20 years under Putin: a timeline

Tensions are growing again at the Ukraine-Russia border and in the zone of armed conflict in the Donbass. According to some estimates, about 110,000 Russian troops could be pulled to the border as part of Russia’s “symmetrical response” to the largest NATO exercises in years. Some observers expect further escalation, even a Russian invasion. While the Kremlin’s saber-rattling is likely to test the new Biden administration, which has recently declared its support for Ukraine, the risk of a Russian “big war” with Ukraine is quite real..


March 6, 2021: The village of Vesele in Yasinuvata District of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR). Despite the July 27, 2020 armistice in the southeastern Ukraine, over the last few weeks OSCE observers have registered an increasing number of violations. Photo: Sergei Averin | Sputnik via AP.


Following the March 26 escalation near ​​the village of Shumy in the Donbass, when four Ukrainian servicemen were killed under fire from pro-Russian separatists (since the beginning of 2021, the number of casualties has reached 26), the Kremlin began a massive transfer of weapons and equipment to the border with Ukraine, as well as into the territory of the annexed Crimea. 

According to Kirill Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of  the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, “analysis of the security environment around Ukraine indicates an increasing threat of the use of military force by the Russian Federation. [Its] goal is to keep Ukraine in the sphere of [Russia’s] geopolitical influence, force it to abandon Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and resolve the issue of the occupied territories [in the Donbass] on Moscow’s terms.” He also stressed that by late April the Russian armed forces grouping along the border with Ukraine could number 110,000. This accumulation of forces and equipment has not been seen since the intense fighting in the Donbass in 2015. 

On April 12, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Moscow “will not remain indifferent to the fate of Russian speakers who live in the southeastern regions of Ukraine.” According to the UN estimates for 2016, about 3 million people resided in the conflict-ridden Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are not presently under Kyiv’s control. Two years ago, the Kremlin gave them the opportunity to obtain Russian passports under a simplified procedure (“for humanitarian purposes”), and today about 400,000 people have used this option. This factor might give the Kremlin an additional reason for military escalation under the guise of “protecting Russian citizens,” as happened during the 2008 military conflict with Georgia.

Meanwhile, on April 13, during a personal meeting in Brussels with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Ukrainian and American diplomats agreed that they needed to “demotivate Moscow from further escalation.” On the same day, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke over the phone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, proposing a meeting in the coming months to discuss the full spectrum of issues pertinent to the bilateral relations. Although Moscow saw the call as a step towards normalization, just two days later the United States imposed a new round of sanctions on Russia, which, among other things, include blacklisting 32 individuals and organizations, restrictions on operations with Russia’s sovereign debt, and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats. Moscow responded the following day, limiting itself so far to diplomatic measures that also included the recommendation that the U.S. ambassador leave Russia.

Despite the seemingly high threat of a “big war” with Ukraine, the Kremlin is rather testing the West and especially the new Biden administration.

Analysts disagree about the Kremlin’s future military plans in the Donbass. Many link Russia’s military buildup near the Ukrainian border to its preparations for the upcoming Russian-Belarusian military exercises “Zapad-2021” (“West-2021”) scheduled for September. These activities could be interpreted as Moscow’s symmetrical response to the NATO military exercise (Defender Europe—2021)—the largest in the last 25 years—which began in March, with more than 28,000 troops from 27 countries, including Ukraine, participating. The Kremlin could perceive them as a direct military threat on Russia’s borders. An additional explanation is provided by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who said that “a sudden check of the combat readiness of the troops of the Western and Southern military districts was carried out as part of [Russia’s] control measures and exercises during the winter period of training.” Still, these activities are slated for completion by the end of April. 

Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer believes that Russia’s mooted invasion of Ukraine may follow the scenario of the 1944 Normandy landings. “There are several reasons for this: the shutdown of pro-Russian TV-channels in Ukraine, the threat of arrest and trial of [Putin’s close associate] Viktor Medvedchuk, the arrest of Navalny, Biden’s calling Putin a killer... The threats are growing rapidly. Much is not discussed in the press, but we are seeing very bad signs,” he opined in an interview. If Russia is indeed planning a seaborne invasion, the main goal of the operation may be to regain access to the North Crimean Canal, which supplied more than 80 percent of fresh water from mainland Ukraine before the annexation. Its closure by the Ukrainian authorities significantly aggravated the situation in Crimea, leading to an acute shortage of water resources. An additional transfer of the Russian armed forces to the territory of Crimea, including the 22nd Army Corps of the Black Sea Fleet’s Coastal Forces with a shock tank brigade, as well as additional marine brigades, could serve as another signal of Russia’s preparation for an invasion from the southern direction in the area of ​​Odessa and Nikolaev. 

At first glance, the balance of military forces between the two countries indicates Russian superiority. According to the website Global Firepower Index, which tracks data on various countries’ defense capabilities, today the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) have 255,000 personnel and about 900,000 reservists, while Russia has one million personnel and twice as many reservists at its disposal. However, Russian forces are unlikely to be fully deployed in a full-scale war. In addition, most of them are non-combat units that will mainly be engaged in logistic support of combat ones.

In the event of a major offensive by Russia, the actions of the AFU would be defensive in nature, which reduces the estimated losses to approximately 1 to 3 in favor of the defenders. Although Ukraine has some obsolete military equipment from Soviet times, it has seen thousands of modern anti-tank guided missiles, such as Stugna and Corsair, as well as U.S. Javelins, entering service since 2014. Add the Ukrainian military’s high motivation and real combat experience (Donbass conflict veterans number around 300,000) to the fact that they are fighting on home soil, and one sees that the cost of a military invasion may turn out to be exorbitant for the Kremlin. Significant losses of life among Russian service personnel could also significantly undermine the Russian government’s image and lead to mass protests in the country.

The West’s response—from various sanctions to supplying additional weapons to Ukraine—may be even more painful to Russia. According to Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, who also served as NATO deputy secretary general, further financial sanctions could deprive Russia of the ability to operate in the international financial system. For instance, the United States could designate large state-owned financial institutions, such as Vnesheconombank or the Russian Direct Investment Fund, or potentially take even more radical steps, such as disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT payment system. A military escalation would also give the U.S. another reason to push for a complete shutdown of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline system, an important geopolitical project for the Kremlin.

Despite the seemingly high threat of a “big war” with Ukraine, the Kremlin is rather testing the West and especially the new Biden administration. A direct military clash in Donbass would inevitably lead to numerous casualties, making it very difficult for the Kremlin to explain to Russian citizens why they need to fight Ukraine. All this would further complicate domestic issues for the Putin regime. At the same time, the Kremlin is increasingly losing its sense of reality, constantly threatening the West and its allies with the “nuclear stick.” Amidst growing anti-Western hysteria in the Russian media and accumulating internal and external challenges to Russia, such threats and saber-rattling near the border with Ukraine can have very real consequences.


* Mykola Vorobiov is a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.