Moscow has loudly protested against Western talk of a possible invasion of Ukraine, but at the same time continues preparing for a possible military clash with Nato.
The Kremlin has denied any intention of attacking Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the west of whipping up “hysteria” with the accusations that Russia is moving up its military to the Ukraine’s border with the intent of attacking.
As bne IntelliNews military expert Gav Don reported this week Russia has redeployed forces to positions closer to Ukraine and could invade and easily take eastern Ukraine, but would have a much more difficult job taking western Ukraine and holding it without great loss of life and big political problems. Experts say that an frontal invasion by Russian forces of Ukraine is highly unlikely, but that has not stopped tensions rapidly increasing in recent weeks.
The fears suddenly appeared after the US intelligence services shared reports with the US press at the end of October and have been actively pushing the line since. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the situation is as “dangerous as 2014” and that “we don't know what Russia’s intentions are but we know what they have done in the past,” referring to the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
And the tensions have risen to the point where the ruble has sold off against the dollar, losing five rubles in a week, which the Russian stock market has also sold off by over 100 points, giving up much of its gains this year.
Kremlin has started to hit back, virulently denying the invasion accusations. "Who will attack whom? [Will it be] Russia against Ukraine or Ukraine against Russia? American and Ukrainian media outlets keep claiming that Russia is gearing up for hostility against Ukraine, for an attack but we say that Ukraine is planning belligerent actions against Donbas, the LPR and the DPR [Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics]. This is the nuance that has to be understood and interpreted properly," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week.
Russia has moved up several powerful military formations to positions in its western and southern military districts that abut Ukraine, but more sober assessments suggest that one of the Kremlin’s goals may be to signal the Kremlin’s unease with the increasing military aid that is being given to Ukraine and to highly the “red lines” that Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined in recent speeches.
The redeployments could also be connected to beefing up Russia’s western defensive and as a response to increased Nato military exercises, especially those currently underway in the Black Sea.
Russia’s concerns were thrown into sharper relief after Ukraine used a newly purchased Turkish military strike drones against a rebel artillery position in the Donbas conflict for the first time this month. At the same time the Ukrainian Defence Ministry reported it had used a state-of-the-art US-supplied Javelin missile this week for the first time.
Kremlin says no plans to attack
The current fears of a Russian attack came out of the blue at the end of October when t he Washington Post reported information supplied by the US intelligence services. The US government has since then been actively pushing the story since then with further ardent warnings and dramatic statements. However, most of the comments are couched in uncertain terms.
“We don't know what Russia’s intent is, but we do know what they have done in the past,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has flatly denied these claims saying that the US is deliberately trying to provoke the Kremlin.
“This hysteria is being artificially whipped up,” he said in comments broadcast on state TV, adding that the Blinken’s statements not “logical or polite”.
“We are being accused of some kind of unusual military activity on our territory by those who have brought in their armed forces from across the ocean. That is, the United States of America.”
Ukraine itself seems relatively unconcerned. Ukraine’s border guards reported two weeks ago that it doesn't see any unusual activity on its border and pointed out that one of biggest Russian formations was at Yelnya that is on the Belarusian, not Ukrainian, border.
“Forces are on the move, but so far nothing to explain the pitch of the American language (which implies they are working from some secret intelligence),” bne IntelliNews contributor and well known pundit Mark Galeotti said in a recent Moscow Times comment. “Even according to Ukrainian military intelligence (GUR), there are only 40 BTGs currently around its borders, up from October’s tally, but lower than September’s (51), let alone April’s (53). That’s fewer than 40,000 soldiers — a BTG typically has a complement of 700-900 — although GUR chief Kyrylo Budanov claimed the total figure was actually 92,000.”
Ukraine’s National Guard, National Police, Armed Forces, and border guards did launch a big military exercise this week, but it was held on the Belarusian border to preempt any Middle Eastern migrant attempts to illegally cross over, rather than any defensive preparation against an imminent Russian invasion.
Experts remain fairly unanimous that no attack is imminent. Reuters spoke to more than a dozen sources, including Western intelligence officials and Russians familiar with Kremlin thinking, and nearly all agreed that an invasion is unlikely to be imminent.
A more plausible scenario, they said, was that Putin is using the credible threat of military force to signal that Russia is serious about defending its "red lines" on Ukraine. It has stated numerous times in recent weeks that it is not prepared to accept the supply of Nato weapons to Ukraine or any Nato military presence there, let alone the prospect of eventual Ukrainian membership of the alliance.
Putin, these sources told Reuters, is adept at escalating and de-escalating crises - as he did in the spring, when more than 100,000 Russian troops gathered near Ukraine's border and subsequently pulled back. In this way, he is keeping Russia's opponents guessing about his intentions and reminding the West that Russia is a force to be reckoned with.
In public the Kremlin has said it is alarmed by a Western push to supply Ukraine with high-tech weapons that it claims are being used by Kyiv to provoke Moscow in a “small war,” including in a conversation Putin had with Council of Europe’s President Charles Michel last week.
“Kyiv is itself building up its forces, Kyiv is being helped to build up its forces, Kyiv is being supplied with a significant amount of weapons, including modern high-tech weapons,” Peskov told reporters. “The number of provocations is growing and growing significantly. What’s more, these provocations are being carried out with weapons being supplied by Nato countries. And we are observing this with great alarm.”
What the kremlin seems to be most afraid of is that with the new weapons Kyiv is receiving that it will try and attempt to retake the Donbas by force. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected partly on a platform of ending the war in Donbas but has made almost no progress. As he faces re-election campaign next year the pressure is on the Ukrainian president to do something.
