Sabre-rattling or ratcheting up to war? As tanks mass and angry exchanges grow between Moscow and Kiev, the US and EU look on anxiously. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the likely outcome of a crisis with a troubling resemblance to the start of war in 2014

One afternoon seven years ago, I found myself gazing out from the window of a Ukrainian Airlines Boeing-737 at the flat steppe landscape of eastern Ukraine that lay below.

From thousands of feet up, the ground beneath was a patchwork montage of wheat fields and forests. Tranquil from this altitude, it was hard to believe that I was about to arrive in a place rapidly tipping into the abyss of war.

Landing that day at Donetsk airport’s gleaming terminal building named after the composer Sergei Prokofiev, a native of eastern Ukraine, I could not have imagined that a few months later the airport’s shell-smashed ruins would come to stand as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Upgraded at a cost of £530 million for the European football championships, the airport was the most expensive item on the Euro 2012 budget.

Few Ukrainians either could have foreseen back then how, during less than one year of warfare, the stadium would be reduced to scorched rubble, as Ukrainian troops battled pro-Russian separatist fighters for control of what was to become a strategic location on the outskirts of Donetsk.

By that time, the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine was deeply mired in a war between these Russian separatist fighters and Ukrainian forces. It’s a conflict that has continued ever since albeit largely forgotten by the world until it occasionally flares wildly and makes global headlines as it has done these past days.

This weekend, under orders from President Vladimir Putin, Russia is massing troops, tanks, and heavy artillery close to the Ukrainian border in the biggest show of force in the area since 2015.

This is a perilous moment for the region, one in which Ukraine braces itself for the worst while the US, European Union (EU) and Nato look on nervously trying to anticipate the next move by Kremlin officials who so far have been talking tough.

“This would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” said Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration, warning of Moscow’s response should there be any Ukrainian assault on separatist-held territories within its borders.

Nothing to gain?

That Ukraine would likely come off badly in any all-out war with Russia leads many analysts to believe that it has nothing to gain from launching any assault to recapture the breakaway regions, and rather it is Russia perhaps that seeks to “manufacture” a scenario to justify a military offensive of its own.

“I’m worried something bad’s about to happen ... a Russian provocation, followed by Russian accusations of Ukrainian aggression: the Georgia scenario,” one EU diplomat was cited by the EUobserver online newspaper as saying a few days ago, referring to the Georgia war in 2008, when Russian tanks nearly overran the capital Tbilisi.

Last Thursday, in a telephone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin was already reported to have accused Ukraine of provocations and inflaming the situation, only adding to suspicions that Moscow was looking for a pretext to take assertive military action.

But long before this exchange, relations between Moscow and Kiev have been on a downward trajectory. There are several driving factors behind this. To being with, Ukrainian officials in recent weeks have talked about the futility of further talks on the implementation of the 2015 Minsk Accords, which were supposed to stop the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine

This often-violated ceasefire accord is a two-part deal, the second being signed in February 2015 by Ukraine and Russia, along with the Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was also a signatory.

But the agreement’s implementation has proved elusive, partly because of Russia’s funding and support for the separatists and partly because of internal Ukrainian politics, as well as European and Nato wavering on how forcefully to confront Moscow and how much support to give Kiev.

‘Deeply humiliating’

For their part, most Ukrainian politicians and the general public see the terms of the Minsk Accords as deeply humiliating, their resentment growing only greater the more Vladimir Putin demands Ukraine stick by the agreement.

Added to this the administration of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been turning the screw on Moscow’s influence in Ukraine, shutting down the pro-Kremlin media there and imposing sanctions on Russian government organisations.

Zelensky’s government has also imposed sanctions on Ukraine’s main pro-Kremlin politician, Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter is Putin’s godchild.

All of this has culminated in a growing sense in Moscow that its objective of extending Russian influence over Ukraine is being thwarted, an influence the Kremlin has been trying to achieve through a combination of hard diplomacy and soft coercion until 2014, and by hybrid warfare, ever since.

While these past years the Russian economy has struggled, its military strength has increased, and Putin has used this to bolster his position at home by exerting military and diplomatic muscle beyond Russia’s borders in places like eastern Ukraine.

As James Sherr, senior fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) recently summed it up,

“the combination of political necessity and military opportunity is never auspicious”.

So, just where does this leave the highly volatile situation on the ground now? What, too, is the scale and nature of Russia’s military build-up and likely objectives? And equally important, what will the response be of the US, EU, and Nato if, in a worst-case scenario, Ukraine itself came under attack?

The first thing to recognise is that Russia has more troops on Ukraine’s eastern border than at any time since the Donbas war’s “hot phase” in 2014/15, when it annexed Crimea and backed the separatist territory seizures.

According to investigative bloggers at the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) which uses open-source analysis to track and monitor military activity, Russian troops are concentrating in a new army camp in the Voronezh region about 155 miles from Ukraine, in an area that borders territory controlled by Kiev, not the

self-proclaimed people’s or separatist republics.

