As Russia ramps up army near Ukraine border, West fears the worst

A Ukrainian soldier walks through a muddy trench near the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine before stopping to put a rifle through a barrier towards the Russian-backed separatists stationed about 250 meters away.

For more than seven years, war has been raging in this part of the country, killing thousands and suspend communities in a continual state of fear and uncertainty.

Now Ukrainian soldiers on this front line say they are ready for anything that might happen.

“We will not be leaving,” said Vadim, a government forces commander who spoke to a freelance writer working for CBC and only wanted to be identified by one name.

“We will stay here until the end.”

The conflict between government forces and Russian-backed separatist militias in the southeastern Donbass region, near the Russian-Ukrainian border, has continued to erupt despite multiple ceasefires since it broke. seven years ago. But now American and Ukrainian officials, as well as leaders of some NATO countries, have sounded the alarm that Russia may consider launching an invasion because it is bringing its military forces closer to its border with Ukraine.

The security situation in the region is expected to dominate a meeting of NATO foreign ministers when they meet in Riga, the capital of Latvia, next week.

And in the most recent sign of deteriorating relations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday accused Russia to prepare a coup against him, which the Kremlin denied.

A Ukrainian soldier walks along a frontline trench with Russian-backed separatists near Gorlivka in the Donetsk region on Friday. (Anatolii Stepanov / AFP / Getty Images)

Unusual military movement

Russia has also denied claims it is planning an invasion and accused the West of “stirring up tension”, but some experts argue that the recent unusual troop movements and the rhetoric that accompany them send a worrying signal.

What is unknown is to what extent this is part of a political bluff or a precursor to a large-scale military operation.

“Think of it as a chess board being set up. We’re in the early stages of something, ”said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher in the Washington, DC office of the RAND Corporation, a US think tank focused on military issues. analysis.

“Russia leaves itself with a lot of options at this point.”

Russian Navy officers line up on the deck as the guided-missile cruiser Moskva (Moscow) returns to a port after tracking NATO warships into the Black Sea, in the port of Sevastopol, in Crimea, November 16. (Alexey Pavlishak / Reuters)

Massicot, who previously worked in the US Department of Defense as a senior analyst specializing in Russian military capabilities, said the Russian military had moved forces from Siberia further west, which she described as very atypical and outside the normal army training window.

Since the Kremlin did not explain the motivation of the movement beyond to deny it is to plan an invasion, she said, analysts are trying to explain what Russia might do.

Different from last year

Massicot says that unlike last spring, when Russia amassed troops near the Ukrainian border, also raising fears of attack, before finally withdrawing much of its forces, this time the equipment is moved mainly to the night instead of during the day.

Commercial satellites have captured images of military equipment stationed in western Russia that have been posted online, but Konrad Muzyka, defense analyst at Poland-based Rochan Consulting, says there are none. didn’t have much because the cloudy weather obscured the views.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pictured at the COP26 climate summit earlier this month, accused Russia of plotting a coup against him on Friday, adding to the already tense situation between the two countries. (Andy Buchanan / Getty Images)

Still, he says that by examining open source intelligence, he was able to follow military build-up. He wrote on his website that in the past few weeks not a day has passed without trains or convoys of vehicles carrying military equipment spotted heading for Ukraine or the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed to Ukraine in 2014.

It is difficult to assess how many troops Russia has moved to the border in recent weeks. Zelensky said there were 100,000, but Massicot says the images she examined suggest it is less than that but still in the “tens of thousands.”

The fact that some of this military personnel and equipment is accumulating near communities a few hundred kilometers from the Ukrainian border suggests that an invasion is not necessarily imminent, Massicot said.

“It’s not what you do when you are about to enter,” she said. “It’s basically a point of negotiation: I can keep moving forward or I can stay here.”

Russia warns of NATO expansion eastward

There are reports that a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently scheduled for December or early next year.

