Russia is testing its new 'superweapon' in the Arctic 3:39
For an army prone to masking its movements, surely the worst way to camouflage a possible invasion of another country is to openly prepare to do so.
This is the paradox in the face of the visible increase in Russia's military power in the west, near the border with Ukraine.
If Moscow wanted to reverse its military stalemate around the breakaway Donbas region - whose complete control it blocked from Ukraine in 2014 - would it want to hint at its movements so blatantly?
Global Challenges |
Russia launches apocalyptic defiance to US in Arctic
The signs from Russia are obvious.
Videos posted incessantly on social media show armored convoys heading to the border area.
This led open source intelligence researchers @CITeam_en to detect a concentration of probably hundreds of vehicles, not far from the Russian city of Voronezh.
The place is more than 160 km from Ukraine, but it is a considerable accumulation that was captured in satellite images of the technology company Maxar.
An accumulation of vehicles in the Pogonovo training area, seen in the satellite image of Maxar.
The White House said this week that Russia now has more troops near the Ukraine border than at any time since 2014, when the Crimean peninsula was annexed.
Military intelligence reports assessed that, further south, some 4,000 heavily armed Russian soldiers were seen moving into Crimea, a US defense official told CNN.
Moscow has also announced a series of measures, in what appears to be an attempt to show its determination.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced quick readiness inspections for the army.
The Kremlin's designee for the conflict, the deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitri Kozak, said that Moscow would come out in defense of the population of eastern Ukraine if necessary, as it has almost always implied.
And he pointed out that the beginning of a conflict would be the "beginning of the end of Ukraine."
Russia's statements are quite loud.
On the Ukraine side, President Volodymyr Zelensky moved some units closer to Donbas and made a very high-profile trip to the area on Thursday.
As with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zelensky's popularity ratings are not very good.
His tone was one of peace.
He tried to be close to the troops, aware that US President Joe Biden has said he will back him.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) greets a soldier during his visit to a front in Donbas, Ukraine, on April 8.
The White House said it is "increasingly concerned about the recent escalation of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine."
Also, US officials have hinted that they could send warships to the Black Sea, a sign of greater involvement in the area, although US planes have been regularly surveying that area.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Putin to withdraw his forces during a call on Thursday.
Everyone is getting very nervous, very fast.
Speculation about what will happen next in the biggest war on Europe's turf in two decades is as extensive as the Kremlin surely hopes it will be.
Meanwhile, the only price you pay right now is for the fuel you need to move a bunch of tanks.
The key question
The key question that remains unanswered is what Russia's goal would be in a military intervention.
Some analysts have speculated that it could flood separatist areas and adjacent conflict zones with a huge Russian "peacekeeping" force.
A group that would be designed to impose its will and its norms in the area, and that would lead to the full and effective annexation of the Donbas.
However, this would practically guarantee a response from the West, at first probably through sanctions.
It would also give Moscow basically the same control it now has over those areas, albeit putting the lives of many soldiers and weaponry at risk.
It is a great effort not to get results.
And so that's why it's probably not so favorable for the Kremlin.
A Ukrainian military man in a front-line trench with Russian-supported separatists near the city of Zolote, in the Luhansk region, on April 8.
The second option that analysts are considering is the creation of a land corridor between the breakaway Donbas in the east and the Crimean peninsula.
For years, water has been a scarce resource in Crimea.
This is a crisis that, a senior Ukrainian official warned me, could reach a critical point in the summer of 2019. It still persists, alongside Moscow's greater challenge of maintaining an acceptable standard of living in Crimea through maritime supplies and on a small new bridge that he built in the Kerch Strait.
In the long term this is not a sustainable situation for the latest Russian acquisition.
However, a land corridor - a strip running through the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and the Armiansk area above the Crimea - would also be an extremely vulnerable location for any Russian occupying force.
They would be caught between the Azov Sea and a very angry and better equipped Ukrainian army than before.
In order to maintain that corridor effectively, they would have to go further into Ukraine and then face even more resistance from the Ukrainian army and the local population.
The hope in 2014 that the soldiers would be seen as "liberators" from a corrupt Kiev government is long gone.
Now the hostility is much more palpable.
Therefore, the task before the Russian army is divided into two possibilities.
On the one hand, doing so little that the inevitable sanctions from the West seem imposed for minimal profit, or doing so much (too much) that it has to occupy large swaths of Ukraine for years.
In both cases it is a mess.
What is the best option for Putin?
In the eyes of Moscow and Putin, then, perhaps a better option is to rally their forces, make noise about Ukraine's desire for war, hint at its readiness for diplomacy, and use its iron fist to force a more beneficial negotiated solution on the ground. border.
Of course, this starts from the assumption that the head of the Kremlin always makes the best decisions.
Putin is also capable of overreaching or doing something crazy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a concert in Moscow on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the annexation of Crimea on March 18.
A third invasion of Ukraine in 2021 is also a much more dangerous gamble for Putin than the one in 2014-2015.
Biden has made it clear that he will offer his "unwavering support" to Kiev.
Washington's thinking is irrevocably centered on the idea that Russia is a threat.
And Ukraine's leader, Zelensky, as politically and militarily inexperienced as he is, would undoubtedly benefit domestically by being drawn into a conflict that he did not start.
However, two enduring risks remain that cannot be quantified.
The first is that Putin may see, amid the chaos of the next few weeks, an opportunity to strike and simply decide to deal with the consequences afterward.
The second is the inevitable danger of amassing enraged forces on both sides of an already active front.
A mistake or an unforeseen start by either side could lead to a bigger war.
If Putin hopes that with his accumulation of forces the phones will start ringing more often and diplomacy will take over, it would be better if that happens soon.
Russia Vladimir Putin