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A New Factor in the Ukrainian-Russian Confrontation
A gradual build-up of Russian military on the North-East, East and South borders with Ukraine began at the beginning of March 2021.
The Ukrainian military consider two possible scenarios for the current Russian military activity:
- A demonstration of force as a warning to Ukraine not to try to liberate the occupied territories by force.
- An escalation of hostilities in the East of Ukraine followed by Russian attempts to expand the area of occupation.

Seven years have passed since the start of Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine. Today Russia continues to occupy Crimea and parts of the Donetsk-Lugansk region in Eastern Ukraine. There is still no significant progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

The reason is obvious. Putin in no way wants to lose control over Ukraine. An independent, democratic and prosperous Ukraine poses an existential threat to Russia’s current regime. Moscow will do everything possible to prevent this.

At the same time, by March 2021 Moscow had exhausted most instruments of its hybrid pressure on Ukraine. Those instruments included:

  1. A pro-Russian “fifth column” associated with the Ukrainian oligarch and politician Viktor Medvechuk who has a longstanding and trusting relationship with Putin.
  2. TV channels controlled by pro-Russian political parties and oligarchs.
  3. Corrupt elements in the judiciary.
  4. Agents of influence in the inner circle of the President of Ukraine and in government agencies.

In January-February 2021 the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) of Ukraine approved a number of measures which substantially limited these forms of Russian hybrid leverage in Ukraine. Viktor Medvechuk was included in the Ukrainian sanctions list, on charges of financing terrorism. Several TV stations related to him and his party were shut down. President Zelensky also initiated changes in the legal system and revived the judicial reform process.

This means that Moscow is now left with only special and military options in its strategy of pressuring Ukraine. All that Russia can do now is to keep Kyiv in a state of constant anxiety over a possible Russian invasion, thereby draining resources from the Ukrainian economy.  

At the same time, Putin cannot carry out an open invasion of Ukraine without a reason that he might think is justifiable before the international community. For him, any attempt by Kyiv to return the lost territories by force could provide such justification.

The current Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine

A gradual build-up of Russian military on the North-East, East and South borders with Ukraine began at the beginning of March 2021.

By the end of April, Russia is expected to have 54 battalion tactical groups (BTG) next to Ukraine: 20 on the North-East operational direction (+10 BTG); 13 on the East operational direction (+1 BTG); 21 on Crimea operational direction (+15 BTG). The overall number of personnel will increase from 89 thousand to 107 thousand.

Russia has also been deploying additional command and control elements in Crimea and the North-East operational direction.

The Ukrainian military consider two possible scenarios for the current Russian military activity:

  1. A demonstration of force as a warning to Ukraine not to try to liberate the occupied territories by force.
  2. An escalation of hostilities in the East of Ukraine followed by Russian attempts to expand the area of occupation. In this case, there could be a limited Russian military operation in the Southern operational direction to resolve the critical issue of the water deficit in Crimea.

Both scenarios are quite realistic given the history of Russian involvement in Georgia in 2008.  But the deployment of additional troops on the Western direction, including the area around Ukraine, could be a part of the traditional Russian response to the NATO ‘Defender Europe 2021,’ exercise - the largest one of its kind in the past thirty years which started in April 2021 and will continue until June. This year there are concerns in Moscow that the exercise could be used as a backup for a Ukrainian offensive in the East.

Russia has not yet recovered from the shock it received from the catastrophic defeat of its ally Armenia in Karabakh in November 2020. After that, the Russian leadership become more suspicious, nervous and conspiracy-prone. Now they are not so sure about what might be the outcome of any possible military intervention in Ukraine. And that is a new deterrent factor.

Time is against Putin in regards to his adventures in Ukraine. Ukraine will inevitably recover with the support of the international community and the energy of its civil society. But there are no prospects for Russia’s ‘recovery’ as a world leader if it continues to remain in Ukraine.