President Vladimir Putin is deploying troops to the Ukrainian border. What is he planning? DER SPIEGEL visited both sides of the border to take a closer look at the rising tensions.
The machine gunner keeps watch on the stern, as the captain barks orders. Cruising south at 30 knots, the Ukrainian coast guard vessel is heading toward the Kerch, a patrol boat belonging to the Russian domestic intelligence agency FSB that is sailing in the Sea of Azov, just four nautical miles from the Ukrainian coast.
“Russian border guards are now regularly penetrating our sea border,” says Mykola Levytskyi, captain of the Ukrainian ship in the waters off Mariupol. The 2003 agreement, whereby each country pledged to avoid the coastal waters belonging to the other, hasn’t been respected by Moscow for some time, says Levytskyi. Grabbing his binoculars, he affirms that they are nevertheless well prepared for “armed provocations.” An armored patrol ship belonging to the Ukrainian navy has appeared on the horizon: The Akkerman is shadowing the Russian boat in visible range.
“Apparently we will have to step in to defend them.”
Such cat-and-mouse games off the Ukrainian coast are essentially a miniature version of the larger development that is currently threatening to expand into a disastrous conflict: the massive deployment of Russian troops to the border with Ukraine. The Kremlin has stationed thousands of soldiers along with heavy weaponry on the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and in the “people’s republics,” declared by pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western partners believe that number may in fact be between 80,000 and 120,000 armed troops.
The deployment has alarmed governments in the European Union and NATO, with everyone wondering what Russian President Vladimir Putin might be up to. Is it just a threat, or is he planning another attack?
A military observer from a NATO member state, who asked that he not be identified, is likewise unsettled, pointing to satellite images and other surveillance photos taken from the ground. Numerous Russian battalions consisting of tens of thousands of troops have been moved toward Ukraine, reinforcing the divisions that are already stationed in the strategically important military zones West and South, as well as in the already heavily armed Crimea.
A Declaration of War in Disguise
If Russia is crazy enough “to start a war with Ukraine, it would become the stage for a larger conflict that would result in World War III,” said Leonid Kravchuk this week. Kravchuk was the first president of post-Soviet Ukraine and is his country’s representative in the contact group with Russia and the OSCE. The Ukrainian defense minister, meanwhile, has warned that Russia is clearly planning to emulate the 1939 “Gleiwitz incident” – the event invented by the Nazis in 1939 as an excuse to invade Poland. He says there is a danger of an attack launched from the Crimea.
“The Russians could be here in just over an hour. They have already stationed a battalion of naval infantry at their base in Yeysk.”
Moscow, meanwhile, is rattling its sabers. The otherwise cool-headed Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of Kremlin administration and the point man on Ukraine, recently warned of the “beginning of the end of Ukraine” should the Ukrainian government, who Kozak called “children playing with matches,” was to initiate military action. He even compared the situation of ethnic Russians in Donbass with that of Muslims in the Bosnian War and warned of the consequences of a genocide, such as the one that took place in Srebrenica: Should the lives of Russians in the coal-mining and steel region be in danger, then “apparently we will have to step in to defend (them).”
It is an absurd comparison. Indeed, the only way to make sense of it is to see it as a declaration of war in disguise.
Just how threatening things have become can be seen most clearly in the Sea of Azov, between Russian-occupied Crimea and the southern coast of Ukraine. On board the steel-gray, 5,500-ton Donbass, an ancient command ship belonging to the Ukrainian navy, Chief of Staff Mykola Timanov admits that the Port of Mariupol is something of an open flank for Ukraine. “The Russians could be here in just over an hour. They have already stationed a battalion of naval infantry at their base in Yeysk. Now, ships are on their way from the Caspian Sea.”
Timanov believes that an attack on the Port of Mariupol would make sense from the Russian perspective. “If you have control of the port, you can bring in your people and conquer the city, cutting it off from its surroundings. Who knows?” Timanov himself was stationed in the Crimean city of Sevastopol before the peninsula was infiltrated by Russian troops and ultimately annexed. “Of course we are unsettled by developments,” Timanov says.
