Social media users stirred alarm as they shared images that reveal an ongoing Russian build-up along its shared border with Ukraine.
Eastern Europe is witnessing a significant spike in tensions between Russia and Ukraine, as fears of a revived conflict spread.
After the Russian invasion of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Ukranian military and pro-Russian separatists within the country have fought an ongoing battle. The skirmishes have been primarily taking place since 2014 in Donbass, the ethnically-Russian eastern region of Ukraine. The ongoing low-intensity conflict is believed to have taken the lives of at least 14,000 people.
Military strategists note that Russia’s use of ‘Little Green Men’ is a form of hybrid warfare that minimises detection and maximises deniability. Only a week earlier, four Ukranian soldiers were killed by heavy artillery in Donbass, suggesting that the separatists enjoy access to heavy firepower, beyond the norm for guerilla insurgents.
With none to turn to, Ukraine is facing the challenge head on. In March, Ukraine’s foremost military commander Ruslan Khomchak said that the Russian encroachment was a threat to NATO and Ukraine. In the past, Ukraine has considered joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but backs down after strong Russian threats promising it will never accept a NATO-member state on its border.
Khomchak also warned of a steady concentration of Russian soldiers and heavy equipment along the border.
Within Russia, the Kommersant national newspaper reported that the military deliveries to the Ukraine were large enough to disrupt the civilian movement of goods via rail such as agricultural tractors ahead of the spring harvest.
The United States has also expressed concern that a renewed outbreak of conflict will occur, particularly after the expiry of a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine on April 1.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been characterised by multiple ceasefires, with both sides claiming its violation by their adversary multiple times.
While it’s difficult to pin down the precise day when the concentration began, a number of open source videos and images seem to show heavy armour, mobile artillery emplacements, and tank destroyers on trains headed to the Ukraine. The images and videos began emerging on Twitter as early as March 27. Other sightings include large driven convoys bearing soldiers, and aircraft squadrons flying towards the south-east.
Russian military equipment on the Crimean Bridge. 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzers, various trucks, BMP-3 IFVs.— Status-6 (@Archer83Able) March 31, 2021
Armavir, Krasnodar Krai. BMP-2 IFVs, T-72 tanks, trucks.— Status-6 (@Archer83Able) March 31, 2021
A chain of the Russian military helicopters over the Rostov Oblast yesterday. pic.twitter.com/eoFadpYDJ7— Status-6 (@Archer83Able) March 31, 2021
Документально подтверждённые факты передвижения военной техники ВС РФ (по жд) (учения либо передислокация) по территории России. pic.twitter.com/O4P7jOXyGp— Записки охотника (@galandecZP) March 27, 2021
Filmed on the 27th of march 2021.— Mikhail D. (@Eire_QC) March 30, 2021
#CRIMEA: A citizen managed to film for a short moment, a train transporting what looks like 2S19 MSTA-S Self-Propelled Howitzers and a BMP in Kerch. Filmed on the 27th of march. #Russia pic.twitter.com/GqpesaBehG— Mikhail D. (@Eire_QC) March 30, 2021
Other heavy armour witnessed included a company of self-propelled howitzers, and weaponised infantry carriers crossing the Kerch bridge, connecting Russia to in Crimea.
Earlier in the month, soldiers and heavy armor were observed around the time of a scheduled drill. Many of the soldiers who participated did not return home after it ended on March 23.
Other reports indicate that troops involved with the drills deployed outside of the announced exercise zone, along with other new troops.
Ukrainian General Khomchak warned his nation’s parliament that he expects another 25 military groups to concentrate at the border against them.
He also reported that Russia has already entrenched 32,700 soldiers in Crimea since seizing the land from Ukraine in 2014. Boots on the ground are not all that Russia’s brought to the brewing battle, with multiple new fixed air, sea and ground missile emplacements throughout Crimea. In an increasingly grim situation for Ukraine, Russia also indirectly commands 28,000 separatists in the Russian-majority Ukranian province of Donbass. The separatists have successfully maintained a low-intensity campaign against Kiev since 2015.
Although Russia denies any connection to the separatist forces, recent evidence presented by Bellingcat indicates a sizable majority of the soldiers are actually Russian infantry units.
A graphic developed by the OSCE, which gives a sense of the front between Ukraine and the separatists.
Throughout this, Russia’s endgame is still not apparent. The OSCE says the two countries failed to renew their last ceasefire. Ukraine blames Russia for the breakdown, claiming 25 of its soldiers were killed this year alone.
One explanation for the build-up is that Russia is projecting deterrence against a possible Ukranian offensive targeting the separatist stronghold of Donbass. But war also presents opportunity to the victor. Russia could make use of any offensive as an opportunity to resume hostilities and try to force the secession of Donbass.
The Russian aggression could be linked to verbal blows exchanged by US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladmir Putin earlier in the month. President Biden called his Russian counterpart a “killer” and promised he would “pay” for Russian interference in the US 2020 elections, something Russia denies.
President Putin responded with visible anger and disdain to the statement. Internally, the military build-up could be a distraction from other pressing domestic affairs. President Putin faced multiple protests after the arrest of Alexei Navalny, Russian dissident and opposition figure who is heading an independent inquiry into state corruption.
Navalny is on hunger strike in prison, after politically motivated charges saw him arrested on his return from treatment in Germany in February. Navalny was the victim of poison by a characteristically Soviet chemical weapon that has been used to assassinate other Russian dissidents in the past.
While the outcome of the conflict has yet to be determined, Ukraine’s position is visibly challenged.