What is happening at Ukraine's border? Putin's buildup of Russian troops sparks concern

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  • Vladimir Putin
    Vladimir Putin
    President of Russia

KYIV, Ukraine – President Vladimir Putin is at it again – threatening Russia's smaller neighbor – but few if any Kremlin observers know whether he is trying to goad Ukraine into a larger scale military conflict or is simply engaged in some seasonal saber-rattling.

Ukraine has been on edge in recent weeks amid a fresh build-up of Russian troops on the nation's eastern border, near where Moscow and Kyiv have been enmeshed in a simmering conflict for the last seven years that's killed more than 14,000 people.

Authorities in Kyiv claim that about 100,000 Russian soldiers, as well as tanks and other heavy military equipment, have been positioned along the border and in Russia-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine. A similar build-up of Russian troops and artillery took place in the spring before they were abruptly withdrawn by Moscow.

Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, who leads Ukraine's military intelligence, said in an interview with USA TODAY at his organization's Kyiv headquarters that Moscow is preparing, by February, to "aggravate the situation here" through a complex web of interventions including "creating an energy crisis," attempting to cause economic unrest, and by deploying undercover "agents of influence" to lead anti-government demonstrations and riots.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday in a press conference in Kyiv that his administration had uncovered audio evidence, in the form of discussions between Ukrainian and Russian nationals, that a coup plot against him was being planned. He did not specify how far advanced the plot was.

Budanov said Ukraine's defense forces were also preparing for the possibility of a Russian invasion deeper into Ukrainian territory involving airstrikes, artillery and ground forces. However, he said, Ukraine for now views Moscow's armed forces gathering on its border as a "threat aimed at causing fear in Ukrainian society." He said that his government has asked a range of western countries to send small contingents of military forces to Ukraine to demonstrate support and to act as a deterrent to Russia. It has also requested air-defense assets, multi-purpose fighters jets and naval reinforcements.

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on Ukraine's appeal. However, since Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the U.S. has provided $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine, according to Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said the Biden administration has "serious concerns" over Russia's military presence on Ukraine's border and called on "Moscow to de-escalate tensions." The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv issued an alert for Americans in Ukraine over reports of "unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea."

What is Putin saying?

Putin, for his part, has denied any suggestion he is preparing Russia to invade Ukraine. He and other Kremlin officials say Russia is simply responding to provocations in the Black Sea, where U.S. and NATO forces have been conducting military exercises. He says that it is Ukraine's military that is acting provocatively, for example, by deploying Turkish-made drones against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Still, it was a previous build-up of Russia's forces on Ukraine's border that culminated in Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 as well as the still unresolved Russia-backed separatist uprisings in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russia experts and analysts say probably the only person who has any idea about what Putin's intentions are is Putin himself.

"He's created an advantage for himself by keeping everybody else off balance about his intentions," said Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College London and co-author of Putin v the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia.

"Putin's learned to do this very well over the years, to make his intentions as inscrutable as possible. And, in fact, to make every possible course of action look plausible."

Regardless of whether Russia's military build-up is just the latest episode in Putin's obfuscatory playbook – when soldiers without insignia on their green uniforms seized control of Crimea, Putin initially repeatedly denied that they were Russian – there's no question that he views Ukraine as integral to Russia's security policy.

For a start, Ukraine's geographic location and size mean that it is strategically well-placed to act as a buffer between Russia and European NATO members to the West. Little has irked Russia's leader more in recent years than Ukraine's aspiration to join the 30-country military alliance and integrate closely with the European Union economic and political bloc. However Ukraine, for Putin, is also personal, according to Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss, Russia-watchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an international affairs think tank headquartered in Washington.

"The Russian leader's domestic political and foreign policy trajectory suggests that as he enters his third decade at the helm and approaches his seventieth birthday, he is thinking about his legacy. With the constitutional changes introduced in 2020, there are no formal constraints on his ability to rule Russia until 2036, if not even longer," Rumer and Weiss wrote in a recent research paper, "Ukraine: Putin's Unfinished Business."

"But there is one major piece of unfinished business that is still missing from Putin's roster of accomplishments if he is to consolidate his reputation as the leader who returned Russia to its former greatness. That piece of unfinished business is the restoration of Russia's dominion over key parts of its historic empire. No item on that agenda is more important – or more pivotal – than the return of Ukraine to the fold," they wrote, referring to when Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union.

Putin, who cut his teeth as a Soviet spy, has described the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991 as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (twentieth) century," and he has spent a large part of his tenure in office trying to remind Washington, and the world, that Russia is a force to be reckoned with, whether by modernizing its military, sponsoring brazen cyberattacks, supporting western foes in Syria or backing troublemakers like Belarus's longtime dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is suspected of fabricating a migrant crisis on the border with EU member Poland with a little help from Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 10, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a cabinet meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Nov. 10, 2021.

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What happens next at Ukraine's border?

Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian military intelligence officer who now directs Carnegie's Moscow Center in Russia's capital, said it makes little strategic sense for Putin to intentionally attack Ukraine just to prevent it becoming an "unsinkable aircraft carrier bristling with American weapons." He said it would be too costly, lead to an untold number of casualties, alienate Putin's political base and mire Moscow in a conflict "probably 10 times or even 100 times larger than the war it fought in Afghanistan."

When it comes down to it, Trenin said, "Russia doesn't need Ukraine for anything."

Researchers at Defense Priorities, the Washington think tank, argue that U.S. security aid to Ukraine may, in fact, be prolonging Kyiv's conflict with Moscow.

"Providing hope to Ukraine that NATO will come to its defense, including by continuing U.S. security aid, allows Kyiv to avoid making difficult political accommodations necessary to end the war," researcher Sascha Glaeser wrote in a recent paper.

"A political settlement will likely necessitate that Ukraine accepts its unique role as a neutral buffer state in Eastern Europe. The prospect of being protected forever by the United States lets Ukrainian leaders avoid pressing for a resolution to the conflict."

Back in Kyiv, Budanov was quick to stress that Ukraine needs the "consolidated help of the civilized world" to prevent Russia from trying to "create supposed conditions for an invasion." He also added that for all the new talk of a larger Russian military intervention in Ukraine, Kyiv was already fighting a real war with Moscow, a scenario he said was sometimes difficult for foreigners to appreciate as the conflict has ebbed and flowed.

"It's not a peacekeeping operation. It's a full-fledged war with trenches and people firing at each other, using all types of armaments," he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine: Putin's buildup of Russian troops at the border fuels concern

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