It’s still not yet clear precisely what is brewing on the border between the two nations – in this almost forgotten corner of Europe that has been at war for almost seven years. Around 14,000 people have thus far lost their lives in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Speaking on the sidelines of one of the symbolic summit meetings including Germany, Russia and Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron referred to the conflict as “an open wound in the heart of our continent.”
What reasons might there be, though, for pushing this conflict to a new, bloody apex?
A Large Military Camp in Voronezh
The Maslovka train station can be found on the southern edge of Voronezh, a large Russian city located around 250 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Heavy materiel is being unloaded at a ramp: tanks, artillery and personnel carriers.
A large Russian military camp is currently developing near the Pogonovo training ground, as observed by DER SPIEGEL on visits to the site on three days. Armored vehicles and trucks can be seen driving along the surrounding roads. According to the number 76 and 87 on their license plates, they are from Russia’s Central Military District. The vehicles are bringing sand and wood to the new camp, with soldiers lugging logs to the provisional base, which is secured by numerous checkpoints.
Troops can be seen using the logs and sand to establish a position in the nearby birch forest. The flags flying on the two-kilometer-long compound indicate that the newly stationed troops here are from infantry, artillery and air-defense units. Soldiers have erected antenna masts, satellite receivers and tents, while the humming of generators can be heard. A target-acquisition radar has also been set up – similar to the one used by the Buk surface-to-air missile system that shot down a fully loaded Malaysia Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Are preparations for war being made here in this otherwise so peaceful-looking city? The dacha settlement just outside the military compound includes a small snack bar selling burgers and doner kebabs. A lieutenant, maybe 30 years old, with three stars on his shoulder straps, is waiting for his food. He declines to say where he is from. When asked if he is stationed here, he responds ambiguously: “We are everywhere.”
And it’s true. There have never been so many soldiers in the area, not even in 2014, says dacha owner Vladislav just outside the military compound, as two soldiers armed with assault rifles keep close watch. 2014 was the year in which Moscow occupied the Crimean Peninsula, which belongs to Ukraine. War arrived in Donbass a short time later, with pro-Russian separatists launching a war against Ukrainian troops with the backing of Russian military advisers.
The creeping annexation of the eastern Donbass, under the direction of Moscow, has been ongoing for the last seven years. Is an invasion now being planned to finally complete the operation? “Damn it, I don’t know,” says the dacha owner Vladislav. “It depends completely on the leadership in Moscow. Whatever happens, happens.”
Troop Deployment in Full View
Western observers are confused by the fact that the Russian army is deploying its troops in full view of the global public. They aren’t being secretive about it as they were during the annexation of the Crimea, when they relied on “little green men,” soldiers without identifying patches on their uniforms, or during the first battles in Donbass.
For days, images have been circulating on social media channels of freight trains loaded with rocket launchers and tanks heading from the Siberian city of Yurga toward the Crimea. Other photos show a load of military transport vehicles being sent from the northwestern town of Pskov toward the Black Sea. On top of that, Iskander short-range missiles from the 119th Rocket Brigade have been sent westward from the Sverdlovsk region to Voronezh.
“It is the largest concentration of Russian military since 2014 and 2015,” says Ruslan Leviev, head of the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT). Each day, the group collects new images from the Russian Facebook clone VKontakte and from TikTok – pictures of trucks and freight trains loaded with rocket launchers and tanks on their way to the Crimea.
Is it all part of an elaborate bluff intended to test the nerves of new U.S. President Joe Biden, who indirectly referred to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as a “killer”? Or is Russia – as it did in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 – interested in landing a targeted blow as a way of making it clear to the (from Moscow’s perspective, cowardly) West that NATO has no business extending its reach into Russia’s neighborhood?
Alexander Golz, an independent expert on the Russian military, does not believe Moscow will launch an attack on Ukraine. The redeployment of troops and military material is simply too blatant. He believes it is likely more of a “demonstration of power” in response to the recently begun NATO exercise Defender Europe 2021. “We have entered a new Cold War,” says Golz. “When NATO used to launch large exercises, the Soviets did the same. That is what we are seeing now.”
