Russian Forces Begin New Drills as Pentagon Calls For Clarity Over Troop Movements Near Ukraine

By Dimitri Simes | April 7, 2021 | 8:30pm EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Moscow ( – Russia has launched a new round of large-scale military exercises amid renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine and reports of a military buildup near the Ukrainian border.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon called on Moscow “to make their intentions more clear as to what they’re doing with this array of forces along the border.” Earlier, the U.S. European Command raised its watch level for Ukraine to potential imminent crisis, its highest level of alert.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday armed forces would conduct more than 4,000 exercises in April aimed at testing their “combat readiness.” He added that the drills would take place across Russia and involve all branches of the forces.

News of the new exercises comes at a time of growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Military exercises and troop movements near Ukraine’s borders in recent weeks have elicited protests from Kyiv and Washington.

Beginning March 11, Russia’s western military district kicked off exercises in six regions, four of which border Ukraine, involving 3,000 troops. On March 16, more than 2,000 Russian paratroopers were redeployed to Russian-occupied Crimea for drills rehearsing defending the peninsula from an amphibious attack.

Last week, Russia’s southern military district, which includes Crimea and several Russian regions bordering the Black Sea, announced that 15,000 of its troops would practice countering enemy drones with electronic warfare and air-defense systems. Drones have become a key part of Ukraine’s military modernization drive, and it’s expected Kyiv will rely heavily on them in any future campaign to retake separatist-held regions in eastern Ukraine.

Ruslan Khomchak, chief of staff of the Ukrainian armed forces, has accused Russia of deploying 28 battalions to the area bordering its Donbass region, which would amount to 20-25,000 troops. In contrast, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official told the New York Times there were roughly 4,000 Russian troops near the border.

Dismissing the concerns, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied allegations that Moscow was preparing for further military intervention in Ukraine.

“The Russian army is moving on Russian territory in the directions it considers necessary, as it sees fit to ensure the lasting security of our country,” he told reporters on Monday. “This shouldn’t cause the slightest concern to anyone.”

“We are not hatching such plans [to attack Ukraine],” Russian security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev told the Kommersant newspaper on Wednesday. “But we are closely monitoring the situation. Based on its development, specific measures will be taken.”

Ukraine and Russia have had a highly contentious relationship since 2014, when a pro-Western revolution in Ukraine ousted the country’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly thereafter, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula after a referendum rejected by much of the international community, and began supporting a pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. According to the United Nations, the war in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced more than 1.4 million people.

The conflict has largely remained frozen since a 2015 ceasefire agreement, although the two sides periodically exchange gunfire and artillery salvos. Last July, Kyiv and the separatists concluded a “complete and all-encompassing ceasefire” deal which international organizations report has proven more successful than previous attempts to reduce the violence.

In recent months, however, both sides have accused the other of repeated violations. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s monitors recorded 1,550 ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine between April 2-5 alone.

On March 26, the Ukrainian military reported that four of its soldiers were killed in a shelling by separatists near the frontline. The Russian-backed forces meanwhile have blamed Ukraine for a drone strike that reportedly killed a five-year old boy.

On April 1, one of the two separatist republics in the Donbass region announced that it would hold its first ever military draft in response to the violence.

Some Russian experts argue that the goal of Moscow’s recent exercises is to deter Kyiv from taking further action against the separatists.

Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank affiliated with the foreign ministry, told the newspaper Vedomosti that Russia’s leadership was concerned that Ukraine was contemplating a new offensive “in order to significantly change the situation in its favor.”

He said Moscow’s view was informed by reports from separatist leaders, and by a belief that Kyiv might be feeling emboldened by support from the Biden administration and by Azerbaijan’s recent successful war to retake Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia.

“In the situation around the Donbass, not going forward means falling back,” he said. “Lack of development leads to increased tension and political risks.”

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