Is Russia satisfied with “Show the muscles”, as criticized by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on 1er April, or is it preparing for new military operations, almost seven years to the day after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine?
Kiev and its Western allies have been holding their breath for more than a week now, as Moscow increases troop transfers to Crimea and the regions of Voronezh and Rostov, bordering Ukraine. And this while more than twenty Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed in the east of the country since the beginning of the year.
“I don’t think we will see an invasion of Russian troops beyond the Donbass, but it is important to note that what is happening at the moment is not normal. These troop movements are perhaps the most worrying since 2015 ”, noted on Twitter Rob Lee, doctoral student at King’s College London and specialist in Russian defense policy.
As a fragile ceasefire crumbles in Donbass, this region of eastern Ukraine, controlled since 2014 by separatist groups under the unofficial Moscow tutelage, dozens of videos showing Russian military convoys to proximity to the Ukrainian border have been appearing on social networks since last week. An activity that the Russian army has justified, without really convincing in the West, by military exercises launched at the end of March.
As a sign of the concern raised by these latest events, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met last week with Volodymyr Zelensky. “EU’s unwavering support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”, also communicated Sunday April 4 the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell. On Tuesday 6, finally, the Ukrainian president called on NATO to accelerate the accession of his country in order to send a “True signal” to Russia.
While several analysts see the Russian attitude as a way of putting pressure on Kiev as well as the new American administration, rather than a prelude to an offensive, Moscow has not ceased, since the 2014 conflict, to strengthen its military presence. along its border with Ukraine. “Russian military formations on the Ukrainian border are now there permanently”, notes Michael Kofman, researcher at Center for a New American Security and specialist in the Russian army.
No less than three new military bases have been built by Moscow in the region since 2015. The device in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, has also been reinforced in recent years by several parachute regiments and anti-aircraft units.
The Russian army also celebrated, in 2016, the resurrection of the “legendary” 150e motorized infantry division, one of whose soldiers, during the Battle of Berlin in 1945, raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag. Its headquarters are now established in the Rostov region, while an anti-aircraft regiment of the division has settled in Millerovo, a village 30 kilometers from Ukraine where there is also an air base. An activity that a source close to the Russian General Staff explained to the Russian daily last year Vedomosti like a defensive posture “Directly linked to the fact that major areas of the border with Ukraine were not covered until now”.
For Michael Kofman, Moscow’s objective is rather to exert permanent pressure on Kiev, while dissuading Ukraine from seeking to retake the east of the country by force. ” The troops (pro-Russian separatists) in the Donbass act like speed bumps, they are weak, and their purpose is to hold out until the main force can intervene. “
In August 2014, it was already the intervention of Russian regular troops in eastern Ukraine (which Moscow continues to deny) that had allowed separatist groups, then at the end of their rope, to keep control of the region.