Russia Swears No Invasion, Never Mind All the Tanks

Is Moscow massing troops on the border for leverage or for war?

Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Russia has no plans to invade southeastern Ukraine, the country’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said at a press conference in London on Friday. Russia’s massive military buildup along Ukraine’s borders appears to tell a different story.

"Everyone understands what Crimea means to Russia," Lavrov said, referring to the contested region in southern Ukraine that has been occupied by Russian military forces and is holding a referendum on Sunday to determine whether it will join the Russian Federation or declare its independence from Ukraine.

Remaining a part of Ukraine, as Crimea had been prior to being occupied by Russian military units, is not an option on the ballot. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with Lavrov for four hours Friday, called the Crimean referendum a violation of international law and warned of economic sanctions and other consequences for Russia if it is not called off. Despite Kerry’s rebukes, Lavrov was steadfast about the importance of Russia’s relationship with Crimea, and allowing the vote there to occur as planned.

Russia's actions aren't as irrational as some critics have alleged. Declaring the importance of diplomacy while pointing a loaded gun is an old and familiar practice in international politics.

Emphasizing the need to protect a special relationship with Crimea, while Russia’s military postures for war elsewhere along Ukraine’s borders, may be a gambit to convince the opposition that giving up Crimea is better than the alternative--full-scale war if Moscow's efforts are blocked.

Large columns of Russian tanks, troops and military vehicles massed on Ukraine’s borders yesterday, in what may not be a sign of impending war but is a clear escalation and attempt to shape the country’s future by threat of force.

Russia’s defense ministry, which had earlier denied the military buildup, acknowledged operations along the border but described them as training exercises. Moscow’s invasion and de facto occupation of Crimea, was also preceded by Russian military exercises along the region’s border.

The ramped up militarization along Ukraine’s borders may be a bargaining tool to increase leverage in ongoing negotiations. Moscow’s next move is hard to predict but the meaning of the current escalation has been clear to Ukrainian officials and world leaders—Russia may not initiate a full-scale war but it’s ready to do so if it chooses.

“Ukraine today is facing the threat of a full-scale invasion from various directions,” Andriy Parubiy, a top Ukrainian defense official told the press on Wednesday. Before the arrival of additional reinforcements yesterday, Parubiy reported that there were over 80,000 Russian troops, up to 450 tanks and armored vehicles, and high concentrations of artillery and combat aircraft deployed near the Ukrainian border.

The spread of Russia’s military forces from the Crimean peninsula in the south, to the eastern and northern borders of Ukraine, reveals a significant change in its military posture.

As street fights raged between Russian and Ukrainian factions in the ethnically mixed Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, with one pro-Ukraine protestor killed by Russia supporters Thursday night, reports surfaced that 1,500 Russian paratroopers had landed at a Russian base in the Rostov region, across the frontier from the Ukrainian city.

The Russian ministry of foreign affairs responded to the fighting in Donetsk with a statement that accused Ukrainian right wing groups of initiating the attacks and blamed the government in Kiev for being “not in control of the situation in the country.” Reporting from the English language Russian-funded propaganda network RT, echoed the claim that Ukrainian fascists were responsible for the violence in Donetsk and noted that the ministry’s official statement stressed “Moscow reserves right to protect compatriots.”

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The claim that Russian nationals in Ukraine are under attack from fascist groups and need the protection of Russia’s military was one of the justifications Moscow gave for the incursion into Crimea and is seen by many as a pretext for a larger invasion.

North of Donetsk in the Ukrainian city Kharkiv, more reports described a large scale Russian troop buildup less than 30 miles from Ukraine’s border.

Ukrainian border guard officials reported that aircraft patrolling the country’s frontier were fired upon Thursday by Russian anti-aircraft vehicles. It was the second time they took fire this week according to the border guard officials who also stated that the aircraft were unarmed.

Even leaders who had been more conciliatory towards Moscow condemned Russia’s recent actions.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of an impending catastrophe in a speech to the German parliament on Thursday. "We would not only see it, also as neighbors of Russia, as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union's relationship with Russia," Merkel said, "no, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is meeting with Russia’s foreign minister in London today, was less sharp in his criticism.

In a congressional appearance on Thursday, Kerry asserted that Russia had not yet made the military preparations to undertake a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Kerry acknowledged that the situation could change quickly but said that he wanted to avoid “hysteria or excessive concern about that at this point of time.”

Both Kerry and Merkel threatened Russia with further economic sanctions if the country continues its military aggression.

As Russia was deploying troops and equipment to put the military on a war footing, one kind of attack was already underway as Moscow silenced its own press. The Russian websites of prominent dissidents like Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny, were taken down and the editor of Lenta.ru, one of the country’s only independent news outlets, was fired and replaced by a Kremlin loyalist.

“We had seen the clouds gathering for a long time, but it was still a shock,” Kasparov told The Daily Beast. “Clearly Putin is preparing for war, whether or not he will actually launch one. It’s timed nicely for Kerry’s meeting with Lavrov, and Putin always raises the stakes to see if his opponent will fold, since they usually do. Putin said in his autobiography that his KGB file dinged him for having a ‘reduced sense of danger.’ It’s possible he simply can’t imagine the US and EU won’t back down again.”

On Friday, as heads of state meet to negotiate and Russia maintains its war footing, diplomacy and militarism remain entwined and continue competing to shape the future of Ukraine.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include comments made by Russia’s Foreign Minister after the story was originally posted.