In recent weeks, Russia has been massing troops on its border with Ukraine and in the territory of Crimea, which it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, moving forces from as far away as the Urals. Tensions in eastern Ukraine are nothing new – former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko used to regularly warn of an imminent Russian invasion – but the scale and ostentatiousness of the recent build-up is an unusual development, according to analysts.
The two countries have been at war for seven years, after a pro-Russian uprising in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine prompted Moscow to annex Crimea, while two breakaway regions bordering Russia – Luhansk and Donetsk – gained de facto independence. Although the war is rarely front-page news anymore, it continues to simmer, regularly causing casualties on both sides, as the latest escalation highlights.
The election of Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaking actor, to the Ukrainian presidency in 2019 briefly raised hopes that a resolution to the conflict could be reached. Zelensky has, however, largely refused solutions which would be acceptable to Russia and the separatists, such as a federal constitution granting autonomy to the country’s eastern regions.
There is little consensus on the reasons for Russia’s dispatch of forces to the border with Ukraine. Some experts such as Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, believe the movements may presage a new front in Russia’s now seven-year-long war with Ukraine. Others argue that the moves represent mere sabre-rattling from Russia, intended to test the mettle of the new Joe Biden administration and to pile pressure on Kyiv to make concessions towards Russia and the separatist authorities.
If the troop movements are a prelude to a fresh Russian invasion of Ukraine, possibly to secure the water supply to occupied Crimea (which has been a source of tension between the neighbouring countries since Ukraine dammed the Dnieper river in 2014, cutting off 90 per cent of the peninsula’s water supply), they have been conducted in an unusually visible manner. “These overt shifts in military posture and readiness appear to be primarily coercive and demonstrative in nature,” wrote military analyst Michael Kofman.
Moreover, an overt invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army would mean the Kremlin assuming responsibility for the war, which it officially denies a role in, claiming that the conflict is between Kyiv and the separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev has said that Moscow has “no plans” to intervene in Ukraine, though he added that Russia could take “concrete steps” depending on how the situation evolves.
[See also: Why Russia and Ukraine are still at war]
That Russia’s intentions are difficult to parse is no doubt part of the point. Menacing moves on the border of a country which the Kremlin has dismembered and been at war with for seven years intimidate Kyiv, even if they do not lead to an escalation in hostilities, says Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at Chatham House, a think tank. Another possibility would be that Ukraine overreacts to the developments on its borders, accidentally triggering an outbreak of active hostilities, in a similar manner to how Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili sparked a war with Russia in 2008, she adds.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Russia has for several years issued Russian passports to residents of Ukraine’s separatist-controlled regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine was in part justified by supposed threats from Kyiv towards Russian-speaking Ukrainians living in the east. Any further aggression from the Kremlin could conceivably be justified as a defence of the hundreds of thousands of newly minted Russian citizens living in breakaway Ukrainian territory.
Either way, the developments around eastern Ukraine are a reminder that the war in the country remains simmering and unresolved. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors the implementation of the so-called Minsk Agreements, ceasefire deals signed in 2014 and 2015, continues to report dozens of violations of the protocols every day. Ukrainian soldiers, perhaps 20 of them so far this year according to President Zelensky, continue to be killed on the front lines of what has been termed “Europe’s forgotten war”.
As for Ukraine’s allies in the West, a joint statement by France and Germany calling on “all sides to show restraint and work towards the immediate de-escalation of tensions” epitomises the diplomatic bind Ukraine finds itself in, equating the Russian side’s menacing posturing towards its neighbour with Ukraine’s defensive posture. Few in Kyiv still have any illusions about allies coming to their aid if Russia really did invade.