By Jamie Dettmer
Russia has not let up with a military build-up along the border with Ukraine since U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin held a two-hour video conference earlier this month, say Western security sources.
Despite Biden warning in his talks with Putin that Russia would pay a “terrible price” in the event it invades Ukraine, the forward-deployment of hundreds of Russian tanks, howitzers, self-propelled artillery and tens of thousands of troops has not been reversed.
Two days after the presidents talked, motorized infantry units from St. Petersburg were relocated to a camp east of Kursk, 100 kilometers from the Ukraine border, according to Janes, a global open-source intelligence company based in Britain. Twenty-four hours after Biden and Putin spoke, a social-media user posted video showing Buk missile systems and armored vehicles arriving at a train station in the Russian city of Voronezh.
Russian military build-up
Some units positioned within striking distance of Ukraine over the past few weeks and months have come as far away as Siberia and the border with Mongolia, including elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army, say independent military monitors. Units from 1st Guards Tank Army, normally based in the Moscow region, have also been moved in recent weeks.
But U.S. intelligence officials, along with European security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say they do not believe an invasion is imminent. They say some key logistics they would expect to see are not in place yet, including more fuel and ammunition stockpiles. They calculate Russia has anything from 70,000 to 100,000 troops already deployed, but expect a combined force of around 175,000 to be amassed ahead of any incursion, if Putin decides to launch an attack on Ukraine.
European leaders have been maintaining a drumbeat of warnings to Russia. The European Union has also told the Kremlin there will be severe consequences in the event of a further military incursion into Ukraine in a rehash of 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and Russia used proxy pro-Moscow separatists to seize a large part of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.
Re-positioned Russian units over the past few months have been amassed around Yelnya, Voronezh and Persianovka, all within 100 to 300 kilometers of Ukraine. And elements from the 49th and 58th Armies, which moved from their bases in the Caucasus region to the Crimea earlier this year, have not been returned to their home bases, say Western military officials.
On Sunday, Germany’s new defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, dubbed Russia “the aggressor,” adding, “we must exhaust all possibilities to stop an escalation. That also means threats of hard sanctions.
And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy repeated his call for Western powers to impose “preventive sanctions” on Russia to deter it from aggression.
“There should be powerful, serious preventive sanctions in order to exclude a scenario of [Russian] escalation in any region, because this not only concerns Ukraine,” he said.
But splits persist among Western powers over assessments of Putin’s intentions.
Last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi downplayed the risk of Russian military action, citing the video call between Putin and Biden as demonstrating the Kremlin wants to explore diplomacy and isn’t preparing “for action.”
“The fact that there was this call, the fact that Putin sought out Biden by phone shows that he wants to be part of the decision-making process,” Draghi told Italian lawmakers.
Russian security proposal
Italian officials fear the talk about an impending war risks taking on a life of its own, impacting and shaping the behavior of Russia and the United States. They also point to the draft security treaties Russia presented to the U.S. last week as indicating a willingness for further talks.
The draft treaties outline an expansive set of “security guarantees” the Kremlin is seeking, including a ban on any further expansion eastwards of NATO and a commitment by the alliance to refrain from deploying additional troops to countries that did not already have NATO forces present before 1997, including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and several other former Soviet republics.
While the United States and its NATO allies have said they are willing to enter talks with Russia, if the Kremlin draws down troop levels along its border with Ukraine, Western diplomats say there are no prospects that the Russian proposals are acceptable in their present form.
“We are clear that any dialogue with Russia would have to proceed on the basis of reciprocity, address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions, be based on the core principles and foundational documents of European security, and take place in consultation with NATO’s European Partners,” NATO said in a statement Friday.
Some observers are skeptical that Putin has any intentions of backing off his maximalist demands and suspect he will continue with what they see as “coercive diplomacy,” using the threat of war to keep the West and Ukraine on tenterhooks.
“Putin is not threatened by NATO expansion,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
“Mighty Russia is not threatened by NATO expansion. NATO has never and will never attack Russia. Putin has reinvented this so-called threat to justify his latest coercive diplomacy… and maybe escalated military intervention in Ukraine,” he added.
But Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy expert, says the Kremlin has reached “the point where the long-standing controversy over NATO enlargement must somehow be resolved” and is willing to raise the geo-political stakes with the West until there’s a resolution to its long-standing objection to the Western alliance creeping closer to Russia’s borders.
Putin is determined at the very least to engineer “a radical revision” requiring an acceptance of his red lines, which include the ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine, a reference to the neutrality Moscow imposed on neighboring Finland after World War II.
Writing in the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, Lukyanov said: “The European idea after the end of the Cold War that any country should just be allowed to do whatever it wants, regardless of its location, is historically new.” And the Kremlin fears Ukraine “moving inexorably toward the West,” he says.