“We have entered a new Cold War.”
The troop deployment is also intended to exert diplomatic pressure, Golz believes. Russia has been isolated and targeted with sanctions following the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, he says, and needs negotiating leverage with the West. And the military operations on the Ukrainian border look to be having the desired effect: U.S. President Biden called Putin last Tuesday and proposed a summit meeting at a neutral site. The Russian president will likely have seen the call as a minor victory, particularly since he has consistently claimed that, far from being a party to the conflict in Ukraine, Russia is actually part of the solution – a peace mediator on a par with Washington.
Still, Golz says, the risks being taken by Moscow are already enormous. “With its troop movements, Moscow is balancing on the brink of war,” he says. Two American Hercules transport planes landed 10 days ago in Kyiv carrying a secret freight. And U.S. reconnaissance drones have recently been seen over eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
An Expensive Annexation
The only thing that seems certain is that the Kremlin wants to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into making compromises on the two “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine. One scenario that the Russians would find attractive looks as follows: Kyiv passes a law on the future status of Donbass, allows elections to go ahead and only receives control over its external border at the last minute – so as not to influence the vote.
Thus far, though, Zelensky has shown little intention of accommodating Russian expectations. Instead, he recently slapped sanctions on the oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who is a friend of Putin’s, and shut down three pro-Russian broadcasters. The North Crimean Canal, a vital source of water to the Crimean Peninsula, was blocked in 2014. The Ukrainian Navy is convinced that gaining control of the canal is among the Kremlin’s possible war aims.
The annexation of the Crimea has been, and continues to be, extremely expensive for Moscow. Russia is currently investing up to 5 billion euros a year into the region. In addition, significant sums have flowed into the Donbass people’s republics in the last seven years – even as the Russian populace continues to suffer from the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is considered unlikely that Putin will attempt to boost his popularity by way of armed conflict, as he did in 2014. Sixty-two percent of respondents to a recent survey – a record high – indicated they were “very afraid” of a war, says Lew Gudkow, of the public opinion research institute Levada Center. He also says that the share of hardcore Putin supporters has more than halved within just the last three years – with just 27 percent now belonging to that group.
Yevhen Shuk is a former sniper with a strong handshake and a new function in the Ukrainian army: He is head of military intelligence for the motorized infantry brigade on the outskirts of Mariupol. The city of 450,000 on the Ukrainian coast, with a majority Russian-speaking populace, is considered a stronghold of Putin supporters.
The share of hardcore Putin supporters has more than halved within just the last three years.
Shuk says that according to his analyses, more than half the population wouldn’t necessarily support the Ukrainians should conflict break out. The city government, which is mostly loyal to oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, likely can’t be counted on, Shuk believes. “From our perspective, the danger of an attack is lower than a conflict being triggered by ‘submarines,’ or Russian meddlers in the city.”
In summer 2014, Mariupol was briefly in the hands of the primarily Russian rebels. Behind the front that summer, the Ukrainian Galina Odnorog earned the honorary title “Mother Courage.” Since then, she has fought to ensure that the terror the city experienced seven years ago never returns.
She says she didn’t dig defensive trenches and evacuate the wounded back then to now simply allow everything to restart from the beginning. The windowless skeleton of the city hall and police headquarters in the city center still haven’t been repaired, and talk of war has already returned? Odnorog is furious. “The entire world is worried, but our mayor isn’t? No preparations have been made for an emergency. We may not know what is going through Putin’s head, but as residents of a city on the front, we should be prepared for the worst.”
Behind the Front
Instead, the mood in the city of Mariupol, which lies on Ukrainian territory just 20 kilometers from the front, is as if residents are calmly waiting for the coming storm to arrive.
In the Oba-Na restaurant, fancily dressed guests are celebrating a birthday party. Santa Barbara beach is full and against the backdrop of the smoke-belching Azov steel factory, fishermen have gathered on the banks of the Kalmius.
