Fears were increased last week when Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that ‘it is obvious that Moscow is indeed preparing for a possible war or an armed conflict in the west’.
Alarm bells rang loudly last week in Washington and many European capitals with reports of a huge build-up of Russian forces along its border with eastern Ukraine. Unverified footage showed massive military movements in Russia’s Voronezh, Rostov and Krasnodar regions, leading to concerns of a possible Russian invasion of that part of Ukrainian territory, the Donbas region, occupied by pro-Russians. Western voices expressed “severe concern” at videos of mile-long trains loaded with tanks, armoured vehicles and troops, as well as a Pantsir missile system from Tyumen in Siberia heading west towards the border. Another video showed the 74th Guards Motorised Rifle Brigade and 120th Artillery Brigade, with its Hurricane multiple launch rocket system, also from Siberia, travelling towards Ukraine.
Only two weeks ago, three large Russian Baltic Fleet landing ships, accompanied by a corvette, sailed through the English Channel, heading for the Black Sea. Fleet transfers such as this give Moscow the potential for a “Normandy-style landing”, which analysts suggest could take place on Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline between Odessa and Mykolaiv in support of military operations along the Donbas land border.
Tensions are rising sharply with the potential to escalate into a pan-European war, possibly even to a world-war. “Not so”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters last week. He insisted that Russia was “not threatening Ukraine”, despite an earlier statement which warned that a war in Donbas would “destroy Russia’s neighbour”. He failed to explain the reasons for the current military build-up.
Russia’s moves have divided the West. Some officials believe Russia is mostly engaged in sabre rattling and is not eager to renew its offensive. Others are more worried, believing that President Putin’s intentions are not clear and that the current strengthening of his forces along the border could easily and quickly escalate into something more ominous.
Such fears were increased last week when Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that “it is obvious that Moscow is indeed preparing for a possible war or an armed conflict in the west”. This was followed by a statement from pro-Kremlin Margarita Simonyan, the influential editor-in-chief of English-language television news network RT, actively calling for Putin to make a military grab for areas in eastern Ukraine currently held by rebels. “The truth is that Russian people living in Donbas must live in Russia”, she said in a news programme on RT last week, promoting the view that Russia should “reclaim” by force that part of south-eastern Ukraine.
The confused and dangerous situation in Ukraine is a direct result of the break-up of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. Behind only Russia, it was the second-most populous and powerful of the 15 Soviet republics, home to much of the union’s agricultural production, defence industries and military, including the Black Sea Fleet and some of the nuclear arsenal. It was also a popular place for Russians to live; you can easily see why, with its milder climate and breath-taking coastline. From numerous diplomatic visit to Ukraine during my three years in our embassy in Moscow, I met hundreds of Russians living happily throughout the whole of Ukraine. With no borders between the two countries, many Russians saw Ukraine as “Kievan Rus”, the foundation of Russia itself. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 therefore came as an horrendous and confusing shock to the millions of Russians living in Ukraine, who suddenly found themselves living in a “foreign country”. Many scuttled back to the motherland, but some eight million remained, forming a diaspora, mostly in the South and East in the Donbas region. Moscow continuously claims a duty to protect these people, but others see this simply as a pretext for its actions to destabilise Ukraine.
Those who suspect Putin’s current motives point to his seizure of Crimea and the arming and abetting of separatists in the Donbas region in 2014. Some 14,000 people have died in the current conflict, the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkan Wars in the 1980s. This was also the first time since World War 2 that a European state has annexed the territory of another, an action which Putin continues to justify as a “rescue operation”. He is employing a similar narrative to justify his current support for the separatists in the Donbas, referring to the area as “Novorossiya” (New Russia), a term dating back to eighteenth-century imperial Russia. Armed Russian provocateurs, including some agents of the Russian security services, are believed to be playing a central role in the fighting in the Donbas, although Moscow continues to deny any involvement in the conflict.
But of course Vladimir Putin’s relationship with the truth is extremely tenuous. Many will recall the shooting down by a Buk missile of the Malaysian airliner MH17 flying over the Donbas region in July 2014, with the loss of 298 lives. Even though there was clear evidence of Russia transporting a Buk mobile surface to air missile battery across the border with Ukraine the day before the disaster, and the same battery later returning to Russia with one missile missing, Moscow continues to deny any involvement and liability. This is just one example of why many countries treat any denials by Moscow with complete cynicism.
In a bid to end the confusion of Donald Trump’s incoherent policy on Ukraine, the new Biden administration announced last month an additional $125 million in military aid to the country. The package included Javelin anti-tank missiles, anti-missile radars and enhanced satellite imagery capabilities. The move angered Moscow and shortly after the announcement, in a glittering Kremlin hall and before an audience of rapt appreciative Russian officials, President Putin gave a defining and fiery speech on the situation in Crimea and the expansion of NATO. He insisted this was clear evidence that the West is continuing a policy of “containing Russia”, criticising the US as claiming to be the “chosen one, allowed to rule the fate of the world”. He added: “we will react to them in the proper way”.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine since 2014 has triggered the greatest security crisis in Europe since the Cold War, so why is Moscow now upping the game even more by this huge military deployment? Seen from Moscow, the United States and its allies, while taking significant punitive actions against Russia in the past six years, have made little headway in helping to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This failure will have emboldened Putin, whose end goal is not to recreate the Soviet Union, although he described the break-up as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”, but to make Russia “great again”. Above all, he will do everything necessary to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.
But what can the West really do if Russia foments further aggravation in the Donbas region, leading to an invasion? Will it respond militarily (probably not) or will it simply increase sanctions? As Ukraine is not a member, NATO is under no obligation to defend it should Russia invade. Thirteen years have passed since the NATO summit in Bucharest when Ukraine was told it would become a member—and it’s still waiting. The elephant in the room continues to be Russia. Since 2008, Ukraine has been militarily attacked by Russia, losing many lives and considerable territory. But other than warm words, NATO has done nothing to help, concerned by what Russia might do in response. “From our point of view, if Ukraine joins NATO, it will only worsen the situation”, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov last week. “If you ask the opinion of several million people living in the self-republics (Donbas) you will see that for them NATO membership is deeply unacceptable”, he added menacingly.
Moscow’s current goal may simply be to intimidate Ukraine and put pressure on its western allies to back political concessions in order for Russia to freeze the conflict in Donbas. On the other hand, Moscow may have been putting the Biden administration on notice that Russia remains a formidable power, willing to project its power abroad. This signal appears to have been received, as last week the US European Command raised its threat level from “possible crisis” to “potential imminent crisis”, the highest level, in a sign that it views the situation to be more serious than just a show of strength.
A more likely reason for the build-up, however, is to do with internal Russian politics. There are parliamentary elections in September this year and the Kremlin is becoming increasingly worried about a repeat of the public humiliation it suffered in the 2019 Moscow elections. President Putin has made it clear that he wants his party to maintain its two-thirds supermajority in September, for which he will need to win 300 of the 450 seats in the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Parliament. Currently, the party’s poll numbers are hovering around 30%. Gone are the days when Putin could ensure the dominance of his party through traditional methods such as coercion of state employees, control over the media or the removal of opposition candidates. These methods are still there, but no longer seem to work (although “ballot-stuffing” is always a traditional fall-back). Putin knows that his 2014 intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea was immensely popular at home and a huge success for him personally, pushing his approval rating above 80%. Is he about to repeat this success in order to solve his “Duma” problem Margarita Simonyan, who on RT frequently reveals Putin’s thinking, gave the game away last week when she said: “4,000 extra troops pouring onto the border with Ukraine makes me very happy. Mother Russia, take Donbas home”.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.