According to The New York Times, this weekend has seen an immense build-up of Russian forces poised along the Ukrainian border. This comes at the same time that the Ukrainian military has launched its long-awaited assault on Donetsk, urging civilians to evacuate from the rebel-held “people’s republics.” The Ukrainian separatists are encircled and increasingly desperate; the pressure for Russia to act is mounting. As I wrote last week, the stage is being set for a Russian invasion under the guise of a “peacekeeping” operation. Vehicles arrayed just over the border reportedly bear the insignia of Russian peacekeeping forces.
The recent influx of Russian manpower and materiel into the region has been extraordinary. A week ago, General Phillip Breedlove estimated Russian forces at “well over 12,000.” Now it is twice that, roughly seventeen battle-ready battalions. The New York Times details this Russian force disposition:
Over the past several weeks, Russia has built up 17 battalions — totaling 19,000 to 21,000 troops, according to one Western estimate — into a battle-ready force of infantry, armor, artillery and air defense within a few miles of the border. In addition, it has vastly expanded its firepower, increasing the number of advanced surface-to-air missile units to 14 from eight, and deploying more than 30 artillery batteries, according to the officials.
These remarks by Pentagon sources are complemented by a remarkable amount of open-source intelligence that points to accelerating Russian troop movements at the border (and possibly over it). And social media is making it harder for Russia to mask its mobilization. Consider this YouTube video uploaded by a pro-Ukrainian account on August 1, purporting to show the travel of some of the most recent Russian forces now arrayed at the border:
Russian military exercises along the border have also intensified. As the Washington Post reports:
In recent days, there have been increasing calls in Moscow for the Kremlin to step up support for the rebels in Ukraine as they continue to lose territory to a slow-moving but relentless military advance.
Ukraine and the West have expressed alarm over an apparent Russian buildup along the border. On Monday, the Russian air force announced military exercises involving more than 100 aircraft, among them bombers, fighter jets and helicopters. The Interfax news agency reported that the exercises will include missile-firing practice.
Although pressure has continued to mount for additional rounds of financial sanctions in wake of the July 17’s MH17 tragedy and the White House has pledged military aid to the Ukrainian National Guard in 2015, these steps have not deterred Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly provocative military posturing. As I have argued before, deepening conflict will only be averted if the Russian president can be convinced that invasion will be costly and potentially humiliating.