Three days before the big video call between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, a train rushed through the village of Polushkino, 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Moscow. It was loaded with military trucks, command staff vehicles and two dozen Tigr-M all-terrain vehicles.
A trainspotter with the username "dinisvogonov" filmed the train and posted the video to TikTok - one of the many, small pieces of the puzzle that observers are currently using to piece together a picture of Russia’s troop buildup near the border with Ukraine.
After all, "dinisvogonov" wasn't the only one to notice the conspicuous cargo. Another railway enthusiast filmed the same freight days earlier, thousands of miles to the east. He also uploaded the images to the web.
And activists with the independent Russian research group Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), which specializes in military issues, were able to use the numbers on the cars to determine where the train was headed: Yelnya, a small town about 100 kilometers from the border with Belarus and 300 kilometers from Ukraine. CIT says the military vehicles belong to an elite unit stationed on the border with Mongolia that is located in the area where Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu comes from. It’s part of the 41st Army.
A Major War in Europe?
But what brings the 41st Army from Siberia to western Russia? That puzzle from the Russian military leadership has observers in the West on tenterhooks ate the moment. And it is one of the reasons why the presidents of the United States and Russia spoke for two hours a week ago.
Washington believes there is a danger of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine. And that, at least theoretically, could trigger a major war in Europe - and could be part of an attempt by Moscow to once again divide the Continent into spheres of influence.
Last spring, other units and heavy equipment from the 41st Army was already moved west, to a new military camp near Voronezh, about 200 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Those units are also still present in western Russia. Instead of returning home to Siberia after the completion of the large-scale Sapad maneuver that had been announced, they were apparently transferred to Yelnya. Satellite images show that tanks, transport vehicles and artillery are now lined on land that was empty in summer.
Moscow has also transferred elements of the 49th and 58th Armies to the annexed Crimea peninsula from their normal base in the Caucasus region. Parts of the 1st Guards Tank Army from the Moscow area are also in Voronezh.
A Potential Total of 175,000 Soldiers
The Kremlin appears to be doing what it can to confuse observers and cover its tracks. Some things, to be sure, are supposed to be seen - but the most important things remain hidden.
Nonetheless, it is still possible to discern the bigger picture, says Michael Kofman of the American think tank CNA. Kofman is also highly regarded in Moscow, where he was recently for a conference.
He says that the troop buildup currently taking place has already become far more extensive than the one in the spring. An internal U.S. document leaked to the Washington Post speaks of 50 "battlefield tactical groups" (BTGs) already located not far from the Ukrainian border and in the annexed region off Crimea - and of 50 additional BTGs being moved there. BTGs are units of fewer than 1,000 soldiers who are assembled for a specific task. Together with 100,000 reservists who could still be called up, this would result in a total force of 175,000 soldiers.
American military expert Michael Kofman
Kofman says that even if the real figure may be somewhat lower – such an accumulation of troops is simply too big for anything other than a large-scale invasion. Russia wouldn’t need so many soldiers for smaller tasks like shifting the front line in the Donbass in favor of the separatist areas. The Russians also managed their interventions in the Donbass in 2014 and 2015 with far fewer troops. Kofman’s conclusion is that Putin is preparing for possible hostilities and that the Russian president at least wants to have the option of an invasion on the table. It is especially worrying that Putin is keeping these preparations secret, which was not the case in the spring.
CIT says that traces of the build up are being erased on social media, and TikTok videos are disappearing as quickly as they pop up – in part because FSB, the Russian intelligence agency, has been interpreting what it considers to be military secrecy more strictly since October.
"A lot of kit (equipment) was moved at night or back and forth, so you don’t know where it is anymore," Kofman says. But he also says that it’s too early for an invasion. For that to happen, the necessary ammunition, fuel and food would have to be transported to the border region, as one military observer from a NATO member state in Moscow also notes. "We’re not seeing that yet."
In any case, the troop movements are continuing. The day after Biden and Putin spoke, a TikTok user posted new footage from Voronezh showing Buk missile systems, armored vehicles and howitzers all waiting at a train station.
