Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the West of "escalating" military tensions by selling arms to Ukraine, holding unscheduled naval drills in the Black Sea and flying bombers near its borders in a speech on November 18.
Temperatures have risen dramatically in the last two weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed that Russia was building up troops near Ukraine and could possible invade the country. He called the situation the “most dangerous since 2014”, when Russia annexed the Crimea.
The talk of war has been increasing in volume noticeably in the last week, made worse by the escalating migrant crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus engineered by Lukashenko in “revenge” for the four rounds of sanctions imposed on him since he retook office in a disputed election last August 9.
Putin defended Russia and pointed to increased military manoeuvres by Nato forces on Russia’s borders, which he said the Kremlin found threatening.
Moreover, Turkey recently supplied Ukraine with an unmanned military attack drone that was used to take out a rebel artillery position at the end of October that will escalate the conflict in the Donbas, as Russia is likely to upgrade the separatist’s arsenal to counter the new threat. Putin talked about “red lines” after that attack.
Several countries have bought the Turkish-made technology that was used to devastating effect by Azerbaijan in last year’s short war with Armenia for control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Kyiv is now in talks with Ankara on the possibility of building a drone factory in Ukraine to manufacture more.
Ukraine has invested significant amounts in its military in the last seven years, spending some 5% of GDP on arms – more than twice the Nato norm of 2% of GDP. In addition, US president Donald Trump abandoned Barak Obama’s cautious stance and supplied Kyiv with tank-busting Javelin missiles and other sophisticate hardware. The US has been granting Ukraine some $250mn in military aid for the last few years.
More recently, the UK closed a $1.3bn naval base upgrade and sold Ukraine several frigates as well. The UK defence minister was in Kyiv this week to continue talks on new military deals to modernise the Ukrainian army as well.
"(Our) Western partners are escalating the situation by supplying Kyiv with lethal modern weapons and conducting provocative manoeuvres in the Black Sea," Putin said in a speech to the Foreign Ministry, as cited by the Moscow Times, going on to call for security guarantees from the West to ease tensions.
He also claimed that Western bombers are flying "20 km from our border."
Putin said Moscow has been "constantly raising concerns about this" but "all our warnings and talk about red lines are treated superficially."
Diplomatic relations deteriorate
The Kremlin has taken a much tougher line in its foreign policy this year, starting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s new rules of the game speech in February where he said Russia from now on rejects the West’s dual-track policy of imposing sanctions with one hand and wanting to do business or co-operate in difficult geopolitical problems like Syria with the other. Lavrov went on to threaten to break off diplomatic relations with the EU entirely if it continued these policies.
Despite Biden’s attempts at a reset of sorts with Russia, military relations have continued to deteriorate as bne IntelliNews contributor Leonid Ragozin argued in a recent opinion piece “Talk of war increases long-standing tensions between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Nato.”
The spiralling tensions fell to a new low when Russia broke off diplomatic relations with Nato entirely in October. However, analysts point out that there was very little of the relationship left to end and that Russia has long preferred bilateral relations to dealing with large international bodies, as in one-on-one talks it has the opportunity to broker deals and win concessions.
More recently, Putin has been voicing concern about US naval exercises currently underway in the Black Sea for days, telling his French counterpart President Emmanuel Macron this week that the exercises were "provocative" and had led to "increasing tensions" between Moscow and Nato.
Tensions in the Black Sea have also been building since an earlier set of exercises, when the British destroyer HMS Defender deliberately sailed into waters off Crimea under Russia’s control, provoking another clash. Russia’s navy fired warning shots across HMS Defender’s bows in one of the most significant naval clashes since the end of the Cold War.
The Black Sea is a sensitive region for Russia, which has been re-establishing itself as a naval force in the Mediterranean in the last few years after an almost two-decade absence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin called for a de-escalation of the tension and also said that with the perennial Nato expansion Russia wants security guarantees from the West.
"Brussels needs to understand that the decreasing of military-political tensions is not only in Russian interests, but in those of the whole of Europe, and even the world," Putin said.
As bne IntelliNews reported following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and again in April following the build-up of troops on Ukraine’s border, Russia has been calling for a new pan-European security deal to replace the Cold War era Nato arrangements since 2008.
