The first serious build-up of Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern borders took place in March 2014. “In connection with the destabilisation in Ukraine,” the Russian Federation conducted urgent exercises in the Kursk, Belgorod, Rostov, and Bryansk regions, while the occupation of Crimea was going on in parallel. After these manoeuvers held in the regions bordering Ukraine, they began to reactivate military bases, which had been abandoned since Soviet times. Thus, the contingent on the potential “Ukrainian front” began to grow (three new, motorised infantry divisions with a permanent location near Ukraine were deployed in three border regions). In the summer of 2014, these troops were partially used during the hostilities in Donbas. Their warehouses became a resource for arming the “militia” of the self-proclaimed republics.
In 2014 and all subsequent years, NATO intelligence and Ukrainian special services warned of a possible Russian invasion of areas outside Donbas. Different directions of the attack were named. The first one was the southern “corridor” from Mariupol to Odesa, which would deprive Ukraine of access to the sea and solve the issue of providing Crimea with fresh water. The second was a march on Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhia, which would take away a significant part of Ukraine’s scientific and industrial potential. And finally, the invasion from the northern Chernihiv direction (and with it from Belarus) – the shortest way to Kyiv and the key to the occupation, if not all, then at least the Left-Bank Ukraine and a return to the map of the 18th century.
According to Lieutenant General Mykhailo Zabrodsky, a former airborne commander and now an MP from the European Solidarity party, four components – informational, political, economic, and military – are important to modern warfare. If you look at the current situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border, the most noticeable are two components – military (build-up of troops) and informational. After the victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election, there was a slight decrease in the level of propaganda on Russian TV channels; however, as he began to move away from pacifist rhetoric, calls for “Ukraine’s liberation from the fascist regime” intensified significantly. If we watch some of the most popular Russian TV shows, there is no doubt that Russian citizens are morally prepared for the need for war against Ukraine. The motives remain the same: to prevent NATO enlargement, to protect the Russian-speaking population, and to establish historical justice in relation to “one people.” If we imagine a situation where Russian troops are ordered to cross the Ukrainian border, public opinion in Russia will be ready for it, and the majority of the population will approve such a decision by the authorities (as it was during the occupation of Crimea or the war against Georgia in 2008).
As for the military component, there are about 100,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. This is about the same number that was concentrated during the previous aggravation in April 2021. Both then and now, Moscow’s explanations were of the same type: we are sending troops across our territory, where we consider it necessary;, we are not preparing an invasion of Ukraine. Of course, such assurances do not reassure anyone. Western intelligence, independent think tanks andmedia outlets have repeatedly warned of the possibility of a new wave of Russian aggression against Ukraine. A recent study by the Conflict Intelligence Team found that this time Russia is withdrawing troops slowly but more covertly (most movements occur at night), and the military build-up is difficult to explain by the rearmament of troops stationed there. Analysts said Russia could accumulate enough troops to invade Ukraine early next year.
Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, shares the same opinion. According to him, Russia may go on the offensive in January-February 2022. The military component will be ready by then. “Russia is preparing an attack, preceded by a series of psychological operations already underway in order to destabilise Ukraine and undermine its ability to defend itself, including protests against COVID-19 vaccination and “Wagnergate.” They want to stir up riots with protests and rallies that show that people are against the government,” Budanov said in an interview with Military Times.
For the invasion, a certain number of troops is not enough (in this sense, Russia always has a significant advantage). The important thing is casus belli. Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and others often repeat the thesis of “NATO provocations” in Ukraine. By this, the Kremlin understands joint exercises in the Black Sea or the use of Bayraktar drones by the Ukrainian military. It follows that any joint manoeuvers s, acquisition and use of weapons made in NATO countries can be regarded by Russia as “aggression of the West,” and then the invasion will be conditioned by “the prevention of NATO insidious plans.” In fact, this happened in recent Soviet history: the introduction of troops into Afghanistan in 1979 was justified by the need to “get ahead of the Americans.” However, a more convincing argument for a new phase of the war could still be the destabilisation within Ukraine itself, which Kyrylo Budanov speaks of. Serious street riots can create a convenient information pretext – another political crisis occurs in Ukraine, so Moscow is going to “save” it. But protests or Wagnergate are insufficient reasons. Full-fledged separatist uprisings of the 2014 model are also unlikely to happen, because the Ukrainian special services learned to counteract such insidious scenarios at the “embryonic” stage.
The economic argument for aggression may be based on the fact that the Ukrainian gas transportation system is no longer playing a strategic role in Russia’s energy exports. Consequently, another obstacle to invasion is removed. However, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline remains uncommissioned. Military aggression against Ukraine is unlikely to accelerate the start of this project, so the build-up of troops may be just a “muscle game” in the bidding for gas exports to Europe.
Thus, it can be stated that among the four components of invasion, the Russians have prepared only two well: military and informational. Political and economic ones remain insufficiently rolled out. At the same time, the build-up of troops and weapons near Ukraine’s borders is also a test of the readiness of Ukrainian partners to help it in the event of Russian aggression. The reaction of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom demonstrate that these countries have drawn conclusions since 2014 and are ready to act more decisively and strengthen Ukraine’s defence capabilities. Paris and Berlin remain more moderate in their assessments and actions, but they also speak of the inadmissibility of further aggression and new sanctions if it increases.
If the concentration of Russian troops turns out to be another attempt “to play on nerves” and a mobilisation measure of the BARS (combat army reserve) system, then this will become the next stage of a new Cold War, which may be periodically accompanied by provocations and low-intensity conflicts such as the current hostilities in Donbas.