The sounds reportedly come every day: From just a kilometer away, the rumble of tanks and armored vehicles on the move near Ukrainian positions outside the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in the Donbas conflict zone.
Armored personnel carriers revving their engines and “systematic” firing on the Ukrainian army add to the noise, claimed a young Ukrainian soldier stationed about 25 kilometers to the north of Donetsk, in the village of Avdiivka. “They’ve been much more active lately,” he said of the Russia-backed separatist forces. “They’re trying to destroy our positions.”
Over the past several weeks, video clips on social media have shown a steady stream of Russian military equipment moving into Russian regions along the border with Ukraine’s Donbas area, and into the Russian-annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
White House Press Secretary Jenn Psaki has described the buildup as the highest since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists against Ukrainian forces in Donbas.
On April 8, the Conflict Intelligence Team, which tracks Russian military activities around the world, reported the establishment of a field camp in Russia’s Voronezh region, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) from a Kyiv-controlled section of Ukraine’s disputed Luhansk region. The concentration of troops and equipment there appear to be “offensive rather than defensive,” the group wrote.
Moscow, though, maintains it is simply conducting defensive military exercises, and insists it has the right to move its army where it desires on Russian territory.
Some observers have attributed the buildup to support for the Donbas separatists, who carry Russian passports and rely on financial and military support from Moscow. But the Russian-sponsored Donbas separatists, for their part, claim Ukrainian forces are the ones on the offensive. They expect an “activization” of fighting by April 20, Russia’s Lenta.ru reported on April 6.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who visited the frontline area on April 8 and 9, has urged NATO to accelerate Ukraine’s bid for membership to defuse what he sees as a Russia-stoked crisis.
But most Ukrainian and Russian analysts interviewed by Current Time about these military movements dismiss the notion that Moscow intends a public, direct attack against Ukraine. Rather, they say, other motivations, tied to both foreign and domestic policy, could explain the Russian show of force.
“[F]rom a military point of view, the threat of an invasion exists, but, on the other hand, from the military-political point of view, I see no reason why Russia could really start a war,” commented Ukrainian military expert Mykhailo Samus, deputy director of international relations at the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, a Kyiv think-tank.
“That is, there isn’t a casus belli now – there’s no reason for Russia to declare ‘We’re starting a wide-scale war against Ukraine.’”
With construction on the state-run Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany expected to end this year, Moscow has little incentive to rattle the international status quo with a full-scale war with Ukraine, noted Aleksei Naumov, deputy foreign editor for the Russian daily Kommersant.
But it does have incentives to display its military strength now, others added.
Moscow’s “desire to play with its muscles,” commented Igor Gretskiy, an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University’s School of International Relations, recollects the flare-up in tensions in and around Donbas in early 2017, during the early days of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
“I think the situation is repeating itself,” Gretskiy said. “This is a test of (U.S. President Joe) Biden …”
So far, he added, the U.S. leader has passed. President Biden stressed Washington’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity in an April 2 call with the Ukrainian president.
U.S. troops in Europe have since been put on the highest alert. The State Department has asked Moscow for an explanation of its buildup along Ukraine’s eastern border and also has begun consultations with its allies about the situation.
Most recently, on April 9, an unnamed U.S. defense official stated that the Pentagon is considering dispatching warships to the Black Sea, which borders both Ukraine and Russia, to make clear to Moscow that their actions are being watched, CNN reported. For now, however, the U.S. does not believe that Russia intends an attack, the official said.
Gretskiy predicted that once Moscow evaluates Biden’s response, and that of the European Union, it will set its behavioral “tactic” accordingly.
That appears to concern Lithuanian political analyst Alvydas Medalinskas, who has warned that Russia’s military buildup is a challenge not only to Ukraine, but to European security “and, perhaps, also further.”
Aside from the U.S., the European Union, NATO, and United Kingdom have also expressed concern.
Some analysts, though, question the extent to which Kyiv can count on outside allies to stand up to Russia in case of aggression.
Western European countries fear “being drawn into” a “World War III with Russia,” said Kyiv-based political scientist Andreas Umland, a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Apart from perhaps “some Eastern European countries,” there are “few” countries on whom Ukraine can rely for military assistance against Russia, he added.
Furthermore, an escalation in the conflict would make Ukraine joining NATO “less likely than more likely,” Umland predicted.
Both the United States and European Union likely would respond to any Russian aggression with sanctions, albeit “more decisive” and “more quickly” than after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, he said.
But Carnegie Moscow analyst Nikolai Petrov advised, at this stage, against blaming Russia exclusively for the tensions. An escalation of the Donbas conflict could be politically advantageous to both Russia and Ukraine, Petrov posited.
Amidst a pandemic-linked economic slump, the Kremlin faces parliamentary elections this fall, and wants to rally voters around the government – a “small war that brings victory” could do just that, he said.
At the same time, Petrov reasoned, Zelenskiy is “also rather weak” with voters and has adopted “more nationalistic rhetoric” on Donbas than upon his 2019 election.
Amidst such a situation, the current tensions pose "serious concerns," the analyst added.
“When there’re troops there, when there’re people who are losing their colleagues, it’s very difficult from Moscow, very difficult from Kyiv – not to mention, from European capitals -- to control the situation,” he said.
One Ukrainian delegate to the talks with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on a diplomatic resolution to the Donbas conflict scoffed at the international alarm over the Russian buildup as “some kind of military hysteria,” however.
“Nothing has changed in Russia’s position for already seven years,” commented Serhiy Harmash. “When it doesn’t succeed on the diplomatic front, it starts to fire up the situation on the military front, to use the military instrument that is the sole instrument it’s got now at hand.”
He speculated that Ukraine, which had not yet put its own troops on alert, is being used “for some kind of geopolitical game.”
“[M]ass hysteria constantly occurs” whenever Russia holds seasonal military exercises, conceded the Conflict Intelligence Team’'s founder, Ruslan Leviev, Yet though Russia’s alleged military exercises to the east of Ukraine ended in late March, the trains bringing in military equipment keep on coming, Leviev commented on April 5.
Across the border, on the frontline outside Donetsk, Ukrainian soldiers interviewed by Donbas.Realities on April 8 did not exclude the possibility of a “full-scale attack” by Russia-backed separatists “in the near future.”
Nonetheless, after seven years of fighting, Ukrainian troops claim they are prepared.
"No one will retreat here,” stressed one soldier, leaning against a tank barrel. "If they rush in, they will get a good response.”
Editor's Note: This story originally attributed the soldiers' comments to Current Time. The interviews were actually conducted by the RFE/RL Ukrainian Service's reporting project Donbas.Realities.