Ukraine is preparing itself for a war with Russia, as Russian troups have been heavily concentrated at the Ukrainian border since March 2021. Hostilities in the Donbas have flared up and president Zelensky is touring the West to find support in case of an attack. So far, according to the Kyiv Post, real support has only come from U.S. president Joe Biden and the Turkish president Erdogan, who fears escalation in the Black Sea. Erdogan even offered drones. Russia immediately responded by cancelling all tourist flights to Turkey.
Ukrainian troops in the trenches near Avdeyevka, Donbass, March 2021 (picture Ukrainian ministry of Defense)
By Oleksiy Sorokin and Illia Ponomarenko
Since mid-March, Russia has been mounting pressure on Ukraine by expanding its military presence near the country’s border and at Ukraine’s occupied territories.
Over 80,000 Russian soldiers are now stationed within striking distance of Ukrainian positions. They are equipped with the latest Russian military hardware, such as Iskander ballistic missile systems capable of neutralizing Ukraine’s anti-aircraft defenses.
This is Russia’s largest military buildup since its invasion in 2014. Seven years into the war that killed up to 14,000 people, Russia is menacing Ukraine with the possibility of a new offensive. In response, Ukraine has actively sought foreign assistance, trying to make all-out war too costly for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, despite President Volodymyr Zelensky’s flurry of diplomacy, he doesn’t appear to have much to show for it. So far, most of Ukraine’s international partners offered words rather than actions. 'Zelensky is trying and he’s doing everything right,' said Andreas Umland, a political analyst with the Ukrainian Institute for the Future. 'The key problem is that Ukraine is politically isolated, it isn’t part of any security treaty that could help Ukraine solve this issue.'
In the span of one week, Zelensky has traveled to Turkey and meets French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on April 16. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has met with U. S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. And after keeping Zelensky at arm’s length for months, U. S. President Joe Biden finally called him to reaffirm his support.
Biden also spoke to Putin, calling him to de-escalate tensions and proposing to meet with him in a third country to discuss the confrontation and other US-Russia issues.
Umland said such a meeting would play to Putin’s ego. The Russian president wants to turn military strength into political gain.
'Putin can present the bilateral meeting with Biden to the Russian public as sort of victory,' says Umland. 'Ideally, this will allow (Russia) to de-escalate without losing its face.'
However, on April 15, tensions between U.S. and Russia escalated.
The Kremlin said a meeting with Biden can’t be organized quickly. On the same day, the U.S. announced a new set of sanctions against Russian companies and individuals over interference in the U.S. presidential election.
The active stage of Russia’s war against Ukraine took place in 2014–2015, with the conflict being under a nominal cease-fire in the latest years. But since mid-March, Russia has been preparing for a new escalation.
In March, Russia held military drills in Kremlin-occupied Crimea, increasing its military presence in the region. But after the drills were over, the forces didn’t leave. Instead, Russia has brought in additional troops to the occupied territories and to the areas near Ukraine’s border, stretching Ukraine’s line of defense.
The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a Russian-based investigative reporting group, has been tracking the Russian military movement towards Ukraine. According to the organization, Russia has created a full-fledged military camp near the Russian city of Voronezh, 250 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border. Most military equipment there, including tanks, military trucks and rocket launchers, have license plates linking them to central Russia, meaning they were brought to Voronezh from afar.
The approximate size of Russian military presence near Ukraine’s border and inside Ukraine’s occupied territories (source Kyiv Post).
According to CIT Head Ruslan Leviev, pictures taken by locals suggest that an area of over four square kilometers is covered with military equipment. The camp has a command center and a field hospital.
According to Zelensky’s press secretary Yulia Mendel, Ukraine’s overall assessment is that around 40,000 Russian soldiers are stationed near the 2,000-kilometer border with Ukraine, while 40,000 more are stationed in occupied Crimea.
Taras Chmut, chief editor of the Ukrainian Military Portal website, is more careful in his assessment.
'No one actually knows the number of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, because they are constantly moving, adding additional arms and so on,' he says. 'Concerning the capability, it’s definitely a large multifunctional army group capable of performing a wide range of duties. We’re talking about ground forces, strategic missile forces, aviation, intelligence units, military engineering units.'
Preparing for war
Russia also stepped up its assaults in Donbas. Every week, starting in early March, Ukraine has lost soldiers to shelling and sharpshooters. On March 26, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed, two were injured, in the deadliest incident since the latest ceasefire went into effect on July 27. Days prior, Russia declined to prolong the ceasefire agreement.
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak told parliament on March 30 that Russia’s assets in Donbas include 28,000 militants and 2,000 Russian instructors. 'The militants’ command is controlled by Russia’s southern military district, meaning that it is part of the Russian military structure,' says Chmut.
Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has been in full swing, preparing Russia’s public opinion for a possible war — by inventing fake news about Ukrainian atrocities and denigrating Ukrainian people as a whole. In late March, Russian state TV began spreading lies that Ukraine killed a 5-year-old boy with a drone strike.
Soon, propagandists on Russia’s main TV channels began proposing a nuclear attack against Ukraine and intensified references to Ukraine as a 'Nazi state'. One of Russia’s most notorious state propagandists, Vladimir Soloviev, claimed Russia’s offensive will be 'the end of the Nazi Ukraine'. Another one, head of Russia Today Margarita Simonyan, suggested that as a response to the latest U.S. sanctions Russia should 'return the Donbas back home' — that is, make it part of Russia.
