Why Ukraine and Russia are separating

Crisis on the border with Ukraine: USA assures Kyiv further aid, Russia demonstrates its strength at sea with military exercise

The latest developments

A large scale deployment of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine has raised great concern. Moscow is now talking of a withdrawal, but some of the war material remains in the region. What is known about the situation and what is Russia going to do? An overview.

The latest developments

  • According to NATO and the USA, the Russian presence on the border with Ukraine is still very high. "We have seen a certain reduction in the number of Russian troops, but tens of thousands remain, and we also see that Russia has left a lot of weapons and equipment behind," said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday (May 6) in Brussels. Overall, there are currently many more Russian troops in and around Ukraine than before the start of the latest crisis. The American Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a similar statement. Significant forces are still stationed at the border and theoretically enable Russia to "act aggressively" within a short period of time, he said during a visit to Kiev, during which he assured Ukraine that he would continue to provide assistance. According to Ukrainian President Volodimir Selensky, despite reports of withdrawal from Moscow, only 3,500 Russian soldiers have left the annexed Crimean peninsula. In other places, no reduction in troop strength can be observed. "So the danger remains," he said at his meeting with Blinken. Moscow declared the latest troop deployment with military maneuvers.
  • Russia is conducting a new military exercise in the Black Sea and has closed certain waters to other shipping for this purpose. According to the Defense Ministry on Friday (April 30th), 20 war and auxiliary ships are involved in the lockdown alone. The flagship of the fleet, the guided missile cruiser "Moskva", is also taking part in the exercise. It has anti-ship missiles and an anti-aircraft system. On Thursday, according to official information, he used a "Vulkan" cruise missile for the first time as part of a combat exercise and hit a target 30 kilometers away.
  • Russian media indicate that the exercise takes place against the backdrop of the deployment of an American patrol ship. The coast guard ship "Hamilton" has been in the Black Sea since Tuesday. In mid-April, the USA stopped the planned sending of two large warships into the Black Sea because they feared heightened tensions. The "Hamilton" is on a routine mission in cooperation with allies, announced the Pentagon. In some parts of the Russian media there is talk of a provocation. Great Britain recently announced that it would send two warships into the Black Sea.
  • After a major march in the border area with Ukraine, Russia reports a withdrawal. According to information from Moscow, all troops scheduled for withdrawal will have returned to their permanent bases by Friday evening. The return of the equipment will occasionally take a few days longer. In April, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that more than 300,000 military personnel - around a third of the total armed forces - took part in combat readiness control exercises across the country. An unknown number of them were deployed in the border area with Ukraine - the EU speaks of more than 100,000 men.
  • Ukraine remains suspicious. During a front visit to the embattled Donbass region, President Volodimir Zelensky said the Ukrainian military must be prepared for Russian troops to return at any moment. Kiev has welcomed the Russian partial withdrawal, but wants to wait for a confirmation of the withdrawal by the intelligence services. The US is also warning against taking Russian reports at face value. A Pentagon spokesman said it was too early to confirm that Russia is in fact withdrawing all troops from the Ukrainian border. The US has been using surveillance drones off the Crimean coast in the past few days - presumably with the intention of observing the movements of Russian troops.

Why is an attack on Ukraine feared?

An unusual deployment of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine in March and April has raised great concern in the West. According to estimates by the USA and the EU, Russia has doubled its armed forces in this border region within weeks, to presumably more than 100,000 men. At the same time, fighting between the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian Donbass region has flared up again.

The threatening rhetoric from Moscow is also causing concern. Media close to the Kremlin portrayed the reinforcements on the western border as a necessary reaction to the alleged belligerent policies of the Ukrainian leadership. Members of President Vladimir Putin's regime threatened the neighboring country with doom if it tried to bring the Donbass back under control by force. The Russian chief negotiator, Dmitri Kosak, accused the Ukrainian leadership of acting like children with matches. If the fire degenerated into an impending massacre of the civilian population in Donbass, Russia would be forced to intervene - and this would mean the end of Ukraine.

In another line of argument, Russia has presented the troop deployment as a reaction to a threat from NATO. This plans major maneuvers in Eastern Europe for May and June. In his speech to the nation on April 21, Putin warned the West against crossing “red lines”, but without clearly naming them. Russia's answer will be "asymmetrical, fast and tough".

On April 22nd, the Ministry of Defense announced a partial withdrawal by May 1st. However, this step is met with suspicion in some cases and has only reduced, not eliminated, fears of war.

What is known about the troop deployment?

Russia only provided fragmentary information about its troop transfers. It has refused to provide information to which it would actually be obliged under the rules of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, despite requests from other countries. Ukraine warned on April 20 that Russia would soon have around 120,000 men along its border.

