It is the second time this year that Russia has amassed forces near its borders with Ukraine, so why has the estimated 90,000 troop buildup left western governments and independent analysts more concerned?
The stark warning by the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, on Wednesday that Russia has made plans for a “large-scale” attack is backed up by open source analysis – and western intelligence assessments. “There is enough substance to this,” one insider added.
President Joe Biden is said to have been concerned for weeks, but efforts to cool the temperature – including Thursday’s summit between Blinken and his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov – have failed, suggesting Russia wants the crisis to continue.
Jane’s, the defence intelligence specialist, has tracked the deployment of Russian tanks, artillery and other units and to occupied Crimea in the south of Ukraine, Voronezh in the east and around Smolensk to the north, in what it coolly describes as “anomalous Russian military activity”.
Neil Melvin, the director of international security studies at the Rusi thinktank, described the buildup as “much more serious” than was seen in April, because there is some evidence of meaningful combat preparations, notably in the field modifications sported by Russian armour.
They look like cages bolted on to the roof – and reflect the fact Kremlin has been spooked by some of Ukraine’s recent arms purchases from the west. Of particular concern to Moscow are US Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish TB2 Bayraktar drones, both of which aim to knock out Russian armour by striking it where it is weakest, on the top.
At the same time, Russia has raised the rhetoric. Earlier this week President Vladimir Putin warned that increased Nato military support for Ukraine would cross a “red line”. In particular, he warned against the stationing in Ukraine of western missile defence systems, similar to those in Romania or Poland.
The focus on arms links to broader reasons on why Russia might want to force the issue. Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukrainian analyst from the Chatham House foreign policy thinktank, said that “time plays in Ukraine’s favour” as it seeks to develop along western lines.
Putin does not want Kyiv to drift gradually and decisively into the western sphere, she adds. “Russia wants greater control over its near abroad and to prevent Nato enlargement – and that includes Georgia as well Ukraine,” she said.
It is easy to argue that recent developments are designed by Russia to test the west and the US’s resolve, particularly as a new left-leaning German government is poised to take over. However, western diplomats emphasise that Ukraine is not a member of Nato and that therefore there is no obligation to defend the country if attacked.
Instead Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary general, emphasised an economic response on Wednesday morning. “We all made it very clear that there will be a high price to pay and sanctions is one of the options,” although Melvin added that years of escalating sanctions have “raised the costs to Russia but not deterred it”.
A full-scale attack remains hard to imagine, however, and Russia’s aim is most likely diplomatic. Melvin believes that Russia hopes to restart the stalled Minsk peace process, the 2014-2015 agreements struck after Russia seized Crimea and separatists took over the Donbass region, now divided from the rest of the country by sniping over military frontlines.
“Russia wants to neutralise Ukraine and turn it into a buffer state. It would be optimal, from its point of view, to have Donbass recognised as autonomous with a leadership elected under Russia’s control, with a veto over Kyiv’s foreign policy,” he said.
Such an interpretation of the Minsk agreements would, however, be politically unsellable to Ukraine, which is partly why their implementation has been stalled. With western leaders, such as the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, again declaring on Thursday “support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, the trial of strength between west and east has some way to run.