Reports from the Russia-Ukraine border state that Moscow is sending troops and heavy equipment to the area.
Troops and hundreds of pieces of heavy military equipment have been seen arriving at the Ukrainian border by Reuters reporter Maria Tsetkova, who took photos of the deployment on Wednesday. Her report was echoed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who stated that Russia had sent 250 aircraft and 700 pieces of heavy equipment to the border with Ukraine as part of a military exercise, writes Max Fisher for Vox.
Reports raise fears of impending invasion
Tsetkova reports that “many of the vehicles have number plates and identifying marks removed while many of the servicemen had taken insignia off their fatigues.” Speculation is rife that Moscow could be preparing for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has officially denied sending tanks and troops into Ukrainian territory to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists, but a large body of evidence would suggest otherwise. According to reports, Russian forces with their identifying insignia removed have previously been spotted in Ukraine, and it seems unlikely that there would be another reason to remove the insignia.
The Kuzminsky firing range is situated 30 miles from the border with Ukraine, and Tsetkova has photographed clear evidence of a military buildup. Tsetkova also reports that a road from the firing range, where forces are massing, to the Ukrainian border has been repaired recently. Despite the conflict in eastern Ukraine currently being subject to a fragile ceasefire, it is feared that Russia may be using the break in fighting in order to bolster separatist forces or launch its own official offensive.
Military exercises provide one explanation for buildup
Reuters pressed the Kremlin for more information about the buildup, but a spokesman named Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the idea that the presence of large numbers of unmarked troops and weaponry signified that an invasion was being prepared. “I find the wording of this question, ‘if an invasion is being prepared’, inappropriate as such,” he said.
The buildup of weapons means that there is now around three times more military hardware at the base than in March. The weapons include Uragan rocket launchers, tanks and self-propelled howitzers, all of which are types of weapons that have been used in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The amount of military hardware at the base was about three times greater than in March this year, when Reuters journalists were previously in the area. At that time, only a few dozen pieces of equipment were in view.
Border presence could be designed to intimidate Kiev
On the other hand Russia’s military exercises on the Ukrainian border may be an attempt to intimidate the weak government in Kiev. Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “U.S. officials have said such surprise exercises are being used to destabilize the government of Ukraine.” Such a tactic may be designed to force Ukraine to concede better terms over the ceasefire, and it must be noted that Stoltenberg did not claim that Russia was preparing for an invasion.
If we accept that Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine and is simply intimidating its neighbor, the removal of insignia from troops and equipment could become an act of psychological warfare. Moscow has seemingly mastered the art of unpredictability as a powerful weapon in the arena of international relations, with Kiev and Western leaders unsure as to what the Kremlin’s next move will be.
This unpredictability makes Russia a dangerous foe, and journalist Peter Pomerantsev coined the term the Kremlin Hall of Mirrors to describe how Moscow has trapped other world leaders in its mind games.
Growing unrest in Russia over deaths of soldiers
Moscow is attempting to cover up the deaths of Russian troops in Ukraine by burning their bodies on site using mobile crematoriums. A growing domestic backlash to Russia’s role in the conflict has led to the formation of organizations representing soldiers’ families, as well as the involvement of well-known human rights campaigner Valentina Melnikova.
She claims to have received information that the Rostov region, where the Kuzminsky firing range is located, is being used as a staging post for troops whose ultimate destination is Ukraine. “They are going to be transferred to Rostov region after May 20 and then to Ukraine. They signed papers about non-disclosure of information and about acting voluntarily. Of course it was an order. How could it be voluntarily? They are servicemen,” said Melnikova.
Claim and counter-claim continue to dominate the situation in Ukraine, and the only apparent certainty is that the conflict will get worse before it gets better. Russia has repeatedly shown its willingness to flout the rules of international relations, making the country a difficult enemy to handle for the West.