It is not only the number of troops that is important, but also the variety of war items brought in, including tanks from Siberia, short-range missiles, and anti-aircraft systems. In addition to the land forces, the air force and the navy are also involved in the deployment. The latter has not yet announced anything about a planned dismantling.

Eastern Ukraine and Russian areas of influence

pro-Russian separatist territories
Crimea (annexed by Russia)

The following elements are of particular military importance:

  • Parts of the 41st Army were moved west from Siberia. Tanks, self-propelled howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, troop transports, trucks and other military equipment were sighted. Near Voronezh, 160 kilometers from the Ukrainian border as the crow flies, the armed forces set up a new military camp at the Pogonowo military training area. It should remain in place despite the withdrawal notice. This means that the soldiers affected return to the barracks without their material and can be relocated again quickly if necessary.

    A satellite image published in mid-April gives an overview of this system:
  • Parts of the 58th Army, which is otherwise stationed in the North Caucasus, were relocated to the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. In April, researchers discovered a new army camp at the Opuk military training area. This was officially announced in mid-April. It is to be dismantled again by the end of the month after the completion of military exercises.

    In this case, too, there are satellite images. The section below - the entire facility is much larger - shows, among other things, a field hospital, troop tents and two helicopters on a landing site. In mid-March there was nothing at this point.
  • According to official information, three divisions of the airborne troops were also relocated from different parts of the country to the crisis region. This includes a unit of the 76th Airborne Division, which was already involved in the occupation of Crimea and the military intervention in Donbass in 2014.
  • The Air Force has also noticeably increased its presence in the region. As the "Wall Street Journal" reported based on satellite images, in April, for example, Su-30 fighter planes were relocated to the Saki base in the Crimea:
  • Additional fighter planes and combat helicopters, dozens of units in total, were spotted at other Russian bases in the region.
  • The Navy also took part in the threat. The Black Sea Fleet was reinforced by warships from the Northern Fleet and the Baltic Fleet. In addition, she received influx from parts of the Russian flotilla in the Caspian Sea. 15 ships of this naval branch, including artillery and landing craft, were moved across the Volga-Don Canal into the Sea of ​​Azov and thus into the border area with Ukraine.
    In a step that was heavily criticized and described by Ukraine as illegal under international law, Russia unceremoniously closed parts of the waters near the Crimea to non-Russian warships.

    Some of the ships sent to the Black Sea took part in a major "invasion exercise" on the Crimean coast. The official picture below shows the "Kaliningrad" and the "Koroljow", two amphibious landing ships that the Baltic Fleet sent to support:
  • Military experts point to the presence of "enablers" - elements that further increase the ability to invade. Mention should be made of field hospitals, electronic warfare units and a regiment specializing in radar reconnaissance. The latter was moved over a particularly long distance to the Crimea, namely from the Chita region near the Chinese border.

What motives could Russia have?

Several possible motivations for Russian behavior have been cited:

  • With a view to America, Russia may want to test how much backbone the new White House leadership has on the Ukraine issue. President Joe Biden has made it clear that he has his sights set on China and sees Russia as nothing more than a pesky troublemaker. The Kremlin does not want to be seen as a negligible figure. Putin - described by Biden as a “killer” - wants to be perceived in the USA as a representative of a great power.
  • The addressees are also Germany and France, the two most important mediators on the Donbass question. Moscow is dissatisfied that Berlin and Paris are not pushing Ukraine more into concessions in the negotiations. It is clear to Russia that a peace solution must be found on the basis of the Minsk Armistice Agreement of 2015. The two EU states are committed to this principle, but in fact they allow Kiev to interpret the Minsk Agreement completely differently than Moscow. The Kremlin insists on an autonomy solution for the Donbass region. The strongest argument for Russia in this situation seems to stir up fears of a new bloody escalation in the West.
  • The threatening gestures are not least a signal to Ukraine itself. In Moscow, the hopes of quickly finding a satisfactory solution to the Donbass conflict with the former comedian Volodimir Selensky as president have vanished. Lately, Zelensky has taken a sharper course with Moscow and the separatists. He also cracked down on the main pro-Russian player in Kiev, the oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, in February. This is likely to have outraged Putin personally, as he maintains close relationships with the Medvedchuk family as a godfather. Moscow is also angry about Ukraine's new military strategy. They see the media close to the regime as a sign that Kiev is seeking a military confrontation with Russia. Against this background, the deployment of troops can be seen as an attempt to intimidate Zelenski.
  • Martial intentions cannot be ruled out either. After the order for a far-reaching retreat on April 22nd, the immediate danger of war has diminished, but the operations of the previous weeks may also have been a test run for a later offensive. In September Russia will carry out a similar deployment of troops on its western border with its major strategic maneuver "Sapad".

