Western intelligence suggests a “high probability of destabilisation” of Ukraine by Russia as soon as this winter after Moscow massed more than 90,000 troops at its border, according to Kyiv’s deputy defence minister.
Hanna Maliar told the FT at the weekend that while interpretations of western intelligence “need further discussion”, they underlined “the high probability of escalation of the situation”.
When asked if the risk of a Russian military aggression was higher than during the past years, she said: “Information of our [military intelligence services] coincides with the information of partner countries about the high probability of destabilisation of the situation in Ukraine this winter.”
Maliar added that allies’ conclusions were “based not only on information about the number of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border”, suggesting Washington had additional intelligence about Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s intentions.
The US briefed allies last week about intelligence indicating that Moscow was preparing for a possible invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s president has dismissed the fears as “alarmist” and accused Nato of inflaming tensions in the region with its own unplanned exercises.
The Russian troop build-up has been occurring near the breakaway Donbass region in Ukraine’s east, where two Moscow-backed enclaves have fought a proxy war with Kyiv since 2014, as well as in other areas to Ukraine’s north-east and the annexed Crimean peninsula, Maliar said.
Kyiv estimates Russia has deployed as many as 114,000 forces to the north, east, and south of Ukraine — including about 92,000 ground soldiers and the rest in air and sea military forces, Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told the FT.
Washington has yet to form a view of Putin’s intentions with the troop surge, based on differing assessments of the Russian threat to Ukraine, said people briefed on the discussions. But the US fears the latest movements are more serious than similar movements in the spring when Moscow massed similar numbers on the border as part of what it said was an unplanned exercise.
Putin told state television at the weekend that Moscow was concerned about unannounced Nato drills in the Black Sea involving a “powerful naval group” and planes carrying strategic nuclear weapons, which he said presented a “serious challenge” for Russia.
Putin said he had warned his defence ministry away from conducting its own unplanned drills in the region and limited it to accompanying Nato planes and ships because “there’s no need to aggravate the situation further”.
“You get the impression they just won’t let us let our guard down. Well, let them know that we’re not letting our guard down,” he said.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken told reporters on Friday that the US feared a rerun of the early phase of the conflict after a pro-western revolution in Kyiv in 2014, when Russia fuelled a proxy separatist war in the Donbass region that has since claimed more than 14,000 lives.
“[We] do know that we’ve seen in the past Russia mass forces on Ukraine’s borders, claim some kind of provocation by Ukraine and then invade and basically follow on through on something they were planning all along,” Blinken said. “That’s what they did in 2014. And so this raises real concerns about an effort to repeat what was done then,” which, he said, “would be a serious mistake.”
Budanov of Ukraine’s military intelligence said Russian forces “demonstratively left their tanks, combat vehicles, and jet systems near our border” after large-scale joint military exercises with Belarus in September.
“This can be seen as preparation for a large-scale invasion and as an attempt at psychological pressure,” he said.
Though Russia has always denied its involvement in the conflict, Moscow’s military intervened to support Ukrainian separatists with troops, logistics, and equipment, during the war’s active phase and continues to lead the separatist forces, according to the US and EU countries.
Talks over ending the conflict under a 2015 peace plan in Minsk, struck with French and German mediation, have stalled largely over Russia’s refusal to return Ukraine control of its border and Kyiv’s reluctance to give the separatist factions autonomy in its constitution.
France’s foreign ministry said this week that Russia had refused to have a ministerial-level meeting with Ukraine and Germany to discuss the peace process in the Donbass.
In the interview at the weekend, Putin also complained about Ukraine’s use of Turkish-made drones — which were critical in Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh last year — in a skirmish in the Donbass, which he said violated its obligations under the treaty.
“But nobody is even reacting to this [ . . .] Europe mumbled something and the US actually supported it. And officials in Ukraine are openly saying they used them and will use them again.”
Even if Russia does not invade, border troop movements are destabilising, according to a European official. “The constant pressure by Russia is making it as difficult as possible for Ukraine to develop and strengthen as a country,” the official said.