16:11 Sep. 1, 2016
Moscow isn't looking to escalate the war in the Donbass. But it is laying the groundwork to dominate its neighbor for years to come
All August, Russia has been announcing new drills and military movements near the Ukrainian border. In Ukraine, the intensity of fighting has picked up over the summer and scaled up even further this past month, with daily shootouts and artillery duels. Between the fighting and large-scale maneuvers, Ukraine-watchers have grown awfully nervous.
Unfortunately, Western commentary on Russia and Ukraine tends to be anxiety prone, seeing military activity as a harbinger of an imminent attack. At the same time, it frequently misses the larger strategic picture. And that's what's happening today: Russia isn't about to escalate the war in Ukraine's east, but it is reorienting its forces to surround and contain Ukraine for years to come in a process that has been largely overlooked.
Russian drills and snap-readiness checks may appear intimidating, but they are unlikely to be a prelude to an expansion of the current conflict. At this stage of the war, Russia does not need subterfuge to move forces in and out of Ukraine, nor does it require a contrived pretext of the sort we saw earlier this month in Crimea to escalate the conflict. The firefights and artillery duels, too, mean little: Cycles of vicious fighting in the summer can lead to mini-offensives, particularly in the no man's land between Ukrainian and separatist lines, but little territory has actually exchanged hands since February 2015.
But for nearly two years Russia has been steadily planning the return of permanent garrisons to Ukraine's borders, creating new divisions and shifting brigades from other regions. New bases are springing up in what Russia's Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu calls the country's "southwestern strategic direction," as units are repositioning from other parts of the country closer to Ukrainian borders. The Russian General Staff has been busily digging to create housing for new divisions and deploying modernized equipment to existing forces based in the region.