Ukrainian servicemen walk along a snow-covered trench guarding their position at the frontline near Vodiane, about 750 kilometers (468 miles) south-east of Kyiv, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2021.

Ukrainian servicemen walk along a snow-covered trench guarding their position at the frontline near Vodiane, about 750 kilometers (468 miles) south-east of Kyiv, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2021. AP / Evgeniy Maloletka

Putin Ups Efforts to Intimidate Ukraine and Its Allies

But experts say the mass mobilization does not suggest an imminent offensive.

Recent ceasefire violations by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine and reinforcements of regular troops on the Russian side of the border don’t mean Moscow is preparing a major advance or even seriously trying to move the line of conflict, Ukraine officials and experts said. But they do show Vladimir Putin’s continued efforts to exercise control over Kiev’s affairs and peel off its international support. 

Over the last several weeks, unverified social media posts show Russian heavy equipment moving closer to the Ukranian border, including howitzers, advanced anti-aircraft missiles and radar, and even an advanced air assault division The moves prompted a Friday phone call between the U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky as well as calls between the U.S. State and Defense senior officials and their Ukranian counterparts.

The Russian government has called this  mobilization part of routine exercises, an explanation that has failed to impress many observers. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a repeat of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. 

“This is nothing but the usual Russian tactics—to escalate tension in order to gain momentum and to dissuade the West from supporting Ukraine,” said one Ukranian senior official. “You can always expect that such a major buildup of military forces may lead to a serious escalation of hostilities provoked by Russia. But we always prefer diplomatic and political solutions.”

A former U.S. senior State Department official with deep experience in the conflict called the buildup, and particularly the Russian ceasefire violations, worrisome but said that Moscow was probably not trying to stage a major invasion. “Putin wants to demonstrate that he’s the tough guy…that the U.S. is all talk and no action. That is part of the psychological pushback on the Biden administration… as a Zelensky.” The goal, said the official, was to convince the Ukranians that any Western response “would be weak,” in effect that, “Your friends, they aren’t going to help you.” 

The former official also said Russia might also be seeking an opportunity to move more heavy reinforcements into the portions of Ukraine they control via proxy forces, essentially consolidating gains on the ground, however illegally obtained.

Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at RAND, said that in order to know more about Russia’s intentions, “we would need to see where these specific forces are deployed to.”  Until it’s clear that Russian forces are staging in places, adopting firing positions, or using concealment, “there are more reasons to believe this activity is a readiness check and some type of Russian flex or coercive signal to Ukraine and its supporters.”

Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the CNA, said that Russia’s stated “military exercises” justification does not make sense since exercises would not cover such a wide scope of military activity. He called the deployments worrisome but said that “they appear to be intended for coercive purposes, rather than as preparations for an invasion. The force size is not indicative of large scale offensive plans, and the political goals of such an operation would be unclear.”

Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said that he, too, believes that a larger Russian ground assault is unlikely. “This seems to be more of a demonstration and a test of the Biden Administration...and perhaps to find out exactly what [Biden] means when he says that Ukranian sovereignty is a U.S. priority,” said Hodges, who now holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Hodges did say it was possible that the buildup was intended to lay groundwork for the seizure of infrastructure and water resources to bring water into Crimea, which has continued to be an issue since the Ukranian government greatly cut water to the area following Russia’s illegal seizure. 

Either way, he said, the Kremlin ultimately aims to to destabilize Ukraine, make it harder for Kiev to join NATO, and to isolate Ukraine from the Black Sea, allowing for Russian control of the Black Sea coast.

But if what is happening on the Ukranian border isn’t a large offensive, what is the appropriate U.S. response?

Hodges said the United States needs to develop a strategy for the entire Black Sea region and make clear that the Black Sea is “vital” to U.S. interests. He says Washington should commit more aid and announce more strategic exercising in the region. The U.S. needs to “get serious” about leveling bigger financial penalties on the Russian government for its actions, penalties beyond just the sanctions regime that the international community put on Russia following the initial invasion, he said without specifying what sort of penalties would be appropriate. Additionally, aid Hodges, the United States needs to get France and Germany to better commit to Ukranian sovereignty. 

In March, the Kremlin began pushing for a meeting with France and Germany on the issue of Ukraine, a meeting that would leave Ukraine out of discussions about its own future. The former State Department senior official said that that, by itself, was not new. “The Russians do it to send a message” he said, namely that Western democracies can be pulled away from the cause of supporting Ukranian sovereignty. Germany didn’t do much to change that perception after it issued a statement condemning the escalation and urging restraint “on all sides.” 

The former senior official said that the Biden team had already taken a number of helpful signaling steps in simply reaching out to Ukraine, both with Friday’s presidential call and the various calls between State and Defense Department officials and their Ukrainian counterparts. From here, Washington could accelerate the delivery of more aid to Ukraine. In March, a bi-partisan group of senators introduced legislation to continue $300 million in aid to the country as well as other aspects of military aid. The Ukraine Security Partnership Act is expected to pass and be again signed into law. 

One alternative is to cut military or other aid to Ukraine, as some groups have suggested. The former official said that to do so “would send exactly the signal that Putin wants to send.”