Since the recent deployment of U.S. troops to train Ukrainian forces, the Russian government has become even more vocal in its criticism of U.S. involvement in the region. On April 23, a spokesman for Russia's Ministry of Defense, Igor Konashenkov, said that U.S. troops are training Ukrainian forces not only in western Ukraine, but also in Donbas near the conflict zone. The statement came a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the deployment of U.S. trainers to western Ukraine and the alleged involvement of forces from Academi, a private security firm, in eastern Ukraine violate the terms of the Minsk agreement.
At the same time, the U.S. government is accusing Russia of continuing to ship heavy weapons into eastern Ukraine and building up its military presence on the border, particularly around the Russian city of Belgorod, to a size larger than any force deployed to the area since October. The U.S. Department of State published a statement on April 22 saying that the Russian military has continued moving heavy weapons to the region, is sending additional troops to the Ukrainian border, and has deployed additional air defense systems into eastern Ukraine, creating the highest concentration of air defenses in the area since the height of the conflict in August. According to the statement, combined Russian and Russia-backed separatist forces have been conducting increasingly complex training in eastern Ukraine.
Major Offensive Unlikely
Russia is unlikely to opt for a significant military offensive in Ukraine because of logistical, military and financial constraints. Despite the reported buildup on the border and increase in air defenses, Russian-backed separatists have largely respected the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. Fighting still takes place on a daily basis, often with lethal casualties, but it remains more or less limited to the established contact line. Separatist forces have not conducted any actual offensives, and both sides have withdrawn most major artillery systems in accordance with the cease-fire agreement. The continued use of 120 mm and 122 mm mortars has technically been in conflict with the deal, as the two sides were supposed to withdraw all artillery and mortar system with calibers larger than 100 mm, but the use of these systems has become more or less acceptable within the established parameters. The cease-fire has not been implemented completely, but both sides have informally accepted the current level of violence, which does not form the basis for either side to completely reject the Minsk framework.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has emphasized progress in the implementation of parts of the Minsk agreement, especially the withdrawal of heavy arms. On the other hand, United States and NATO officials have chosen to publicly highlight continued Russian supply and weapons flows to eastern Ukraine, as well as personnel rotations.The two positions are not contradictory. Rather, Berlin and Washington are emphasizing different aspects of the realities on the ground to further two different political goals. While Germany is pushing for a de-escalation of tensions, U.S. policymakers are using Russia’s continued involvement in eastern Ukraine to push regional allies, including Poland and Turkey, to take a greater role in an emerging regional alliance.
Benefits of a Buildup
U.S. accusations about Russia's military buildup, however, are not unfounded. In late February, an entire battalion-sized mechanized infantry unit arrived in Belgorod, while armor and artillery units moved toward the city by rail. Convoys carrying armored personnel carriers, supply trucks and command vehicles later followed. By mid-March, there were at least two mechanized battalions, one artillery battalion, one air defense battalion and at least two armored companies in Belgorod. The Russian city is located about 40 kilometers (24 miles) away from the border with Ukraine, close to the strategic Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Deploying so close to Kharkiv is a threat to the Ukrainian government.
The deployment to Belgorod also makes sense as part of a Russian effort to maintain a long-term presence on the Ukrainian border. By concentrating large forces in particular locations, rather than having smaller tactical units spread out along vast sections of the border, the Russian military significantly lowers the logistical cost of maintaining that presence.
The Kremlin's decision to deploy additional air defense systems, send heavy weapons, and provide separatist forces with more complex, advanced training is part of Russia's broader strategy in the region. Despite the cease-fire, Russia has never stopped moving weapons and equipment to separatists across the border, most notably transferring tanks on a regular basis. While separatist forces could use these resources for offensive purposes, the Kremlin’s training and weapons program for separatists is likely designed both to entrench Russian influence in the separatist territories and boost its leverage against Ukraine and the West.
Russia has been working with the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" to crack down on rogue pro-Russia armed groups that are not under Kremlin control and can violate the cease-fire without Russian consent, thus undermining Moscow's leverage in negotiations with the West and Kiev. For Russia, creating a professional, tightly-run military structure in the separatist regions improves its ability to control the tactical and strategic decision-making of the separatists, as these structures would be completely dependent on Russia for logistical support and supplies. Boosting air defenses and providing more advanced training to the separatists increases the republics' defensive capabilities, further deterring Ukraine from resuming efforts to regain lost territories. Controlling professional, well-equipped military structures in the separatist regions puts Moscow in a stronger position for negotiating over the future status of Donbas.
Russia is still facing domestic economic problems and a potential power struggle among various security and political factions in Moscow. And any significant military moves in Ukraine would run into logistical difficulties. Thus, Russia's buildup is likely not part of a planned offensive. Rather, it represents Russia's efforts to consolidate control over separatist regions in the long term, because maintaining a credible military threat along Ukraine's borders will strengthen Russia's hand when negotiating with the West.