KRAMATORSK, Ukraine—Ukrainian and Western military insiders fear that joint exercises that began on Thursday will be used as cover by President Vladimir Putin for the unprecedented integration of Russian and Belarusian forces, and the smuggling of weapons and troops over the border to assist pro-Kremlin rebels in Ukraine.
The conditions for military action against Ukraine are greater now than at any time in the past several weeks, analysts and former Ukrainian government officials told The Daily Beast, as the Russian military amasses troops along virtually every border with the Eastern European nation. Any military action, including a limited invasion and annexation of the contested eastern regions currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists, would be timed to three simultaneous events later this month, those officials said. Meanwhile, experts pointed to a day in late February which could be used as cover for the maneuvering of military hardware.
That day, Feb. 20, marks the eighth anniversary of the deadliest day of the Euromaidan protests, and is “a huge trigger” which could lead foreign actors to “use the protests as a cover for direct action,” said a former Ukrainian defense ministry official, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss sensitive government briefings.
“It is the potential date for internal destabilization which could be a chance to create opportunities for some military actions,” the official told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. “If Russia is thinking about some large-scale military escalation, Donbas would be a much better location for them and they could relocate their troops there” after joint Russian-Belarusian military training concludes on Feb. 20, coinciding with the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
The exercises underway in the Brest Region include 30,000 Russian troops taking part in drills known as Allied Resolve, a mass movement of soldiers described by NATO as Moscow’s biggest deployment to Belarus since the Cold War.
The exercises have worried leaders in the U.S. and Europe, who see an expansion of the potential lines and means of attack. “That is a very particular kind of threat that we’re concerned about,” a U.S. diplomat in Europe told The Daily Beast.
While the Ukrainian military commenced drills Thursday using armed drones and antitank weapons provided by NATO members and the U.S., The Daily Beast visited a frontline position in Donbas on Wednesday and found business as usual. The trenches were filled with water after a recent snowmelt. When asked whether he felt the international saber rattling were only bluffs, a 21-year-old Ukrainian soldier at a viewing deck overlooking a kilometer of fields between him and the embattled Donbas region, said any fight was welcome.
“We’re always ready,” he said.
President Joe Biden shared his concerns over the role of Belarus during a recent press conference alongside the German chancellor Olaf Schulz, in which he suggested all American citizens depart the country, because he didn’t “want them to get caught in the crossfire.” The families of American diplomats have already left the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
Lithuania’s prime minister this week raised fears that the completion of the joint training would lead to Belarusian troops integrating with the Russian military ahead of an invasion of Ukraine. “This is a 1938 moment for our generation,” Ingrida Šimonytė told the Guardian newspaper. “Neutrality helps the oppressor and never the victim.”
A drawdown of Russian military hardware from the Belarusian military drills could also present greater security challenges in the Donbas region, which for nearly a decade has been operated autonomously from the central government in Kyiv, though it is not recognized internationally.
U.S. and Ukrainian military insiders told The Daily Beast that they feared heavy weaponry, which has been transported long distances to Belarus, could find its way from the training in Belarus through the bordering region with Russia and into the hands of pro-Russian separatists in Donbas.
There are also concerns that Putin will move during the ongoing Olympic Games in Beijing. In 2008, during the Summer Olympics, Russia sent troops to quash a five-day war between Georgia and the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were aligned with Moscow. And in 2014, the annexation of Crimea came while the world watched the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Timing military action to coincide with major global events has been standard Kremlin operating procedure for years.
“Putin loves making moves around these key events,” Emily Channell-Justice, the Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, told The Daily Beast. Channell-Justice further worried that the buildup could also preface a “Russian intervention into Belarus to secure that country as an autocracy, friendly to Russia.”
As Putin seeks to further develop the Russia-China relationship, he may wait for the conclusion of the Winter Olympics in China, before making any military action to avoid derailing Beijing’s success.
Ukraine’s eight-year conflict grew increasingly tense over the last 12 months as Russian Battalion Tactical Groups armed with tanks, rockets, missile launchers, self-propelled artillery and electronic warfare weapons systems deployed to Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. There are more than 120,000 troops stationed along Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders. On Thursday, Troops continued to arrive by train from Russian bases as far away as Siberia. More than 14,000 have died in the unofficial conflict with Ukraine, which began in 2014.
The Biden administration has warned that Putin may be preparing for an invasion if negotiations about NATO partnerships and Western alliances to Ukraine were not successful. American and European leaders have threatened sanctions against Russia if a physical attack into Ukraine is launched. Leaders from the European Union and U.S. have been briefed on what American intelligence officials have called “imminent” war.
“Defeating the Ukrainian military would not be easy, but easy enough,” a Biden administration official briefed on closed meetings with lawmakers earlier this month told The Daily Beast. “But that would just be the end of the beginning. The real challenge will be the popular resistance and it will truly be popular. They’re much more hardened, and much more anti-Russian than before, thanks to Putin. And that would be a nightmare. For the Russians, it would not end.”