Russia keeps massing troops along the Ukrainian border and strengthening its Black Sea fleet, so tensions are further rising. It is difficult, however, to foresee, what exactly all this muscle-flexing will develop into as Kremlin's moves remain largely unpredictable.
However, Russia's actions today very much resemble preparations for a major military conflict. Moreover, besides preparing its military, Russia is also creating corresponding ideological grounds. So it's not only about pulling troops toward the Ukrainian border, it's also about the ideological support for such moves. It is for this reason that various fake stories are made up, including on the alleged shelling of the occupied areas by Ukraine's Armed Forces, or statements made about "the need to protect Russian speakers from Ukrainian forces". For example, RIA Novosti recently did a piece claiming that Ukraine is a state ruled by Nazis, which needs to be "denazified" by Russia, without any sanctions by the relevant international organizations. This is actually reminiscent of calls for an invasion or even for a certain form of genocide on the Ukrainian territory.
Russian media are molding from Ukraine the image of external enemy
At the same time, the vector of Russian propaganda has shifted significantly. Previously, Russian media would refer to Ukraine as a puppet for the West and the United States, but now they are molding from Ukraine the image of external enemy. Now, it's portrayed not just as a "territory controlled by the West", but as a country hostile to Russia. Moreover, such portrayal is pursued not only in the context of the political elite, but also in the context of public attitude among the entire Ukrainian population. These are rather ominous signals.
Russia resorted to such actions against Ukraine mainly due to the steps Ukrainian authorities have taken to impose sanctions against pro-Russian political actors and their media pool, which led to a drop in the ratings of pro-Russian parties. For Russia, this is an important signal that it should not hope to restore its influence in Ukraine by political means. After all, Moscow has long harbored hope that long-term propaganda pressure will allow shifting the electoral moods in Ukraine and bring Russia-loyal politicians to power. And it's they, in turn, who Russia believes would settle all issues in a way favorable to Russia, thus allowing the Kremlin to restore influence on Ukraine by political means. Now, the steps by the Ukrainian authorities have shown Russia that political or economic leverage is not a viable option.
Therefore, the Kremlin came to the conclusion that the only way to address the Ukraine issue once and for all is by brute military force. Russia will continue using the occupied areas in Donbas as a springboard for military operations against its neighbor but the scale of such campaign is difficult to predict.
Moscow wants to force Kyiv to provide guarantees for Russia's presence in Ukraine
If Russia resorts to active hostilities, its objectives will not be limited to occupying any specific territories or settlements, or even regions in Ukraine. After all, the invasion of yet another city will not fundamentally change anything for Russia, so they are not interested. They need all of Ukraine, not chunks of it. Russia cannot allow wasting such serious resources to simply seize some city in Donetsk or Luhansk regions as this would incur costs absolutely disproportionate to possible gains. Moscow's goal will be to defeat the Ukrainian Army and thus coerce Kyiv to sitting down at the negotiating table and taking steps Russia requires. Mainly, Moscow seeks to force Kyiv to provide guarantees for Russian presence in Ukraine.
The issue of supporting Ukraine is undoubtedly being discussed by Western powers. And certain signals about possible assistance may be officially voiced, but no one will speak directly and publicly about actual assistance measures. And the fact that the United States sent two of its warships to the Black Sea is one of such signals. Nobody will publicly detail to public the specific tasks their crews have been or will be assigned.
We don't know exactly how Russia plans to engage in the war
In addition, too many unanswered questions remain. After all, we don't even know exactly how Russia plans to engage in this war: whether the Russian army will act openly and Moscow will directly announce to the world that "Russia intends to liberate Ukraine's certain territories from the Nazis," or Moscow will continue to play the old the game claiming it's "the Novorossiya militia" that is operating in the escalation zone, and that there are no Russian troops in Donbas. Either it will be an open clash of the two states, or yet another "local" conflict where the Russian side will try to conceal its influence as much as possible – all this will affect the possible steps of Ukraine's Western partners. It's possible that today's American presence in the Black Sea is intended to deter Russia and prevent it from unleashing a war against Ukraine at multiple fronts. Many options are on the table...
However, the Americans are unlikely to go to war with Russia on Ukraine's soil under any circumstances – this would be an absolutely unrealistic scenario.
This is another stage of long-term psychological pressure on Ukraine
Anyway, Ukraine should better start calling up reservists for exercises, while civilians should refresh their memory on where the bomb shelters are located – things like these are never superfluous. Besides, movement of troops, maneuvers, and loud statements take time. It can't be ruled out that this is yet another stage of long-term psychological pressure on Ukraine.
Ukraine should be prepared for any options and scenarios, and enhance its defense capability. Also, this should not be tied to specific Russian activity – it should be the norm for Ukraine in the current conditions.
Petro Oleshchuk is a Ukrainian political scientist and lecturer at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv