Due to multiple reports of Russia pulling troops to the Ukrainian border, Ukrainians are wondering what the Kremlin is preparing for, and what scenario can be implemented: expanding the territory of the "LPR-DPR" to the administrative boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, forcing a land corridor to Crimea, or moving deeper into Ukrainian territory... However, in my opinion, none of the above will happen.
I believe, Russia is only strengthening its ground forces grouping in Crimea, which currently amounts to some 11,000 servicemen, and also strengthening the Russian Black Sea coast from Novorossiysk to Taganrog. That is, only two brigades are being deployed: one to Crimea and another one – to the Kuban.
Such actions by Moscow, I believe, are a response to the Sea Shield exercises conducted by NATO Allies in the Black Sea, where the issues of blocking Crimea were worked out. Russia realized that it would take three to five years to build up military units from scratch, as originally planned, and therefore decided to simply redeploy troops from deep mainland Russia.
This hysteria could be beneficial for both the Russian and Ukrainian authorities.
Ukraine is shouting that "trains carrying military hardware are coming." However, various sources in Russia have already reported that their armed forces have deployed 4,000 to 7,000 servicemen toward the southeastern part of Ukraine, to the occupied Crimea, and to the Kuban area. But 7,000 soldiers is just two brigades…
However, heating up hysteria is beneficial for both the Russian and Ukrainian authorities.
The Kremlin needs to consolidate the public by molding the image of some external enemy, because an extremely threatening political situation has developed in Russia itself. The easiest way for the authorities to explain aggravation is that "tomorrow Ukraine and NATO will attack". For example, an odious MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky claimed that on May 2 "the Armed Forces of Ukraine will go for an offensive in Donbas." All Russian federal channels are now trumpeting claims that "Ukraine Nazis" are all set to go for an offensive to regain Donbas. However, when Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu at a conference call announced the start of a scheduled combat readiness drill throughout Russian armed forces, the exchange market reacted instantly – the ruble dropped.
That is, in Russia went too far, trying to consolidate society around the image of an external enemy and urging people not to focus on Alexei Navalny, on the fact that Putin has actually allowed himself to remain president for life, on protest sentiments and own wellbeing. The Kremlin has been intimidating the Russians that "NATO will soon attack, together with Ukraine, and seize our oil and gas wells."
In my opinion, Russia is preparing to defend itself in case Ukraine and NATO start some kind of operation, plus creating an image for domestic audiences, rather plotting to attack Ukraine and advance deep into Ukrainian territory.
In addition, Putin dreams of creating in the European part of Russia a grouping that will be able to resist NATO, as it was in Soviet times, during the Cold War. To this end, Putin seeks to engulf Ukraine, while realizing that he may actually fail. If Russia loses, it will become a third-rate state that many will work to see disintegrating. So Putin does want Ukraine, but he is also anxious about the move... Therefore, what he's doing is rattling sabers and ordering troops' maneuvers.
NATO and Russia are playing a major geopolitical game of confrontation, a game of another Cold War. And Ukraine is just an instrument
But NATO is also moving troops. In the West, a wave has been launched in media that Russia is deploying an army and will go on the offensive soon. As a result, the United States decided to send to the eastern Mediterranean an airstrike group led by the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the eastern Mediterranean is close to Syria. And the U.S. grouping includes three warships armed with tomahawks with a launch range of 2,500 kilometers, or up to 5,000 if they are of a new modification...
So it seems NATO and Russia are playing a big geopolitical game of confrontation, a game of Cold War. And Ukraine is just an instrument in this game, fortunately, in the hands of NATO, not Russia. Putin is facing a dilemma: he'd like to deal with Ukraine as soon as possible, but he's also afraid of losing because to him this would mean political death.
As for panic in Ukraine, the country's military and political leadership are also acting improperly. The Verkhovna Rada, having heard General Khomchak's report, passed a law allowing the army to call up reserve servicemen without actually announcing general mobilization. At the same time, the Normandy Four format of settlement talks has completely failed, because the clusters spelled out by Paris and Berlin – and agreed with Moscow without Kyiv's proposals – are pretty much a detailed action plan of Ukraine's capitulation. The very first sentence in the preamble says these clusters in no way contradict the spirit of the Minsk agreements. As a result, it speaks of people's militia, separate courts, special status for Donbas enshrined in Constitution, elections on a permanent basis, general pardon, joint patrolling by LPR-DPR's people's militia, the OSCE, and the National Police of Ukraine. And only deep in the eighth cluster a tiny notion says that once a federation is formed within Ukraine, Russia will allow Ukrainian border guards to regain control of the border. The plan is a complete failure. That's why Ukrainian audiences are being fed the following narrative: "Don't rock the stability boat, otherwise Putin will attack."
However, with these boogeyman stories, Ukrainian government also went a bit too far, sowing panic of such a level that they eventually had to put out this fire. The president was the first one to speak up, saying that the army is strong and capable of repelling any aggressor. Then Commander in Chief Ruslan Khomchak said that Russia, it turns out, did not have sufficient manpower and means in place to wage a full-scale war with Ukraine. So, the message is: don't rock the boat of stability, while Putin is "no longer set to attack"...
Today Donbas remains Russia's only lever
In any case, tensions on both sides will inevitably escalate into military clashes. The situation in Donbas will worsen.
To date, Donbas has remained the only Russian lever through which Russia could exert pressure on the Ukrainian military and political leadership, especially on President Zelensky, who has promised Ukraine peace and a ceasefire – something that's just not happening. Each KIA and WIA is a blow to the president making him nervous, searching for a way out of the deadlock situation and failing to find one, which in turn leads to public tension and rising discontent.
In Donbas, escalation is inevitable. However, Russia will only increase shelling intensity, nothing more. However, there are fears that when the soil dries up and trees turn green, providing a better camouflage, Russian reconnaissance and sabotage squads will become more pro-active, while the tactics will prevail of custom-planting land mines near Ukrainian defense positions. If recon groups get anywhere close, they will be able to mine both the positions and the routes leading to them. Therefore, somewhere around May, a trench-guerrilla war could unfold. Russia will be putting as much pressure on Ukraine as it can.
Oleh Zhdanov is a Ukrainian military expert, colonel in reserve