Russia’s Worrying Rhetoric: Troops Deployed At Ukrainian Border

United States., NATO and Ukrainian officials have raised the alarm in recent weeks over what appear to be unusual Russian troop movements towards the Ukrainian border. Russian forces now seem poised to launch an attack on their neighbour, accusations Moscow has rejected as nothing more than fearmongering. The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, however, told the Military Times outlet this weekend that Russia had massed more than 92,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders. They were reported preparing for an attack by the end of January or beginning of February.

Mr Zelensky, the Ukrainian comedian elected as president in 2019, denounced Russia’s movements as a “very dangerous rhetoric”, adding, rather concerningly, that “there is a threat today that there will be war tomorrow. We are entirely prepared for an escalation.” The Kremlin spokesman, meanwhile, said Russia had “no plans to get involved”, dismissing such vitriolic and “alarmist” accusations as inflammatory. Russian officials insisted that they were not threatening anyone and defended their right to deploy troops as and when they wished. NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russia’s use of force against Ukraine would “come at a cost,” without specifying what this would be.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he was concerned about Ukraine’s situation, repeating Washington’s support for its territorial integrity. The president added that he will “in all probability” speak with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts, presidents Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vladimir Putin. These recent tensions arise following Russia’s dispersal of tanks towards the Ukrainian border last April, hoping then that the U.S. would sit up and take notice. The show of force worked: Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin; in June the two men met in Geneva. However, regardless of whether agreements over Ukraine were delivered at the summit, something since has gone awry.

Many political commentators, however, are suggesting these movements are empty threats, designed in theatricality to keep the west on their toes. Andrei Kortunov, head of the RIAC think-tank in Moscow told the BBC that “[I]f the military movements [close to Ukraine] are explicit, then this is not about direct military action – it’s about a signal Putin wants to send.”

Political analyst at RealPolitik Tatiana Stanovay also noted how Putin believed the West has started “giving Ukraine’s elite hope about joining NATO…if he doesn’t act today, then tomorrow there will be NATO bases in Ukraine. He needs to put a stop to that.” Whether these are the moves of a president who wants the best for his country, or rather a totalitarian’s fear that a threat to his extensive influence looms on the horizon is, however, debatable.

Russian-Ukrainian relations have always been a cause for concern. A large part of the Russian forces is in Crimea, the peninsula which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March 2014, was declared at the time by the United Nations General Assembly as illegal. Troops have since been massing near Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas region, which remains partially under the control of Russian-backed separatists. These events are worryingly reminiscent of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war where conflict was sparked when pro-Russian separatists broke a 1992 cease-fire agreement and began shelling Georgian villages. After a full-scale war, Russia finally recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on August 26th. The war displaced 192,000 people. In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia maintained “direct control” over the separatist regions and was responsible for grave human rights abuses that took place.

Currently, the situation tinkers on a knife’s edge. Mark Galeotti’s conclusion in his podcast In Moscow’s Shadow, however, remains hopeful, as he says that Russia’s movements are simply “contingency planning,” doubting that Moscow would want open conflict due to the hefty sanctions it would likely bring with it. The international community should thus prepare appropriately, not by waving their own fists and donning military uniforms – this may do nothing but aggravate an already galled Moscow. Rather they should reach out to this prodigal son, who knows no other way of crying out than with tantrums and tears, and with paternal arms, patiently address his concerns. In short, we must hope that another summit between Biden and Putin is imminent.