The war, which has been underway here for years, only occasionally finds its way into the consciousness of the residents. For example, when Yulia Paevska drives into town in a camouflage VW bus, with a plastic skeleton dangling up front, for a meal of shashlik. Julia – nom de guerre: Taira – is head of emergency medicine at the embattled section of the front near Shyrokyne.
She takes care of the injured and the dead, documenting lost limbs, head injuries and missing eyes. This year, the Ukrainian military has already reported 20 instances of “Gruz 200,” or “Freight 200.” The term, which is used to denote the fallen, is rooted in Soviet military jargon and refers to the average weight of a dead soldier in a zinc coffin.
“As tactics have changed, so too have the kinds of injuries,” says the volunteer Yulia, before she climbs into her mobile lazarette with lettering reading “Taira’s Angels.” She says that “the adversary is now relying less on snipers and more on landmines that are dropped from drones. At a place that was safe yesterday, you can be torn apart today.”
On the Ukrainian side of the front, hardly anyone speaks of “the Russians,” instead using terms like “adversary” or “aggressor,” or simply saying “the other side.” Which is also how they speak in Chermalyk, where deputy commander Vova, of the 53rd Mechanized Brigade, leads the way through the trenches.
The wood-lined, 10×10 centimeter peephole at the very front is manned by Private “Grusin.” On the other side of the Kalmius River, which marks the front line here, he can see the adversary’s positions and can watch as women bring the fighters their meals. The adversary uses sniper rifles, says Commander Vova, which don’t lose their accuracy at a range of 1,000 meters and more – no comparison to their Soviet-era Kalashnikovs. “We could shoot the sheep down here,” Vova jokes. “Nothing else. But we have been ordered anyway by army leadership to only return fire lightly.”
Do the troops obey? It’s hard to imagine that they do. When President Zelensky recently toured the front to hand out medals and honor the dead, he also stopped off in “Promka,” the old industrial area of Avdeevka – where the staff of the tank battalion meet and the soldiers, fingers on the trigger, talk about their hit rate.
Avdeeka is just a small dot on the 427-kilometer-long line, which – three decades after the end of the Cold War – now marks the front dividing the east from the west on its path through Ukraine. And the longer this war lasts, the deeper will be the rifts. On the west side of the line, payments are made in hryvnia, on the east, in rubles. In the west, this long-lasting conflict is attributed to a Russian invasion, in the east, they call it a civil war.
The Chance for Peace
Is peace and cooperation still possible? Since April 2019, Moscow has issued more than 440,000 Russian passports to residents in the separatist areas. Indeed, even as the Kremlin is seemingly preparing for war by amassing troops and heavy weaponry on the Ukrainian border, a process is underway which Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov praised in 2013 as a key instrument in hybrid warfare: “soft power,” in the form of handing out Russian citizenship.
In Novoshakhtinsk, a city of 100,000 in southern Russia, not far from the border to the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, demand for citizenship remains high. A blue-and-white bus pulls up on a recent Wednesday in front of a two-story building on the outskirts of the city that is guarded by troops from the National Guard. Forty-six men and women enter the building as Ukrainians and emerge less than an hour later as Russians, holding their new, red passports.
They don’t seem particularly excited about their new documents. It appears to be more of a necessity that has to be taken care of. Russia now controls most of the economy in Luhansk. “Everyone who works in state-run companies and agencies tries to get the passport,” says 26-year-old Anastasiya. She works for a state-owned natural gas company in Luhansk. She sees Moscow as an ally and a savior. “Seven years have already passed. We are waiting to finally become a country.” She would prefer that Luhansk becomes part of Russia sooner rather than later.
But should the Russian army attack as it did in the Crimea? “That’s a decision that our political leadership must make,” she says. Anastasiya prefers not to consider the potential war that could break out. “I’d rather not think about it,” she says.
The procedure of distributing passports in Novoshakhtinsk is quick and efficient. The bus carrying Anastasiya and the others has hardly left for its return trip to Luhansk before the next vehicle shows up. It unloads the next carload full of future Russians.