How are Ukraine and the West reacting?

Ukraine and the West responded to the crisis with a mixture of appeals, rhetorical pressure and military precautionary measures.

  • Ukraine let the alarm bells ring louder and louder in March and April. However, the country is not a member of NATO and would be largely on its own in the event of a war. President Zelensky has now knocked on NATO's doors more than ever before. He calls for a so-called membership action plan, a preliminary stage for accession.
    The Ukrainian armed forces have also relocated troops of unclear strength to the borders in the east.
  • Above all, the US has given Ukraine verbal support. President Biden took the crisis as an opportunity to speak to Zelensky on the phone for the first time since taking office. He also publicly called on the Kremlin to de-escalate. Efforts are underway in Washington to increase military aid to Ukraine in the form of armaments and know-how to $ 300 million a year.
  • Ukraine also received rhetorical support from the EU, albeit in a more cautious manner than from the USA. At first, the major European capitals couldn't bring themselves to clearly identify Russia as the main culprit behind the crisis. Trilateral summit talks between France, Germany and Ukraine in mid-April sent a clear sign of solidarity with the beleaguered partner.

What speaks against the scenario of a war, what in favor?

Most Russia experts thought a new Russian invasion was unlikely from the outset. However, this confidence waned as the number of troops increased. These are some of the main arguments:

  • Even though Russia is militarily much stronger than Ukraine, an attack would be risky. The 80,000 to 100,000 men near the border do not necessarily represent an overwhelming force that could quickly gain major territorial gains. Advance could drag on and allow the West to respond in the form of harsh sanctions and arms deliveries to Ukraine. The Ukrainian army is no longer as outdated as it was in 2014 after a series of reforms.
  • In contrast to the Crimea, there is little support in eastern Ukraine for a connection to Russia.
  • Significant parts of the Russian population would react skeptically. The willingness to make great sacrifices - economically and humanly - for territorial gains in eastern Ukraine is probably low. That was different with the coup d'état of the Crimea; This territory is considered by a large majority to be important for the identity of the Russian state.
  • While the Kremlin has only been operating covertly in Donbass since 2014 and has always denied the participation of Russian troops, Moscow would openly act as the aggressor with an attack. It would come under additional pressure internationally.
  • There would be a new round of Western economic sanctions, including almost certainly painful measures that have only been discussed so far. Examples include Russia's exclusion from the Swift international payment system, the demolition of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and the freezing of assets of regime magnates.
  • A clear victory for the Kremlin United Russia party in the Duma elections in September is very important for Putin. A brilliant military success could contribute to an electoral victory, but the risk of military setbacks and foreign punitive measures probably outweighs this calculation.
  • Most of the troops moved towards Ukraine were never moved directly to the border, but remained on bases more than a hundred kilometers away. It had therefore always lacked evidence of an imminent attack. With the decision on a far-reaching partial retreat, the forces necessary for an invasion are likely to be lacking, at least for a short time.

But arguments for a war scenario must also be taken seriously:

  • Regardless of the martial rhetoric in Moscow about the “downfall” of Ukraine, a “small” war with limited territorial goals could already be attractive for the Kremlin. It would be strategically interesting to create a land connection to the Crimean peninsula, which is currently only accessible from Russia by ship, plane and a newly built bridge. A Ukrainian strip of territory a good 300 kilometers wide separates the Crimea from the Russian-controlled part of the Donbass.
  • Another goal would be to reopen the North Crimean Canal, which used to ensure the water supply to the steppe-like peninsula. Ukraine blocked it after losing Crimea in 2014, which is a growing problem for the local economy. However, the channel alone is not a compelling motive; Russia could solve the water problem at less cost than war would cause.
  • Instead of an open invasion, Russia could also use troops in the region to covertly strengthen the pro-Russian separatists in the “People's Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukrainian losses on the Donbass Front would put pressure on the Zelensky government.
  • Russia would not have had to go to such an enormous expense for a mere threatening gesture. The extent of the shifting of troops - even from the Asian part of the country - can be interpreted as the main test for a later emergency.
  • Putin has repeatedly refuted the supposed logic of foreign observers and caused military surprises, notably with the campaign against the Chechen separatists in 1999, the war against Georgia in 2008, the occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the military intervention in Syria from 2015.
  • During the military exercise on April 22nd in the Crimea, a complex attack maneuver was practiced from the water and from the air. It does not fit well with the official rhetoric that Russia is only defensively oriented. Rather, it fits into the feared scenarios of an attack on Ukraine from the Black Sea or the Azov Sea.
    A Russian propaganda video underscores this: