‘Potential imminent crisis’ Russian military exercises near Ukraine’s borders provoke concern from Kyiv and Washington as tensions escalate in Donbas
The war in eastern Ukraine, which is now in its seventh year, saw its deadliest incident of 2021 last Friday when four Ukrainian servicemen were killed. This latest escalation comes amid a gradual erosion of the ceasefire that’s been in place since last July. Both Kyiv and Moscow have acknowledged that tensions are on the rise in the region, though the Kremlin continues to shift any and all blame on to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Kyiv and Washington’s top brass are sounding the alarm over the apparent build up of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. Moscow maintains that these are routine military movements that “should not concern anyone.”
A recent and serious escalation of the situation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas has become the topic of active discussion since March 26, when four Ukrainian servicemen were killed and two more were wounded near the village of Shumy in the Donetsk region. Kyiv stated that the soldiers were killed as a result of mortar shelling by Russian-backed forces from the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). The self-proclaimed authorities in Donetsk denied any involvement in shelling, maintaining that the Ukrainian soldiers were killed by a landmine.
According to The New York Times, last Friday’s “exchange of artillery and machine-gun fire in the Donetsk region was unusual in that it lasted most of a day.” But it wasn’t the first sign of a renewed increase in tension in eastern Ukraine: according to European observers, the Russian-backed side has also been seen with new weaponry in recent weeks.
“Unfortunately, since the start of 2021 we are observing a growing escalation,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed on March 26. “That which was restored with such difficulty and bit by bit for almost a year can be destroyed in a second. The exacerbation of the situation is especially noticeable against the backdrop of the first months of the ceasefire.”
Three days later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also confirmed the growing tension in the region, but he shifted the responsibility for the escalation to Ukraine, emphasizing that “the Ukrainians absolutely reject the idea of any dialogue with [the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics].” Russian President Vladimir Putin last addressed the conflict a month and a half ago (prior to this latest escalation) — during a television broadcast on Rossiya 24 in mid-February, he promised that “we will not abandon Donbas. In spite of everything.”
On March 30, the Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, Ruslan Khomchak, told the Ukrainian parliament that Russia is building up troops near Ukraine’s state borders in the north, east, and south, as well as “in Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territories and in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.” According to Khomchak, Russia is maintaining 28 battalion tactical groups along the border with Ukraine. He also added that Russia is building up troops under the pretext of conducting military exercises, and is expected to deploy an additional 25 battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s borders. The Ukrainian parliament responded with a statement asserting the beginning of a new “escalation of the conflict’ and demanding an end “to armed provocations by the armed formations of the Russian Federation.”
The Russian Defense Ministry did indeed announce the start of a series of drills near Ukraine’s borders in mid-March. A week-long bilateral command post exercise began on March 11, “with combined-arms formations of the army stationed in the Smolensk, Voronezh, Kursk, Belgorod, Bryansk, and Moscow regions,” reported spokespeople for Russia’s Western Military District. Military drills were announced in Crimea on March 18–19, with the arrival of paratroopers, marines, and heliborne troops. These exercises involved the participation of 2,000 military personnel and 500 pieces of military equipment (they even closed the Crimean Bridge, albeit briefly). And in Russia’s Southern Military District, Air Defense drills that include live firing exercises of Tor and Buk missile systems are being conducted at the Kapustin Yar training ground until mid-April.
While American strategists had expected Russia’s troops to leave the area around Ukraine’s border after the conclusion of a military exercise on March 23, there are still about 4,000 Russian troops in the region, the New York Times reported. As a result, the head of U.S. European Command, General Tod D. Wolters, has raised the American military’s watch level from “possible crisis” to “potential imminent crisis” (the highest level).
CBS News reported that according to a U.S. defense official, “the locations and types of units seen on the ground didn't line up with what the Russian Ministry of Defense had announced last month.”
However, according to The New York Times, there is no consensus in Washington on what Russia is trying to achieve with these exercises, or about what to expect from Moscow going forward: “Some officials believe Russia is mostly engaging in saber rattling and is not eager to renew its offensive. Others are more worried, believing that Mr. Putin’s intentions are not clear and that an operation meant to test a new president [Joe Biden] could quickly escalate into something more ominous.”
On April 1, a Pentagon official confirmed that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley had discussed the current situation during a phone call with General Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s military general staff, as well as with Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak. During the call with Russia, the U.S. side attempted to obtain “a little more clarity about what exactly is going on.” The Pentagon’s spokesperson didn’t specify whether or not they succeeded.
That same day, a journalist from the Ukrainian outlet Unian asked Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov to comment on the build-up of Russian military presence on the borders with Ukraine. “The Russian Federation transfers the Armed Forces on its soil as it wants to. This should not concern anyone and this is not posing any threat to anyone,” Peskov replied.
“The Russian Federation is taking all the necessary measures to ensure security of its frontiers,” the Kremlin’s spokesman continued. “Along the perimeter of Russia’s borders there is increased activity of the armed forces of NATO countries, other associations, individual countries, and so on and so forth. This obliges us to be on alert.”
As for the recent escalation in Ukraine’s Donbas, Peskov reiterated claims about Russia’s non-involvement, referring to the conflict as a “civil war” (a longstanding Kremlin talking point). “As for the participation of Russian troops in the armed conflict on Ukraine’s soil, Russian troops have never taken part in it and are not participating now,” he emphasized. According to Peskov, Russia has no desire to see the war in Donbas “flare up again,” “as a result of provocations and provocative steps by Ukraine’s military.”