By Ostap Yarysh and Myroslava Gongadze
Russia’s troop buildup along the Ukrainian border is drawing alarm from U.S. officials who are warning of a potential new invasion. Ukrainian officials estimate 90,000 Russian troops are now positioned along the border and in Russian-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine.
The issue topped the agenda earlier this month when Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, that Washington was monitoring the situation “very closely.”
“We’re concerned by reports of unusual Russian military activity,” Blinken said at the State Department.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine is prepared. He met at the Pentagon last week with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“Our intelligence, American intelligence, United Kingdom intelligence, they do their job. We’ve compared the search and we see the same picture. We’ve been living in this hybrid war with Russia for eight years. So for us, it’s not a surprise,” said Reznikov in an interview with VOA.
During his meeting with Secretary Austin, Reznikov asked for American support.
“I want to reassure you, as President (Joe) Biden said to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy: our support for Ukraine’s self-defense, sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering,” said Austin. He also stressed the need to deepen U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation in such areas as Black Sea security, cyber defense, and intelligence sharing.
An attack on Ukraine would likely involve airstrikes, artillery and armor attacks followed by airborne assaults in the east, amphibious assaults in Odessa and Mariupul and a smaller incursion through neighboring Belarus, Ukraine Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov told the Military Times newspaper Saturday morning in an exclusive interview.
On Monday, Russia’s spy agency released a statement dismissing allegations that Moscow is planning an invasion.
Russian news agencies carried the statement accusing Washington of spreading “absolutely false information on the concentration of forces on the territory of our country for the military invasion of Ukraine.”
Security analysts are studying satellite images, social media posts and other open sources for information about where the troops are located and what they are planning.
“A few additional Russian units have deployed closer to the Ukrainian border, most notably about a battalion of what we believe is Russia’s fourth tank division, which is normally based around Moscow,” said Mason Clark, lead Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, in an interview with VOA.
Clark says that according to this data, the current movement of the military equipment is smaller than in spring 2020 but that it is possible U.S. intelligence has more information.
“U.S. intelligence briefings and warnings to its allies may be based on Russian movements that we are not able to see in the open sources,” says Clark. At the same time, he doesn’t assess that a new Russian offensive would serve Putin’s goal.
“A major offensive operation would likely impose significant costs,” explains Clark, “… delaying the certification of Nord Stream 2, sparking increased deployments by NATO or other European forces into Ukraine. And it likely would be a fairly high-cost operation. The Ukrainian military of 2021 is not the Ukrainian military of 2014.”
Nord Stream 2 is a pipeline that will link Russia and Germany. Ukraine opposes the project, saying it will increase Europe’s energy reliance on Russia.
Meanwhile, Alexander Vershbow, who served as a NATO deputy secretary-general and U.S. ambassador to Russia, argues that no one can be sure that Putin will act rationally when it comes to Ukraine.
“Putin may feel that he has to take greater risks to prevent Ukraine from succeeding in its efforts to join the West. And so because this is about Mr. Putin, his legacy, and his self-image as the gatherer of Russian lands, he may take action that doesn’t seem entirely logical from our point of view,” Vershbow said in an interview with VOA.
Vershbow said that in addition to seizing new Ukrainian territories, the Kremlin could prepare other scenarios like annexing the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics in occupied eastern Ukraine.
“For example, Putin could declare the Ukrainians as having brought the Minsk negotiations to a dead end and announce that Russia has no choice but to protect the poor Russian citizens in the occupied territories,” says Vershbow.
The Minsk accord was designed to stop the bloodshed between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, the war has led to the deaths of around 14,000 people.
Clark believes that the movement of Russian troops could also create a basis for military operations in the future.
“A lot of Russian troops that should be based near Kazakhstan are now in western Russia, and may pose a longer term threat to either Belarus, Ukraine or any of NATO’s eastern flank at the same time,” he said.
Experts agree that support from both the United States and Europe at this moment is vital for Ukraine. Defense Minister Reznikov is confident about that support for his country.
“We’re ready”, said Reznikov. “Our military is ready, but we need united help from all [of the] civilized world. We have no time to fear. We need time to be prepared for resilience.”