Apr 14th 2021THE LAST time that Russia gathered so many troops on Ukraine’s borders, it went on to invade the country and annex Crimea. A deployment in recent weeks “mirrors the size and scope and scale” of Russian activity in 2014, noted General Todd Wolters, America’s senior commander for Europe, on April 13th.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.A public acknowledgement that same day by Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, that the country had indeed built up two armies and three airborne units, but only for “combat training exercises”, was hardly reassuring—the invasion seven years ago was also preceded by similarly ambiguous manoeuvres.The aim of the Russian build-up remains unclear. It is certainly not a
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THE LAST time that Russia gathered so many troops on Ukraine’s borders, it went on to invade the country and annex Crimea. A deployment in recent weeks “mirrors the size and scope and scale” of Russian activity in 2014, noted General Todd Wolters, America’s senior commander for Europe, on April 13th.
A public acknowledgement that same day by Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, that the country had indeed built up two armies and three airborne units, but only for “combat training exercises”, was hardly reassuring—the invasion seven years ago was also preceded by similarly ambiguous manoeuvres.
The aim of the Russian build-up remains unclear. It is certainly not a routine exercise. For instance, a long-range military communication system deployed near Voronezh, some 200km (125 miles) from the border with Ukraine (see map), is only used for very large units and thus “indicative of the scale of the deployment”, notes Janes, a defence-intelligence company. Some units have travelled from thousands of kilometres away. Tom Bullock, an analyst at Janes, says that troops still appear to be moving towards the border.
For all this, notes Michael Kofman of CNA, a think-tank in Washington, the movements are both “decidedly visible”, thus precluding a surprise attack, and organised in a way that points against a major military operation. Units are staging near training grounds, rather than moving to assembly areas or dispersing, making them easier to find and see. Nor is it clear what Russia would actually seize. “I don't think there is any objective important enough that would necessitate a ground invasion—with all of the repercussions that would follow,” says Rob Lee of King’s College London.
What is more likely is that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, is using his armed forces as an instrument of coercive diplomacy. A ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine over Donbas, a breakaway region of eastern Ukraine, is under strain. The killing of a Ukrainian soldier on April 10th was the 28th this year. Moreover, in February Ukraine enraged the Kremlin by imposing sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian politician and businessman.
Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank, argues that Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, began the current cycle of escalation by moving heavy weapons towards the border in February (though the evidence for that is “inconclusive at best”, says Mr Bullock) and cracking down on Ukraine’s Russian-speaking opposition to “provoke Russia” and draw Western support.
In this telling, Russia’s mobilisation is intended to “cool the fervour of Ukrainian leaders”. Mr Putin may hope to frighten Mr Zelensky into offering concessions, such as greater autonomy for pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas.
Yet Mr Putin’s domestic circumstances might also have encouraged his muscle-flexing. His government arrested over 10,000 protesters in January who came out in support of Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader who is languishing in a Siberian prison. Mr Putin’s political ratings have slumped, ahead of parliamentary elections in September. Over two-fifths of Russians say that the country is moving in the wrong direction and the economy is stagnating.
Thus far, Mr Putin has failed to extract anything from Mr Zelensky, who has received vocal support from the West. On April 2nd President Joe Biden phoned his Ukrainian counterpart for the first time. American backing for Ukraine—which is not a member of NATO—will go only so far, warns Oleksandr Danylyuk, who briefly served as the director of Mr Zelensky’s national security council. Mr Biden is wary of the former comic’s lack of experience and his initial effort to make peace with Russia, says Mr Danylyuk.
Yet Ukraine is not without other friends. A week after speaking to Mr Biden, Mr Zelensky visited Turkey, which is selling Ukraine the same sort of low-cost drones which helped Azerbaijan thrash Armenia in a war last year.
Mr Putin, increasingly estranged from the West and eager for recognition, can claim at least one diplomatic victory. On March 22nd Russia said that Mr Biden had rejected the offer of a video conference. Three weeks later, on April 13th, with Russian armour massed, Mr Biden offered a summit meeting “in the coming months”. Mr Zelensky will be watching nervously. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "On manoeuvres"