The Ukrainian government is increasingly concerned with Russian military movements near its border, despite Kremlin assurances that none of those movements are meant to be threatening.
On Saturday, Russian bloggers critical of their country’s covert military operations posted videos online allegedly showing military trucks towing artillery toward the border with their license plates covered by blue tape.
Ukraine’s Unian Information Agency (UIA) on Sunday highlighted “OSINT” – Open Source Intelligence, i.e. Internet posts – from the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), which is mostly composed of dissident Russian bloggers. The open-source intel in question was a set of videos taken from vehicles that were shadowing a Russian military convoy heading north along a highway that parallels the border with Ukraine.
На российской технике в приграничных регионах начали маскировать номера — об этом свидетельствуют видеозаписи очевидцев….
The license plates of these military vehicles were covered with tape, a suspicious precaution the CIT suspected was to prevent witnesses from knowing where the trucks originated. Pointing to other geolocated photos that showed mechanized units moving from far-flung parts of Russia, CIT speculated the Russian military is trying to conceal a widespread mobilization intended to mass large amounts of artillery and support vehicles on the Ukrainian border.
UIA noted Ukrainian military officials have recently accused Russian military instructors of entering Ukrainian territory to assist pro-Russian separatist forces and conduct reconnaissance for them. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Moscow of building up its presence on the border to intimidate Ukraine, while Ukrainian military intelligence fears Russia might be gearing up for a serious border incursion.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday insisted the Russian troop movement should not cause “any concern” and promised the mysterious vehicles would not “get lost” and turn up somewhere in Ukrainian territory.
“No one has been wandering. The Russian army is moving across Russian territory in the directions it considers it necessary, the way it considers it necessary, to ensure safety and security of our country,” Peskov told a skeptical UIA correspondent who asked why the Russian army had suddenly grown “shy” about revealing its license plates.
“Russia does not pose a threat to any country in the world, including, of course, Ukraine. But it is always very attentive to its own security,” Peskov said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested on Monday that Russia is shifting its forces around because the United States and its European allies are contemplating hostile land-based missile deployments that could threaten Russian security.
“We will continue closely watching practical measures by the United States and its allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region for creating an arsenal of land-based intermediate-and shorter-range missiles, especially taking into account the intentions announced by Great Britain,” she said.
“We are by no means shutting the door for a dialogue but do not rule out in the current conditions that Russia will have to increasingly shift the focus of efforts towards implementing military and technical measures of response to emerging missile threats,” Zahkarhova said, complaining at length about the capabilities of NATO missiles and the alleged threats of NATO commanders to destroy “solely defensive means that ensure the security of the Russian Federation in case of threat of a military attack.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, delivered ominous warnings on Sunday about Ukraine going “too far” in the separatist Donbass region, and warned the Ukrainians not to count on America or NATO to save them, as quoted by Russia’s state-run Tass news agency:
“The Ukrainian leaders’ rhetoric has gone too far, adding to the tensions and aggravating the conflict. It is fraught with the most serious consequences,” [Volodin] wrote on his Telegram channel. “What are Ukrainian officials saying? Do they call for the settlement of the situation? No. Their actions are geared to intimidate people, to fan tensions in the region.”
According to the Russian parliament speaker, Ukrainian politicians are seeking to dodge any responsibility hoping for help from foreign countries. But, in his words, “one should bear in mind that not everything that is advantageous for the United States is in Europe’s interests.” Moreover, the United States has done nothing over the recent seven years to help Ukraine’s economy. “The country has lost its sovereignty in practically all areas,” he emphasized, adding that not even a single batch of the coronavirus vaccine has been sent to Ukraine.
“If the United States charges even its NATO partners for protection, it will demand trice as much from Ukraine,” he noted.
Volodin argued Ukraine’s actions have alienated it from Europe and ruined its chances of joining the “European family,” although the Europeans “cannot say it publicly” yet.
“Before it is too late, Ukrainian leaders must spare no effort to implement the Minsk accords. Stop escalating the situation in Donbass if you don’t want to finish your political careers in the Hague,” the Russian lawmaker declared. The Minsk accords are a peace plan developed in 2015 for the Donbass region; by referring to the Hague, Volodin was implying the Ukrainian leadership will find itself charged with war crimes for failing to implement the accords.
Ukraine accuses Russia of escalating tensions in Donbass by massing military forces near the border and supporting the separatists while they violate ceasefire agreements.
“Russia’s current escalation is systemic, largest in recent years,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said last Thursday. “Russia’s actions have brought the situation to a dead end. The only way out is diplomacy.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded by warning the Ukrainians not to trigger a conflict that could “destroy” their country.
“The military understands the harmfulness of any action to unleash a hot conflict. I very much hope that they will not be prompted by politicians, who, in turn, will incite the West, led by the United States,” Lavrov said.
The European Union (EU) and NATO backed Ukraine, criticizing the Russians for running a military conscription campaign in the annexed territory of Crimea that violates “international humanitarian law” and denouncing Russia’s military buildup on the border as “destabilizing actions” that “undermine efforts to de-escalate tensions.”
The EU pledged “unwavering” support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” on Monday and expressed “severe concern” about Russian military activity.