The Soundtrack of Troop Deployment
A few weeks earlier, on a cold November day, Putin had partly revealed his strategy in a speech at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, a magnificent building dating back to the Stalin era. That day, he addressed Russia’s top diplomats, and the Great Hall had been specially converted and half emptied for the occasion. During the pandemic, the distance between the president and the audience should be as great as possible.
The speech is something of a soundtrack to the troop deployment. For the first time, Putin spoke publicly about the "tension" that Russia had triggered in the West, an observation that he clearly meant as a positive. Putin said that the West had totally ignored Russia’s objections to NATO’s eastward expansion, but added that this was finally starting to change. He said it was a matter of keeping the tension up, adding that it was imperative for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to push for "serious long-term guarantees that ensure Russia’s security” from the West.
"It is quite unusual for a head of state to say in front of diplomats that tension should be established," says Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy expert familiar with the Kremlin line.
For the first time, Putin also made a concrete demand. Whereas he had previously only mentioned the "red lines" he wanted to prevent from being crossed, he now outlined what he hoped to achieve with his threat: a formal assurance that NATO wouldn't expand further to the east or push its military infrastructure further to the east.
The "Finlandization" of Ukraine
Foreign policy expert Lukyanov speaks of a "Finlandization" of Ukraine, alluding to the neutral status Moscow imposed on its small neighbor Finland after World War II. In Putin’s eyes, Russia could only recognize the existence of a Ukrainian state if it were a friend of Russia. Lukyanov says that "the European idea after the end of the Cold War that any country should just be allowed to do whatever it wants, regardless of its location, is historically new. There has never been anything like this."
The Minsk Protocol, which Russia forced on Ukraine in 2015 after its military defeat in the Donbass, was a guarantee for Moscow that Ukraine could not switch to the opposing camp. Lukyanov calls it "an emergency brake." According to the agreement, the Donbass should be given a special status in the Ukrainian constitution granting it far-reaching rights.
But that emergency brake has failed, and Ukraine is moving inexorably toward the West. It is frustrating to watch from the Kremlin’s point of view, and it continues to happen, even after the change of power in Kiev in 2019. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is maintaining the pro-Western course of his predecessor, and he even imposed sanctions on Putin’s closest friend in the Ukrainian elite, oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk. The implementation of the Minsk Protocol is faltering.
Meanwhile, military cooperation with many NATO countries is intensifying. Ukraine has received Bayraktar combat drones from Turkey – the same drones that Azerbaijan successfully deployed against Armenia in 2020. They were used on the front in the Donbass in October for the first time, targeting Russian artillery. Ukraine has also received Javelin anti-tank weapons from the U.S.
These weapons, of course, are more likely to pose a threat to pro-Moscow separatists than to the Russian army. But the trend, on its own, is enough to worry Moscow. "The question is: Is Ukraine becoming an outpost of NATO and the U.S. without becoming a member of NATO itself?" asks Lukyanov.
Vladimir Putin during his video talk with U.S. President Joe Biden: Triggering tension with the West.Foto: Sergey Guneev / Sputnik / REUTERS
Razor-Sharp Satellite Images
Unlike Putin, who is acting alone, Biden is seeking to close ranks with Washington's allies. For the past several weeks, the U.S. has been urging Europeans behind the scenes to take a tougher stance against Moscow. One day before Putin’s keynote speech at the Foreign Ministry, an unusual guest arrived at NATO headquarters in Brussels. In the bug-proof meeting room of the North Atlantic Council, Avril Haines, coordinator of the U.S. intelligence agencies, appeared before the ambassadors of NATO member states with a full contingent of support staff. The presentation had been scheduled at short notice.
