Russia's steady buildup of military forces along its border with Ukraine is raising concerns that Moscow, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and then began backing separatists in eastern Ukraine militarily — including with Russian troops — may be considering an overt military campaign against its southwestern neighbor.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks last week that the military had created four new divisions, nine brigades and 22 regiments since 2013 and deployed them in the Southern Military District, adjacent to southern Ukraine, as well as in Russia's restive North Caucasus region.
"In recent years, the military-political situation on the southwestern strategic direction has become more acute," Shoigu said in citing the rationale for Moscow's military buildup in the region. "Mainly, this is due to the growing military presence of NATO in eastern Europe, the situation in Ukraine and the activities of international terrorist groups, including in the North Caucasus."
In an interview with the newspaper Vedomosti, Russian military expert Ruslan Pukhov noted that along with reactivating the 1st Guards Tank Army in Russia's Western Military District, near its border with northern Ukraine, Moscow plans to form two other armored groups for deployment near the Ukrainian border.
According to Pukhov, along Russia's border with northern Ukraine "where three years ago there were absolutely no troops," Moscow seeks to deploy three major groups for forces "capable of, if the need arises, mounting a rapid attack in the direction of Kyiv, which is only 270 kilometers from the border through [the northern Ukrainian city of] Chernigov."
Further south, wrote Pukhov, Moscow wants to "create two powerful pincers to flank and strategically encircle the main group of the Ukrainian army in Left-bank Ukraine.” That is the historic name of the part of Ukraine on the east bank of the Dnieper River.
'Enemy' seen as easy target
An article that appeared last week in the Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye — a publication which frequently features material reflecting the official position of the Russian authorities — was headlined: "Ukraine has become Russia's strategic adversary: Moscow does not exclude the possibility of a major war."
Alexander Golts, an independent Russian military analyst who is a visiting researcher at Sweden's University of Uppsala, says it is not surprising that Ukraine is now openly being referred to in Russia as an "enemy."
"It is clear that Ukraine now is anything but a state friendly to Russia," he told VOA's Russian service. "In and of itself, the Ukrainian army, of course, is not a strategic problem for Russia. In Moscow, however, they are guided by phantom scenarios, in which Ukraine will eventually become part of NATO. One of Russia's excuses for its actions in Crimea and the Donbas is that it was acting to prevent Ukraine's possible entry into the North Atlantic alliance."
According to Golts, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu already considers Ukraine part of NATO.
In addition, some observers say there is a widespread belief among Russian military officials that Ukraine's capital Kyiv could be "taken easily and with little bloodshed."
Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian military reserve officer who heads the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, a Moscow-based research institution, told the newspaper Vzglyad back in April 2014 that the Russian army could be in Kyiv in "two or three days." Later that year, then-European Union Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was quoted as saying that President Vladimir Putin told him in a telephone call that he could "take Kyiv in two weeks."
Russian officials later claimed Putin's comments were taken out of context.
Golts said the comments about Russian forces easily taking the Ukrainian capital are not too far from the truth, but added, "The main problem is that a militaristic type of strategic thinking prevails in Russia today, unfortunately."
Global ‘challenge, threat’
Observers say such comments explain why Russia is widely accused of being aggressive and unpredictable.
Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter named Russia first among five global strategic challenges facing the United States. Around the same time, then-British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Russia represented "a challenge and a threat" because it "ignores the norms of international conduct and breaks the rules of the international system."
Russian liberal politician Leonid Gozman told VOA that bellicose Russian rhetoric should be taken "very seriously."
"You can argue about the truth of the specific assessments made by our specific international opponents concerning the level of threat from Russia," he said. "But, unfortunately, it is impossible [to ignore] that we annexed Crimea and support a hybrid war in the Donbas that has killed nearly 10,000 people, and who knows how many more will die."
‘Spiral of hate’
Still, Gozman expressed hope that the Russian government would not embark on something "as stupid as a direct war with Ukraine and the capture of Kyiv" — which, he said, would lead sooner or later to a "world war."
"We have treated Ukraine like an enemy, starting a war on its territory," Gozman said. "Citizens of Ukraine were killed at the hands of our volunteers and vacationers,” he added, referring to Russian military personnel who have fought alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, ostensibly volunteering during their vacations.
"Of course, Ukraine treats us accordingly," Gozman said. "It's a vicious circle, a spiral of hate. If we don't want that, we have to stop the war."