.
And a large military force, including Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, elite spetsnaz troops and anti-aircraft batteries, has arrived in Belarus from Russia’s eastern military district, an extraordinary deployment that western officials and analysts say could enable Moscow to threaten Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
The new deployments have worried US officials. “What concerns us is the total picture,” said a senior state department official in a briefing last week. “It is the amassing of 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders combined with moving forces into Belarus over the weekend … these numbers are beyond, of course, what we would expect with regard to a normal exercise.”
The new forces in Belarus, the official added, represent an “increased capability for Russia to launch this attack, increased opportunity, increased avenues, increased routes”.
The US president, Joe Biden, last week said that Putin himself may not know what he plans to do. But the results are either reckless brinkmanship or preparations for a large-scale military operation.
“It gradually dawned on Putin that if he stays on the track of stable and predictable, as Biden indicated, he’s the designated loser,” said Pavel Baev, research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a Brookings Institution nonresident fellow. “Something needed to be done. He went for this escalation quite sharply.”
Diplomatic efforts last week were inconclusive. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, called talks with US secretary of state Antony Blinken “frank and substantive”.
“I can’t say whether we are on the right track or not on the right track. We’ll understand that when we receive an American response on paper to all items of our proposals,” Lavrov told reporters in Geneva.
But there are no concrete plans for a follow-up and the two sides appear irreconcilable, with Russia’s foreign ministry repeating maximalist demands for Nato forces to leave all countries that joined the alliance after 1997.
“What is happening on the Russian side in the last couple of weeks is not really diplomacy. It’s a combination of bluff, blackmail and warmongering,” said Baev during a roundtable discussion on Friday.
As Russia’s buildup nears completion, US and European countries have stepped up military support for Ukraine. The UK last week sent more than 2,000 NLAW (next generation light anti-tank weapon) launchers and deployed about 30 troops from a new ranger regiment as trainers.
Estonia has said it will provide Javelin anti-tank missiles, while Lithuania and Latvia will send Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. In a shift, the Netherlands also said it would be ready to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine. And the US has said it will increase aid and send
Mi-17 transport helicopters originally meant for use in Afghanistan to Ukraine instead.
The decision to fast-track arms to Ukraine reflects an understanding that Russia could launch an attack at any moment. “We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine,” Blinken said in public remarks last week.
The scope of a Russian attack and its ultimate goals remain unclear. Some analysts have suggested Russia may want to formally annex the Donbas region or capture territory to connect the Russian mainland with Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
But others see Moscow’s larger aim as compelling the Ukrainian government to submit to Russia’s terms, effectively re-establishing a sphere of influence in eastern Europe. And that ambitious goal could mean that a Russian attack would have to put extraordinary pressure on the Ukrainian government.“If the purpose is to compel Ukraine’s leadership, then a ground invasion only makes sense if it puts Ukraine in a more untenable or threatened position. Neither a land bridge nor an operation in Odessa would likely achieve that result, but an offensive towards Kyiv could,” wrote Rob Lee, a former US marine and a fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia programme, in an analysis.
Ultimately, Russia wants to block Ukraine’s entrance into Nato, stymie cooperation with western powers and reverse Kyiv’s trajectory away from Moscow.
To that end, it has sought to put Ukraine in a position that would stretch its defences and threaten a potential hammer blow against Kyiv. Russia has deployed more than 60 battalion tactical groups – more than a third of the military’s total available force – and appears unwilling to halt its buildup on Ukraine’s borders.
Russian troops, along with Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, began arriving in Belarus last week after travelling across the country from Russia’s far east.
The troops are arriving for joint military exercises set for mid-February and will include Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and nearly the entire Belarusian armed forces, according to the country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko.“Don’t get into [a fight] with us,” said Lukashenko in punchy remarks on Friday. “We can’t be defeated.”
At the same time, Russia has announced sweeping naval drills that will include every fleet in the country’s navy, numbering more than 140 warships. Along with the six landing craft likely headed for the Mediterranean, a Russian cruiser and destroyer will also be dispatched following the exercises.
Nato has also announced its own naval drills, including a US aircraft carrier strike group in the Mediterranean for the next two weeks, meaning that the two rivals will be conducting exercises at the same time amid heightened tensions.
Russia appears to be finalising its preparations for a strike on Ukraine. But even if the attack never comes, analysts say that there may never be a return to the status quo before the Russian buildup began last year.“I think it’s clear that even if a war is avoided, I don’t think we’re going to go back to the situation prior to April 2021,” said Angela Stent, director emerita of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian studies at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
During a roundtable discussion, she said that the crisis could lead to the “third reorganisation of Euro-Atlantic security since the 1940s”.