This location, say analysts, is very significant because in the event of the potential Ukrainian offensive that Moscow warns of it would be “more logical” for Russia to deploy its forces in the Rostov region “to support the separatist formations”.

As such, CIT analysts conclude that the Russian military’s position “is more offensive than defensive.”

It’s estimated that along with heavy weaponry, some 4,000 new Russian troops have arrived in the region. Analysts from the Jane’s Defence publication also report they have identified Russian ballistic missile systems deployed alongside over a dozen tank and rocket launcher units.

‘Boots on ground’

BUT what is less clear is whether the Kremlin has a clear military aim in sight, or whether it is using the show of force as a lever to advance diplomatic efforts elsewhere, intimidating Kiev and sending a message at the same time to the West that Russia is willing to put a lot of “boots on the ground” rapidly.

“The ostentation with which the troops are being moved confirms that Russia is sabre-rattling rather than contemplating a blitzkrieg,” concluded Maxim Samorukov, a fellow with the Moscow Carnegie Centre, in an opinion piece published on the think tank’s website a few days ago. Others are inclined to agree.

“I think that the last thing Russia needs right now is a small, victorious war that could lead to an armed confrontation with the entire West, along with the subsequent political and economic sanctions, and the transfer of our country into the ranks of the ultimate outcasts,” said military observer Mikhail Kodarenko, a retired colonel speaking to the Latvia-based Russian language news site, Meduza.

“On the other hand, it seems as though the positions can’t be surrendered either. But how do you find a way out? It’s a lose-lose. To put it as mildly as possible, this is a very difficult military-political situation,” added Kodarenko.

For its part, the Kremlin continues to keep watchers guessing, with its spokesman Dmitry Peskov one minute, dismissing questions about the troop movements as a domestic concern with nothing to fear and then insisting he sees risk of a “resumption of full-scale military action”. These mixed messages are keeping the US, EU, and Nato on edge, forcing them to again express their “unwavering support” for Ukraine and calling for a meeting of the alliance’s North Atlantic Council last week to discuss the crisis.

Many believe the timing of Russia’s military moves also has as much to do with throwing down the gauntlet to Washington and in particular President Joe Biden whose administration has signalled a more confrontational approach towards Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions.

The US wasted no time in hitting Russia with economic sanctions in response to the near-fatal poisoning of opposition activist Alexei Navalny with a military-grade nerve agent and to his imprisonment when he returned to Russia from Germany three days before Biden’s inauguration. Navalny is currently under detention in a penal colony where he has been on hunger strike since March 31.

Kremlin watchers say Putin’s current “fortress Russia” attitude regarding Ukraine will also help to distract attention from the fate of Navalny, who is now seriously ill.

All of which still leaves open the question as to what the Kremlin’s endgame is beyond a big military

sabre-rattling deployment.

Political theatre

Perhaps the most obvious answer is that all this is political theatre on Putin’s behalf, looking as he is to squeeze further concessions from Kiev for the Russian separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine.

The most obvious way to do this would be to pressure the US and EU who, in turn, might lean on president Zelensky, insisting that such concessions would be better than any all-out war.

In looking for clues as to what Moscow’s ultimate objectives might be it’s worth also recognising how Russia has handled other smouldering conflicts in its “backyard”.

Ever since the Soviet collapse these have flared and died down again in places like Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Transdniester in Moldova. In such crises Russian forces have often been deployed and remained, either as “peacekeepers” or as fully-fledged military units.

They have done so unilaterally, ignoring the UN or OSCE, and with the express purpose of securing Russia’s interests.

For now, the ceasefire violations on the line of separation between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine continue to spike and the rising rhetoric has raised fears that the combat could spread as it did back in the 2014 war.

Looking back now on that time, I recall how, within a few months of first arriving in Donetsk, I was then to return on numerous occasions as the war intensified in the region. On one visit I found myself in the badly damaged frontline town of Stanitsa Luhanska at a crossing that had been dubbed “Checkpoint Stalingrad”.

This marked the last town centre position manned by the Ukrainian forces before a buffer zone of no-man’s land and the trenches and emplacements of pro-Russian

separatist soldiers. In such a short passage of time the war had dangerously escalated. Where once in Donetsk the only warning signs of impending war were the young masked separatist supporters carrying baseball bats and iron bars who manned the city’s barricades, now here were both sides squaring off as fully-equipped armies.

On roads around the region the charred hulks of destroyed tanks were testimony as to how deadly and sophisticated the weaponry had become, and how far the war had flared. Today, the firepower now in place is so much greater again and the tension as dangerously elevated as it has ever been these past years.

Over the coming days, be it in Moscow, Kiev, Washington or other Western capitals, the situation along the line of separation will be closely monitored.

Only the foolhardiest, however, would claim with any certainty to know what will happen next.