Ukrainian government published a map of bombshelters in Kyiv (picture Kyiv Post)
The lies don’t end there. Russian officials have been accusing Ukraine of military escalation and saying that the military build-up is part of Russia’s defense against NATO. Ukraine isn’t part of NATO, nor does it have NATO troops on its territory.
Furthermore, the Russian buildup violates the Vienna Document which obliges member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which Russia is, to provide information on their troops’ movements.
Russian troups near the Ukrainian border (picture twitter)
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised an offensive operation against Ukraine. 'Those who try to start a new war in Donbas will destroy Ukraine,' said Lavrov. 'Russia is ready for a military intervention, the question is at what price, with what military resources and tasks', said Chmut. 'If the task is to start a war, they are ready, if the task is to conquer Donbas, also yes, if the task is to conquer Ukraine’s left bank, then obviously no.'
Zelensky turns to NATO
Contrary to Russian propaganda’s talk of Ukrainian military escalation, Zelensky has remained calm in the face of a possible invasion and has sought a diplomatic solution. 'NATO (membership) is the only way to end the war in Donbas. The membership action plan will become a real signal for Russia,' Zelensky said on April 6, in an attempt to secure foreign support for Ukraine.
Since Russia’s escalation began, Zelensky has been trying to secure political support for Ukraine in its defense against Russia. He has met mixed results. The U. S. and Turkey declared support for Ukraine. Germany and France delivered a tone-deaf response.
On April 2, Zelensky held his first official phone call with Biden, receiving a promise of 'unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.' This was the first direct conversation between the two presidents. A day prior, the U. S. Department of Defense stated its commitment 'not to leave Ukraine alone' in case of a large-scale invasion by Russia.
On April 13, Ukrainian minister of Foreign Affairs Kuleba toured Brussels, meeting U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and NATO-chief Jens Stoltenberg. 'Strategically, Russia has to understand that Ukraine belongs to the world of democracies, to the Western world, and the West will not allow Russia to shatter Ukrainian democracy and sovereignty,' said Kuleba during his meeting with Stoltenberg.
The NATO chief acknowledged the presence of 'the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014'. However, NATO has continued to talk big but do little. Germany and France expressed 'deep concern'. On April 4, they issued a statement saying 'we call on all sides to show restraint'.
Cover of the Kyiv Post on April 16
The French foreign office soon amended its response, writing that 'France and Germany reiterate unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and independence within its internationally recognized borders.' Zelensky was also invited to Paris for a bilateral meeting with Macron on April 16. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will join the meeting online.
Zelensky has been disappointed with the West’s response, telling CNN that the U.S. 'must do more' to deter Russia and help bring this conflict to an end. 'If they (the U.S.) see Ukraine in NATO, they have to say it directly and do it. Not words,' Zelensky told CNN.
Surprisingly, some of the strongest support for Ukraine so far came from Turkey, which has had good relations with Russia. Zelensky’s visit to Turkey on April 10 resulted in a 20-point declaration that included 'support towards the perspective of Ukraine’s NATO membership, including in terms of its intentions on a Membership Action Plan'.
The document also supports Kyiv’s desire to achieve full compatibility with the alliance’s legal benchmarks for military forces and suggests that NATO should be involved in ensuring security in the Black Sea region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a joint press conference, said Turkey would never recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and spoke in favor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. '(Turkey) is ready to render any support to Ukraine to ease tensions, extend the state of ceasefire (in Donbas) and settle the conflict via a dialogue based on the Minsk accords', Erdogan said.
But then Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on April 15 softened his nation’s stance. 'We are making the same call to both countries for issues to be resolved peacefully', he said. 'We are not picking sides between the countries. Our stance is clear: balanced and constructive.'
During Zelensky’s visit to Istanbul, Andriy Taran, Ukraine’s defense minister, also met his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar to discuss contracts to provide Kyiv with new Bayraktar TB2 strike drone systems and the co-production of naval corvettes in Ukrainian dockyards.
Turkey, which has become one of Ukraine’s top defense production partners in recent years, has already sold Kyiv six drones and 200 missiles for $69 million. According to foreign policy expert Iliya Kusa of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, Turkey’s primary concern is Crimea, the Crimean Tatar population and the Black Sea security.
Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s actions angered Russia. Lavrov on April 12 'warned' Ankara against selling new weapons to Kyiv. A day later, Russia banned regular and charter air travel with Turkey between April 15 and June 1. Turkish Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy said flight restrictions imposed by Russia until June could cost Turkey 500,000 tourists and millions of dollars in revenue.
Despite Ukraine’s attempt to draw strong international support, it looks like Ukraine won’t be the key player in its own peace talks. Experts differ on what caused Russia’s desire to escalate the conflict. Some suggest that Biden’s firm stand against Russian meddling in U.S. internal affairs could have prompted Russia to raise the stakes. The latest U.S. sanctions against Russian individuals and companies prompted prowar comments from some of Russia’s top state propagandists.
Other experts suggest that Putin is trying to move focus away from domestic issues, such as the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and help the president’s falling approval ratings. But even though Ukraine risks becoming a battlefield for U.S. and Russia, Umland is optimistic that the country shouldn’t fear a sell-out.
'I think that Ukraine shouldn’t fear that the U.S. will make concessions to Putin concerning Ukraine,' says Umland. 'They would rather push for Russia to leave Ukraine alone.'
This article was published by the Kyiv Post on April 16.