Earlier on Thursday, the Kremlin said Europe should not blame Russia for "all problems."
"Russia has an interest in everybody in Europe finally coming to their senses and stopping considering Russia the culprit of all problems," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Peskov's remarks come after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on November 17 warned Russia against any "military adventurism" on the borders of Ukraine and EU member Poland, just as his Defence Minister Ben Wallace arrived in Kyiv to hold arms sales talks.
"Recently there have been a lot of hysterical publications in Britain," Peskov said. "Russia is not waging any hybrid wars," he added.
All the talk of war was sparked by Blinken’s comments that are based on US intelligence of arms movements in Russia, but details released to the public have been limited. There are three main redeployments recently that have caused the most concern.
The first was the decision to leave some of the extra troops that were moved into the Crimea during the build-up on Ukraine’s border in April ahead of the Geneva summit.
The second is the transfer of the 41st Combined Arms Army from its headquarters in Novosibirsk in Siberia in the Central Military District to Yelnya in Russia’s Western Military District that is adjacent to the middle of the eastern Belarusian border in March ahead of the quadrennial “Zapod” military exercises. At the end of the exercises the 41st CAA was not sent home, according to a paper by European Council on Foreign Relations (ECRF).
This position servers several purposes. First it fills a gap between the 6th CAA in the Northern Military District near St Petersburg and the 20th CAA in agricultural region of Voronezh in the Southern Military District. Secondly, in a war with Nato the 41st CAA could quickly march through Belarus and into the “Suwalki gap,” the strategic key to attacking the Baltic states in co-operation with units stationed in Kaliningrad.
But most threateningly, the 41st CAA could also briefly pass through Belarus and cross Ukraine’s northern border and take up position on the Dnieper river that runs through the capital in a pincer movement to cut off Ukraine’s forces facing Russia’s armies on its eastern border from any reinforcements.
The new position of the 41st CAA plays the role of threatening Ukraine with an offence, but it also considerably bolsters Russia’s defensive position in the Western Military District against a Nato attack. Poland recently announced that it intends to double the size of its army and the 41st CAA could be a defensive counter to this potential threat.
The third of the three recent deployments has sent more troops and armour to the Rostov region, which is the keystone to Russia’s Southern Military district and on the Black Sea coast. From the city of Rostov-on-Don Russian forces could march straight into the Donbas to join the separatist rebels and then rapidly move down the coast to link up with the concentration of Russian forces based in the Crimea.
Again, the bolstering of the forces in Rostov could be both offensive and defensive, except in this case the “defence” would be for the separatist rebels in Donbas should Kyiv launch a major military offence against the rebels, which is entirely on Ukraine’s territory.
However, deploying troops to Rostov also shores up a key position in Russia’s southern flank on the Sea of Azov, which is accessible by those very same US and UK naval forces Putin was complaining about this week. As Ukraine has two key ports also on the Sea of Azov, in any war with the west capturing the sea and its access via the Kerch straits would be a key and early objective.
But none of these deployments suggest an imminent attack. Many publications have reported that Russia is “massing troops” on Ukraine’s borders, which is not the case. As bne IntelliNews reported this week, even the Ukrainian border guards say there are currently no troops near the border and certainly none are “massing” for an attack.
A few commentators have pointed to the parallels with April when Russia did massively build up troops on the Ukraine border, also sparking war talk. In that case analysts believe the ostentatious of Russia’s ability to make trouble was partly aimed at the White House ahead of a one-on-one summit between US President Joe Biden and Putin in Geneva on June 16. The idea was to soften up the Americans ahead of the talks and to strengthen Putin’s hand in what were always going to be difficult discussions.
After a tense month Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu sent the troops back to barracks in time for the Easter holidays.
With a second Putin-Biden summit due before the end of the year it could be that the Americans are playing the same card ahead of the fresh talks.
Biden has been keen to play tensions with Moscow down since he took over in January, so Blinken’s comments came out of the blue and are by far the most alarmist the Biden camp has made so far.
US Domestic politics are also fertile ground for anti-Russian comments. Some House democrats have also vocally opposed Biden’s decision to drop any further sanctions on the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, egged on by the US energy lobby that are keen to see the project fail so the US can sell more LNG to Europe.