Two US warships are expected to arrive in the Black Sea this week as a demonstration of the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine as fears mount that Russian President Vladimir Putin is contemplating an assault on his neighbor.
The Kremlin is overseeing the largest movement of Russian troops, tanks and missiles along the Ukrainian border since the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, according to Ukrainian and US officials. Russia has conducted at least three military training exercises adjacent to the Ukrainian border since mid-March.
Last week, President Joe Biden made his first phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy since entering the White House and, according to a White House statement, “affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea.”
The dispatch of warships to the Black Sea is meant to underline Biden’s affirmation.
Fighting between Ukrainians and Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s Donbas region has been intensifying since the end of January, and senior Kremlin official Dmitry Kozak, who has blamed Ukraine for the clashes, has issued an ominous warning that a full-scale conflict would likely mean “the beginning of the end” for Ukraine, a statement viewed in Kyiv and Western capitals as a threat.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin chief spokesperson, has not disputed a military build-up is taking place, but he told reporters in Moscow that Russia “moves its armed forces around its territory at its discretion.” Ukrainian President Zelenskiy visited the Donbas frontlines last week and bewailed the “big escalation.”
A Ukrainian soldier was killed and another wounded in Donbas on Saturday, Ukrainian military officials said, which is the fourth combat-related fatality for Ukraine’s forces this month alone. The Ukrainians say the soldier died after Russian-sponsored forces opened fire with automatic grenade launchers and 82-millimeter mortars, weapons prohibited under the Minsk peace deal, a ceasefire protocol signed in 2014 that has been often ignored.
Twenty-six Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the Donbas since the beginning of 2021, although some were in non-combat-related accidents. On March 26, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in Russian shelling.
Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been contesting eastern Ukraine since shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, that occurred in the wake of a popular uprising that led to the ouster of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally. More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict.
Since his surprise election in 2019 to the presidency in Kyiv, Zelenskiy has been urging for a new round of peace talks involving other Western leaders. Shortly after his landslide election victory he appealed to Putin directly, saying in a video, “We need to talk? We do. Let's do it.” Later that year, the Kremlin and Kyiv agreed a prisoner swap, sparking hopes a peace deal might be in the offing, one that would halt the seven-year conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists backed by Russian forces.
Some Zelenskiy critics feared his search for peace would end up creating a permanent Russian enclave in Ukraine’s most easterly provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk. But Zelenskiy hasn't budged on the issue of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas, and has refused to accept, what he says, is a Russian charade when it comes to who controls and directs the pro-Moscow separatists.
Some observers hazard that recent Russian moves are an indication of Russian frustration with Zelenskiy, who has also been targeting Kremlin allies in Ukraine, including politician, tycoon and TV mogul Viktor Medvedchuk, a personal friend of the Russian leader. Medvedchuk, along with his wife, have been accused of channeling funds from a Russia-based oil facility to the so-called breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities have placed a freeze on his assets.
But analysts remain divided over what the Kremlin’s intentions are with the military buildup and are split over whether Putin really intends to launch a military offensive or is just testing the resolve of the West and Zelenskiy, improvising an exercise in brinkmanship to see what might happen.
“A large-scale invasion by conventional forces would represent a major escalation in Russia’s seven-year campaign of aggression against Ukraine,” according to Peter Dickinson, editor of Ukraine Alert, a regular newsletter of the Atlantic Council, a US-based think tank.
"Since fighting first erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin has sought to maintain a veil of plausible deniability by deploying limited numbers of conventional troops alongside hybrid forces of mercenaries, volunteers, and local collaborators. If the Russian army units gathering close to Ukraine are deployed, it would mark an entirely new stage in the conflict that would have grave implications for international security,” he wrote in the latest issue of Ukraine Alert.
What is alarming some Western diplomats and analysts is the fiery language being used by Kremlin officials along with the nature of the coverage of the crisis by Kremlin-controlled Russian media outlets. They are reporting Kyiv is planning an offensive on the Donbas and have been highlighting comments by Kozak, deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, suggesting Ukraine may be plotting ethnic cleansing in the Donbas.
Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, said Friday the Kremlin fears a resumption of full-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine and would be ready to take steps to protect Russian civilians in the Donbas. Ukraine’s military chief dismissed the Russian claims that his country’s armed forces are preparing to launch an attack on the breakaway east, and, along with other Ukrainian officials, accuses the Kremlin of looking for a pretext to mount an offensive.
“Everything suggests that Russia is preparing for a military incursion into Ukraine,” tweeted Sunday Anders Aslund, author of the book Russia's Crony Capitalism. “Putin always keeps his options open, but both the military moves & the Kremlin propaganda indicate that Russian military aggression is near,” he added.
But other analysts and diplomats caution that the Kremlin is whipping up a frenzy over the Donbas more for domestic reasons than international ones and that Putin is looking to distract Russians from the ongoing agitation for the release from jail of firebrand opposition figure Alexey Navalny, whose health is reported to have worsened in prison.
They say the military buildup may be part of an electoral strategy ahead of parliamentary elections in Russia September. Putin’s approval ratings are falling, and his United Russia political party seems destined for setbacks in the polls. Shaping an emergency short of a full-scale war could boost the prospects of United Russia, allowing the party to benefit from a wave of patriotism, they say.
Taras Kuzio, an academic at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, doesn’t believe the Kremlin is preparing Russia to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine “because that would lead to a long war and the complete breakdown of Russia’s relations with the West.”
Although he doesn’t discount the Kremlin may want a brief but limited clash and has suggested the Kremlin may be thinking of repeating what happened in 2008 in Georgia when then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili fell into a trap and responded to provocations from South Ossetia, another separatist region, and intervened, prompting a Russian intervention.