On November 18, in a televised address to foreign policy officials in Moscow, Putin appeared to imply that the current heightened tensions are good for Russia, as they could force the West to recognize its demands to avoid a wider conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Western countries do not take Russia’s warnings about NATO’s eastward expansion seriously enough and seek long-term security guarantees. (Reuters)

Earlier this fall, Russia said one of those demands was to stop the expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure in Ukraine. Putin said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had not taken seriously his first warnings and the military infrastructure extended to the gates of Russia.

He pointed to NATO’s missile defense systems in Romania and Poland, which he said could easily be converted for offensive purposes.

“Our concerns and warnings about NATO’s eastward expansion have been totally ignored,” Putin said, encouraging his foreign minister to push for long-term security guarantees.

“Russia cannot constantly think about what might happen there tomorrow.”

Canada plans to increase military support for Ukraine

By “over there” he means Ukraine – and the possibility of the country being admitted to the 30-member NATO bloc.

Ukraine has been pushing for inclusion for the past 13 years, but its candidacy has so far been denied. Biden had previously said Ukraine needs to do more to root out corruption before it can be admitted into NATO.

It must also contain the secessionist movement in the two self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine, which complicates its candidacy for NATO. In the past two years, between 400,000 and over 500,000 residents of the region have received Russian passports, according to media reports.

Ukrainian air assault troops participate in military exercises in the Zhytomyr region on November 21. Ukraine has lobbied for inclusion in NATO for the past 13 years, but its candidacy has so far been denied. (Reuters)

Although not a member of the security alliance, Ukraine has secured pledges of continued military support from NATO countries.

Canada, which was help train the Ukrainian armed forces for years, says it’s consider a request provide additional support for the country’s ambitions within NATO.

Canada currently sends a rotating group of approximately 200 members of the Canadian Armed Forces to Ukraine every six months, and according to a report in the Globe and Mail, he plans to deploy additional troops and planes.

CNN recently reported that US officials are also considering sending additional weapons to Ukraine, and this week the country received two former US patrol boats.

WATCH | The United States warns of a possible Russian invasion:

Ukraine warned of possible Russian invasion

With the United States warning Ukraine of an impending invasion, Russia has stored troops and tools along several parts of the Ukrainian border. 2:16

Escalating tensions, deteriorating relationships

The Kremlin, which severed diplomatic relations with NATO in October, said the West was making matters worse in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian defense minister said the United States repeated a nuclear strike against Russia in two different directions earlier this month and strategic bombers approached Russia’s borders on several occasions. A Pentagon spokesperson said the exercises were announced publicly in advance and followed international protocols.

Russia and Ukraine have stepped up their military exercises amid the deteriorating security situation.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, says one of the biggest obstacles to launching a military operation now is the weather. This time of year is called rasputitsa in Russia, where rain and snowmelt make unpaved roads difficult to navigate.

If Russia intends to invade, Felgenhauer says, the plan should be swift and could be more easily implemented on frozen ground in January or February.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, said one of the biggest obstacles to launching a military operation now is the weather, rain and melting snow making unpaved roads difficult to navigate. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / The Associated Press)

While Felgenhauer says he’s not convinced an attack will happen, he admits it’s possible, especially given the grim overall security situation.

“There are more and more places where things could go wrong,” he said, noting that diplomatic talks between Russia and the West have deteriorated dramatically.

Slippery slope

Some US and NATO officials have also pointed to another factor of destabilization in the region, accusing Russia of helping to orchestrate the migrant crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland, an allegation that Russia has denied.

The US ambassador to the Belarusian capital Minsk expressed concern that the crisis could be a way to distract from the military build-up in Moscow.

Ukrainian border officials say they have deployed 8,500 additional troops and police to its border with Belarus in case it too sees an influx of people to its border, even though Ukraine’s not being a member of the EU makes it less likely.

“We are sliding a bit slowly but inevitably into a situation where we could get into a showdown,” Felgenhauer said.

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