Without much introduction, Haines got straight to the point and showed the Allies intelligence photos of the Russian buildup, sources with knowledge of the meeting reported. The military buildup near the Ukrainian border is clearly visible in the satellite photos, some of which are razor-sharp. The development took the diplomats by surprise. The U.S. rarely shares such material and images, even with close allies, because they allow conclusions to be drawn about U.S. surveillance systems.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Riga: Washington is pressuring its partners to take a firmer stance against Moscow.Foto: Ints Kalnins / AFP
The U.S. analysis presented to the NATO Council was sobering: With the troops and heavy equipment that has been accumulated, Russia would be in a position to overrun Ukraine within a few days and hold the conquered territory even if the Ukrainians resisted. And there wasn't any pushback - not even from otherwise reserved allies like Germany. The situation, it was clear, is highly volatile.
Allies were given similar individual briefings in the days that followed. In Germany, the U.S. has been providing both the intelligence services and the Foreign Ministry with more detailed information than in the past. No attack appears to be imminent, but the fact that an attack is even possible requires a united response from the West.
Calls for More Sanctions
Barely two weeks after the presentation at the NATO Council, the U.S. raised the issue to the political level at a meeting of the alliance’s foreign ministers in Riga. Working shoulder to shoulder with Britain, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken upped the pressure, calling for tough sanctions against Russian banks and the purchase of Russian government bonds. According to participants, Blinken specifically mentioned Sberbank, the largest financial institution in Russia. British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss has also floated the idea of cutting Russia’s access to the international payment system SWIFT.
She has also warned that the German-Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 will further cement dependency on Moscow. The project has been completed, but operations still haven’t been authorized by Germany or the European Union. The Germans were persuaded to at least include the gas pipeline in the catalogue of possible punitive measures. According to the deal, Germany would have to stop the pipeline project immediately if Russia were to invade.
The foreign ministers were surprised by the Americans’ vehemence. "This is the clearest the U.S. has ever been about what it will do if worse comes to worst," said one meeting participant. But many Europeans have been hesitant in their reactions. They see no evidence that Russia is actually planning an invasion of Ukraine. The U.S., though, considers the mere deployment of troops to be a provocation, and doesn’t want to let Putin get away with it.
The White House hasn’t revealed which sanctions Biden actually threatened Putin with during his video call. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, has said only: "Things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now." And speaking before the Senate, Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said: The president could not have been any clearer.
At the same time, Biden apparently agreed to further bilateral talks with Putin. In addition to the consultations on "strategic stability" agreed at the summit of the two presidents in Geneva in June, there will also now be talks on security in Europe.
But will that go far enough to persuade Putin to withdraw the soldiers and heavy equipment that have been amassed near the border? The troop buildup there is too expensive for Putin to maintain any longer than necessary. On the other hand, though, it is also too big to be withdrawn without major concessions – especially given that this is the second time in only a year that Putin has moved additional units toward Ukraine. "How many times can you play this game before people begin to see that you're bluffing?" asks military expert Kofman.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a visit to position on the front in the Donbass regionFoto: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service / epa
"He Is Preparing Ukraine for a Minsk 3"
It's actually astounding how calmly Kyiv has reacted to the Russian tanks near the border. "The threat feels stronger and more real than it did in the spring," says Viktor Muzhenko, who served as chief of staff of the Ukrainian army between 2014 and 2019. He has no illusions about the fact that the Russian army is far superior to the Ukrainian military, if only because of its superior air power. But, he says, the cost to Russia would be high: "Resistance would be very, very strong." Ultimately, it comes down to society, he says. He argues that Putin will be more likely to try to weaken the country from within first. "The precondition for any military invasion is the political destabilization of Ukraine," Muzhenko says.
"Of course Ukraine can’t stand alone against Russia," says Nikolai Sungurovsky, a military expert at the Razumkov Center, a think tank in Kyiv. And of course NATO wouldn’t send combat troops, he says, since it’s not a member. Sungurovsky fears that Russia wants to repeat the scenario of 2014 and 2015, when Ukraine had to sign the Minsk cease-fire agreements, now called "Minsk 1" and "Minsk 2," following two military defeats.
He argues that Putin wants to force yet another defeat on the country. "He is preparing Ukraine for a Minsk 3," Sungorovsky suspects. Ukraine paid for the first two defeats with hundreds of casualties. This time, Sungurovsky fears, there could be thousands.