Putin Flexes His Muscles on the Ukraine Border
Policy + Politics

Putin Flexes His Muscles on the Ukraine Border

© Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

With ceasefire violations by Moscow-backed rebel forces spiking in eastern Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin added more anxiety to the tense situation by ordering a large-scale “snap” military drill in the Russian region bordering Ukraine on Monday.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu told Kremlin-backed media outlet TASS that the drills began at 5 a.m., and were focused in Russia’s southern military district.

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“[W]e have launched snap combat readiness checks of forces in the southwestern strategic direction,” he said, to “practice a whole range of tasks solved by the control bodies and forces, including the fight against terrorist threats and eliminating the consequences of natural and manmade disasters.”

A Kremlin official said that all countries that have a military attaché stationed in Moscow were informed of the drill, though whether the warning was given in advance or after the operation began was unclear. According to Russian media, the exercise includes airborne infantry, air transport and air defense units, and both the Black Sea Fleet and the smaller Caspian flotilla.

Russia’s habit of conducting large scale drills along its borders has become a source of concern to many of its neighbors. Today’s exercise, in addition to taking place on the border of Ukraine, also involves the region abutting Georgia, a country that Russia invaded in 2008, in support of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Many former Soviet states, in the Baltic region in particular, have expressed unease with Russia’s more bellicose stance, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has responded by increasing the capabilities of its forces in the region. Last week, President Obama ordered a large build-up of heavy weapons and armored vehicles in Central and Eastern Europe, with the expressed purpose of deterring Russian aggression.

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Also on Monday, the London-based European Leadership Network, an international security studies think tank, issued a call for dialog between Russia and the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization aimed specifically at avoiding accidental escalation of hostilities.

“Since the Russian takeover of Crimea in March 2014, the military postures of Russia and NATO in Europe have been significantly altered through doctrinal changes, more frequent and intensive exercising, as well as the deployment of forces and equipment closer to the common border area,” the report notes.

“[I]n the coming months and years, new points of contention between Russia and NATO are likely to emerge over specific decisions on deployments and exercises. If unchecked, this action-reaction dynamic could lead to further deterioration of the security situation. There would also be a higher risk of unintended escalation following an incident involving the armed forces of NATO countries and Russia.”

The ELN report recommends establishing “a new set of practical ‘rules of the game’” for managing potential conflicts. Ideally, such an arrangement would include more advance notice of large-scale exercises and drills, more explicit sharing of military doctrine and philosophy, and more “restraint” in the forward deployment of conventional military forces. The report also calls on both sides to avoid allowing nuclear weapons to become part of the escalation.