Once more, tensions are rising in Ukraine.
Reports that the Russians are moving military hardware some 250 kilometers from the border have raised eyebrows in Washington. And Ukrainian forces have deployed combat drones along the battle lines that separate them from pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region.
The front lines of the conflict – a standoff stretching hundreds of miles from northern Ukraine to the Sea of Azov – have barely moved in five years.
On Monday, US Defense Department spokesman Admiral John Kirby said the Pentagon was “aware of public reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine.”
Satellite imagery has shown Russian hardware – including self-propelled guns, battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles – on the move at a training ground roughly 186 miles (300km) from the border.
But Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Monday it had recorded no “additional transfer of Russian units, weapons and military equipment to the state border of Ukraine.”
On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said an estimated 90,000 Russian troops were located “near the border and in the temporarily occupied territories” as well as in the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry added that Russia had established a practice of “transferring and accumulating military units for the purpose of maintaining tension in the region and political pressure on neighboring countries.”
Kirby said the US was watching closely: “I can’t speak for Russian intentions, but we are certainly monitoring the region closely, as we always do. Any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of great concern to the United Sates.”
On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “The movement of our military equipment or army units across the territory of the Russian Federation is exclusively our business.
“Russia has never threatened anyone, is not threatening, and does not pose a danger to anyone,” he insisted.
Observers say Russia’s actions are worth keeping a close eye on.
“At the moment it is a developing situation. It’s not ‘nothing happening’ and it doesn’t mean that there will be an offensive op tomorrow,” says Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Wilson Center who researches Russia’s military.
We’ve been here before – several times – since the separatists, with Russian backing, entered eastern Ukraine in 2014.
But hopes that the frozen conflict might be defused through negotiations sponsored by European governments and the US are moribund.
Russia has responded swiftly to Ukraine’s use of Turkish-made combat drones for the first time in the conflict. One of those drones struck a separatist position last week.
“We observe attempts to carry out provocations, elicit some reaction from the militia and drag Russia into some kind of combat action,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state television Monday.
Popular Russian TV host Vladimir Soloviev went further, saying Ukraine was provoking the separatist-held “Republics” into taking “retaliatory measures, which means a major war. Under these circumstances, Moscow will be confronted with a serious choice.”
Russian rhetoric towards Ukraine has hardened in recent months.
Both President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev, have penned essays describing Ukraine as a vassal of the West – even going so far as to suggest it is not a real country.
In a long article in July, Putin said “the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”
“True sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” he wrote.