As the world continues to watch the migrant crisis between Belarus and Poland, another quieter escalation looms over Eastern Europe.
For days, Russia has begun to move a considerable number of troops and military equipment towards the border with Ukraine, to the point that several governments, including those of the US and the European Union (EU), have warned about the possibility of an attack this winter.
Kiev and Moscow have been technically at war for more than seven years (when Putin invaded and annexed Crimea) and border clashes and Russian military movements are frequent in the area.
In fact, last spring, alarms also sounded when Russian tanks deployed to the Ukrainian border.
However, several Western intelligence sources have expressed fear that the situation is now worse.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry estimates that more than 114,000 Russian soldiers They have been deployed to the border area in the northeast, east and south of Ukraine, including some 92,000 infantrymen and air and maritime forces.
Last week Washington claimed to have intelligence reports that indicated that the Kremlin was “preparing for an invasion” and on Monday the head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, called to be attentive to the “significant Russian military concentration.”
“We see an unusual concentration of troops and we know that Russia has been willing to use these kinds of military capabilities before to carry out aggressive actions against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told a news conference.
On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with his Russian counterpart to express that France was ready “to defend Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty,” while Germany also warned of “serious consequences” in the event that Moscow attacked the neighboring country.
Earlier, the head of the British Armed Forces, General Nick Carter, told the Times newspaper that Britain should “be ready” for war with Russia.
The Kremlin has not denied the military moves, but has called suggestions of potential aggression “incendiary” and blamed NATO for conducting military exercises in the Black Sea, off the Crimean coast.
The 2014 war, which led to the Russian annexation of Crimea, has so far left more than 14,000 dead, according to official figures.
The sides signed an armistice more than a year ago, which led to a notable de-escalation of the conflict.
However, last spring, the Kremlin held military exercises in Crimea and then ordered a wide deployment of heavy military equipment near the Dombás region, the border area in eastern Ukraine where the conflict began.
Weeks later they withdrew the troops, although now they are back.
“This time it is more difficult to explain the movement of tanks and artillery in large quantities from the central regions to the western regions near the borders of Ukraine,” he tells BBC Mundo. Zhanna Bezpiatchuk, BBC correspondent in Kiev.
According to Bezpiatchuk, who has covered previous Russian military deployments from the field, on other occasions there have been exercises and military movements that, in some way, have justified the operations, something that is not very clear now.
A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that a “careful review” of the Russian leader’s record regarding Ukraine suggests that “almost all the necessary components and justifications for military intervention are in place or are being moved. to him”.
“Both short-term and long-term indicators suggest that Kiev and Washington have good reason to be concerned,” the text says.
Bezpiatchuk points out that, in addition to the scenario of an invasion “under the pretext of defending Russian citizens” living in the areas controlled by Moscow, the Kremlin may also want to pressure Europe to exempt the Russian North Stream-2 gas pipeline from the European regulations.
This same Tuesday, the German energy regulator suspended the approval of the controversial gas pipeline that goes from Russia to Germany, considering that before being certified it must comply with local laws.
What did Russia say?
The Russian government has questioned what it considers to be the “hysteria” of the West and has justified the movement of troops for the recent NATO military exercises in the Black Sea.
In an appearance on state television over the weekend, President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was concerned about unannounced drills involving a “powerful naval group” and aircraft carrying strategic nuclear weapons.
In his view, this represented a “serious challenge” for Russia.
“You have the impression that they will not let us lower our guard. Well, let them know that we are not going to lower our guard, ”he added.
Relations between Moscow and NATO have been strained in recent weeks, after the Kremlin suspended its mission at the body’s headquarters in Brussels on October 18, after the alliance expelled eight Russian representatives accused of espionage.
What did Ukraine say?
Bezpiatchuk says that the Ukrainian government let the days go by this time before raising the alarm.
“It took 10 days to confirm the accumulation of troops,” he says.
Various figures in the Ukrainian government, including the president and senior officials, have come out to question Russia about these troop movements.
“It has been the reality of Ukraine for seven years to live with the existential threat from Russia. Perhaps, this rigidity in accepting recent developments could be partly explained by the war fatigue that many feel in Ukraine, ”says Bezpiatchuk.
Tensions in the Dombás area have also increased in recent times, after on October 26, the Ukrainian army confirmed that it had used a Turkish-made drone, the first time that Kiev has used this technology in combat. prompting a protest in Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned the sale of Turkish drones to Ukraine and considered that their acquisition “destabilized” the situation.
Why does what happens in Belarus matter?
As this is happening on Ukraine’s eastern border in the north, the migrant crisis in Belarus is also viewed with alarm.
Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country feared that Russia and Belarus were using the migrant situation as a “smokescreen” to launch an operation in Ukraine.
“We have seen Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders in the past use some kind of provocative pretext to then invade and basically go ahead with something they were planning all along,” Blinken said.
But, according to Bezpiatchuk, the dangers don’t end there.
And is that Ukraine has a border of more than 1,000 km long with Belarus that is basically made up of swamps, forests and fields.
There are no protective barriers on this border and, in fact, it is very easy to enter the territory of Ukraine from Belarus.
This, says the BBC correspondent, makes the country extremely vulnerable if Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko redirects migrants to Ukraine.
“This scenario seems very realistic for many in Ukraine if Poland blocks its border and migrants lose their last chance to cross into the European Union. Then they could seek refuge in Ukraine as a place of transit, ”he says.
This would create, in his opinion, a tension on two fronts for the Ukrainian government.
Lukashenko, a loyal Putin ally, recently accused the United States of building NATO military bases in Ukraine using training centers as a pretext. And last September, Russia and Belarus held military exercises near Ukraine’s borders.
“Although Belarus has no proactive role in the conflict, many believe that at critical moments, it will follow Russia’s line,” says Bezpiatchuk.
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