The Kyiv authorities’ belligerent rhetoric indicates “their wish to send the Donbas conflict into a hot phase,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a news conference on at the start of this week, while commenting on media reports Kyiv has for the first time used US anti-tank systems Javelin in the southeast of Ukraine.
"I have not heard this news. I have seen no reports. In principle, over the past weeks and months we have seen a heavy mind-flow from the Ukrainian leadership, in particular, military officials, a flow of thoughts generated by deranged and for this reason very dangerous minds. That this belligerent rhetoric is being stepped up apparently reflects the wish to stage some provocation and to send the conflict into a hot phase," Lavrov said in reply to a TASS question.
"Warmongering is the only word I can think of to describe Kyiv’s aggressive plans. They are threatening to use the Javelin and they have already used the Bayraktar [Turkish drone]. They have never said they did that accidentally. Its use is categorically outlawed under the Minsk agreements. They declared that with pride. There was some sort of confusion at the beginning. First, they said, ‘yes, it did happen’. Then they denied it, ‘no, there was nothing of the sort’. But eventually they acknowledged it and said that they would continue to use attack drones in Donbas, thus defying their commitments under the Minsk Deal once again," Lavrov said.
Is the US escalating?
Peskov said Russia wanted Nato to stop "concentrating a military fist" near Russia's own borders and to stop arming Ukraine with modern weapons. The Kremlin said in September that Nato would cross a Russian “red line” if it expanded its military infrastructure in Ukraine.
If the Kremlin is to be believed, then it see the US as the one escalating the situation by increasing military supplies to Kyiv and also holding provocative exercise in theaters like the Black Sea and Estonia.
Putin said during the recent Valdai Discussion Club meeting in October 2021: “The formal membership [of Ukraine] in Nato may fail to take place, but the military development of the territory is already underway. And this really creates a threat to the Russian Federation.”
Well known analyst Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, phrased it even more colourfully, saying the Kremlin could not accept Ukraine as a “giant unsinkable aircraft carrier parked on Russia’s border.”
Moscow is especially alarmed by Ukraine’s acquisition of Turkish Bayraktar combat drones, which were used to devastating effect in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh in 2020.
Kyiv used the drone for the first time this month, knocking out a rebel control artillery unit and this week Kyiv said they plan to buy more drones in 2022. Putin called the drones an escalation that could only “further destabilise the conflict in the Donbas.”
And Ukraine announced last week it will buy another batch of Turkish Bayraktar drones for its armed forces next year, Interfax Ukraine reported, citing the country’s defense minister. Ukraine already purchased six Bayraktar TB2 armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 2019 and three ground control station systems from Turkey.
To pour oil on the flames last week CNN reported, citing unnamed sources in the White House, that the Biden administration is considering sending a new packages of arms, including more Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger air defense missiles and military advisers, to Ukraine due to the rise in tensions.
Peskov has alreaqdy cleaimed that new military advisers and weapons systems are arriving in Ukraine “not only from the U.S. but other NATO countries.” Sweden and the UK have both said they would send military advisors.
“This all leads to further escalation,” the state-run TASS news agency quoted Peskov as saying.
Tensions are also high in the Black Sea where Nato allies have been carrying on naval exercises since the spring. Those tensions came to a high when the UK’s HMS Defender deliberately sailed into the waters off Crimea challenging Russia’s control. Russia responded by firing warning shots in the worst military confrontation between a Nato member and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Putin also accused the US this week of running an exercise to rehearse a nuclear attack on Russia, flying nuclear capable bombers 20km from the Russian border. The Pentagon dismissed Russia’s comments on nuclear tests, saying its drills were announced publicly at the time and adhered to international protocols, but didn't deny Putin’s accusation.
This week Russia has responded in kind with unscheduled naval exercises in the Black Sea where combined naval and aviation forces practises strikes against “an enemy.”
The crews of Russia’s Southern Military District’s fighters and the Black Sea Fleet’s combat ships delivered a joint strike against a hypothetical enemy’s warships during drills in the Black Sea this week, the Fleet’s press office reported on November 24.
"The crews of Su-27SM3 and Su-30M2 fighters of the Southern Military District’s mixed aviation unit stationed in the Krasnodar Region performed training flights over the Black Sea. As a specific feature of this stage of the training flights, the fighters’ crews practiced cohesion in joint operations to deliver strikes against enemy surface targets," the press office said in a statement as cited by TASS.
In the course of the drills, the fighters’ pilots practiced thwarting an enemy air attack on a naval base. They also honed the skills of performing aerobatic maneuvers and tactical techniques to intercept and attack aerial targets and carry out anti-jamming measures, the press office said.
Russia has also announced that it continues to roll out new hardware that is designed to counter the perceived Nato threat.
Russia’s new state-of-the-art S-550 and S-500 surface-to-air missile systems will jointly defend strategically important Russian facilities from missiles and space threats, a source close to the Russian Defense Ministry told TASS this week. The S-500 system is regarded as highly effective and can effectively counter Nato missile strikes.
Another source told TASS that Russia was about to resume test-launches of Russia’s new Tsirkon hypersonic missile from submarine in 2024. Putin showcased these new weapons in a sci-fi like presentation during his state of the nation speech. Russia claims that the thanks to their speed they effectively negate at a stroke all of the US’ anti-missile defences as they can arrive at their target before the US forces are able to react.
China also reportedly took the US intelligence community by surprise in the last week by also launching a test hypersonic missile that circled the plant once before releasing a missile to hit a target in the South China Sea, technology that the US intelligence committee did not know China possessed, according to reports.
One of the side effects of the current tensions is to drive Russia and China even closer together. Moscow deems the US and EU sanctions to be a "manifestation of unfair competition that aims to impede the technological and economic development, primarily of Russia and China"