- Lioman Lima – @liomanlima
- BBC World News
One of the most unstable areas in the world trembles again at the advance of Russian tanks.
Since the end of March, satellite images and videos leaked on social networks began to show an extensive deployment of heavy artillery and Russian troops towards the Dombás region, in the border area in eastern Ukraine, where a conflict began in 2014 that It’s not over yet.
According to the research group Conflict Intelligence TeamThe Kremlin has not only transported military forces to the area, but has also set up numerous camps on the border.
“It is probably the largest military mobilization that Ukraine has seen in its vicinity since 2015,” Anders Åslund, a researcher at the Atlantic Council, tells BBC Mundo. think tank based in Washington.
“Although the Kremlin has moved its army many times in that area over the last seven years, this time the concentration of forces seems especially worrying,” he adds.
As a result, both the Ukrainian army and the US European Command have been put on high alert for fear of further military clashes.
Last week, US President Joe Biden called for the first time since taking office from his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodimir Zelensky, as the State Department criticized the deployment of Russian troops.
The Ukrainian president, who has positioned himself as a staunch critic of Russia in Eastern Europe, he also spoke with the leaders of the United Kingdom and Canada, while France and Germany held a dialogue with Putin on the subject last week.
On Tuesday, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg tweeted that he had also called Zelensky “to express serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine” and said the organization “strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Experts on the conflict and correspondents from the BBC’s Russian and Ukrainian services assure BBC Mundo that it is still not clear what could be behind the military deployment.
For some, the possibility of a new escalation in the conflict is not ruled out, while others believe that Putin is moving his tanks towards Ukraine as a test of strength towards the new United States government and towards the European Union.
“Moscow always plays its cards in different places at the same time. We don’t know what Putin wants this time, but given the level of mobilization, he is certainly looking for something,” Åslund notes.
What’s going on?
The 2014 war, which led to the Russian annexation of Crimea, has so far left more than 14,000 dead, according to official figures.
The sides signed an armistice eight months ago, which led to a notable de-escalation of the conflict.
However, last month the Kremlin held military exercises in Crimea and since the end of the month, various reports began to show the deployment of heavy military equipment to the Dombás region, which were later identified as belonging to the Russian army.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the BBC that his government had identified “an accumulation of Russian military personnel” on the northern border between his country and Russia, along the eastern border and “also in the Crimea illegally occupied “.
Since then, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has recorded hundreds of ceasefire violations, including 493 on March 26 alone.
Many of the Russian troops have been transported from regions as distant as Volgograd, from where the 56th Airborne Brigade, one of the forces that Moscow used in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Chechnya, was dispatched.
“From various sources we know of at least 4,000 Russian military personnel in three border regions with Ukraine,” Zhanna Bezpiatchuk, a BBC correspondent in Kiev, tells BBC Mundo.
“They could constitute between five and six groups of tactical battalions, according to military experts. The Ukrainian army stated that more than 20 of these groups may be stationed near the borders of Ukraine,” he says.
Last Thursday, at least four Ukrainian soldiers died in an altercation with the Russian military, while another two died earlier this week.
“The situation in Dombás at the moment is worrying, but at the same time very dark, because access to the media there is very limited,” Olga Ivshina, who covered the 2014 war for the Russian service of the BBC.
“So, we do not know for sure what is happening, beyond the videos and intelligence reports. But it is certainly a more serious situation than previous military movements,” he says.
What does Russia say?
The Russian government has not denied, as has happened on other occasions, the military deployment.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov assured a press conference that Russia has the right to move “its armed forces within its territory at its discretion.”
However, he claimed that “it should not concern anyone and does not pose a threat to anyone“.
He questioned, however, what he saw as Ukraine’s “border provocations” and criticized that country’s desire to join NATO.
“We highly doubt that this will help Ukraine solve its internal problem,” he said.
According to Ivshina, Russian media, especially television (the main medium for the adult population) and Telegram channels (popular with the youngest) have been used in recent times to talk about the need to protect the speaking population. Russian from the Dombás.
Åslund agrees that one of the elements that differentiates these military movements is that they have been accompanied by a campaign of communications and publications in which Moscow accuses Ukraine and the United States of preparing an “attack” that could affect Russian interests.
“The accusations are totally false, but they serve to create a state of opinion that serves to justify a potential attack,” he says.
Because right now?
According to Åslund, one of the questions raised by the military deployment is why it is happening at the moment.
The expert recalls that one of the possible causes is that the Biden government has not yet finished conforming, given that there are still nominations that have not passed the Senate, which makes a possible negotiation with the United States difficult in case the Kremlin carries out some “destabilizing movement”.
He points out that another point to take into account is that next October Russia will hold elections to the Duma (Parliament), in which Putin’s party runs the risk of losing the majority given the fall in the popularity of the president.
“On previous occasions, Putin has used the war to reinforce his popularity when it has gone down, as it happened in Chechnya or Georgia,” he recalls.
What are other possible causes?
Bezpiatchuk points out that another element that has been considered is the possibility that Russia is using the military move in this area to distract attention from another potential target.
“It is probably the first time in recent years that too many military analysts and well-informed sources admit that Russia could use seasonal drills and relocations as a cover for other plans,” he notes.
“The scale, intensity and secrecy of these movements now make them think that this could be it,” he adds.
The correspondent recalls that this was what happened in 2014, when the Kremlin withdrew its forces to the south of the country and then sent them to Crimea to occupy the peninsula.
“But the official explanation for the massive relocation of the army was the need to provide security for the Sochi Olympics. Many in Ukraine now remember this story,” he says.
However, Bezpiatchuk and Åslund agree that Putin would risk numerous sanctions and further international isolation if he dares a new attack.
That is why, they say, is that many analysts and military experts in Ukraine and abroad think that in the end it will only be a test of strength to measure the response of Biden and Europe.
“The idea of such movements is to attract attention and increase your own visibility. Obviously, you have already succeeded,” says Bezpiatchuk.
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