Russian Forces Massing On Ukrainian Border

Crimea Russian Propaganda

With the Crimean referendum just days away, it appears the Russian military is warning the Ukrainians that they’d better accept the results:

MOSCOW — Russia’s Defense Ministry announced new military operations in several regions near the Ukrainian border on Thursday, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany warned the Kremlin to abandon the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries or face diplomatic and economic retaliation from a united Europe.

In Moscow, the military acknowledged significant operations involving armored and airborne troops in the Belgorod, Kursk and Rostov regions abutting eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians have protested against the new interim government in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and appealed to Moscow for protection.

A day after a deputy minister denied any military buildup on the border, the Defense Ministry released a series of statements beginning early Thursday that appeared to contradict that. They outlined what was described as intensive training of units involving artillery batteries, assault helicopters and at least 10,000 soldiers.

The operations confirmed, at least in part, assertions by Ukrainian leaders on Wednesday that Russia was massing forces, as well as amateur photographs that appeared to show columns of armored vehicles and trucks in a border village called Lopan, only 30 miles from the Ukrainian city Kharkiv. One statement announced that another 1,500 paratroopers from Ivanovo, east of Moscow, had parachuted onto a military base in Rostov, not far from the Ukrainian cities Donetsk and Lugansk.

With NATO announcing its own deployments of fighter jets and exercises to countries on Ukraine’s western border, the crisis appeared to be worsening despite 11th-hour diplomatic efforts to halt a secession referendum scheduled for Sunday in Crimea. The ouster of the government of Viktor F. Yanukovych and Russia’s subsequent intervention in Crimea has deeply divided Russia and the West, and in Berlin, Ms. Merkel underscored the potential risks of what is being called the worst crisis in relations since the end of the Soviet Union.

Appearing before Parliament on Thursday, Ms. Merkel criticized Russia’s actions in some of her toughest language to date, declaring that “the territorial integrity of Ukraine cannot be called into question.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, if Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” she said. “We, also as neighbors of Russia, would not only see it as a threat. And it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”

With neither side appearing ready t0 back down, the only thing we can do at this point is wait to see what happens after the referendum on Sunday. Actual military conflict between the West and Russia seems incredibly unlikely given that it wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest, but a trade war with Russia would be quite disruptive to the region, as would an era of increased tensions across an East-West border that has been quite calm for decades now.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tillman says:

    So is Merkel willing to throw the EU behind sanctions of Russia, or what? I’m still with Victora “F#&% the EU” Nuland so far, and I don’t see them compromising their trade over the Ukraine.

  2. legion says:

    Existentially speaking, the Ukraine _can’t_ accept the referendum. It’s a complete joke in the first place – literally no different than the recent “unanimous” re-election of of Kim Jong Un in North Korea. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Putin simply doesn’t care – he’s going to move in and declare it Russian territory in a fait accompli and dare us, the EU, or NATO to do anything about it.

  3. Anthony says:

    My fear is that “Europe will fight to the last American” and whine that we need to do something, while doing nothing themselves.

  4. michael reynolds says:


    I don’t know, that’s tough language from Merkel. I don’t know that she’ll go all-in over Crimea, but if Putin moves to take more of Ukraine I think the Germans and the EU will get tough. Or as tough as they’re capable of getting. I think Putin will have really stepped in it if he goes beyond Crimea.

  5. anjin-san says:

    @ Anthony

    My fear is that “Europe will fight to the last American”

    About 5000 Brits are serving in Afghanistan now. There are other European troops as well.

    How much time have you spent in combat zones recently?

  6. Pinky says:

    @anjin-san: I can’t remember, are you the one who always does the “what right do you have to comment on this, bub?” thing?

  7. anjin-san says:

    @ Pinky

    I can’t remember, are you the one who always does the “what right do you have to comment on this, bub?” thing?

    Everyone has a right to comment, but stupid comments may lead to getting one’s feelings hurt.

    If you like, I can send you some hankies…

  8. stonetools says:

    M aybe its time for the Germans to ramp back up to Wehrmacht levels again….
    One of the problems with Putin’s saber rattling is that he makes the case for a remilitarization of Europe. After all, if the USA pulls back, it makes a lot of sense for Germany and Poland to build up their forces. After all, there’s a bear in the woods…

  9. stonetools says:

    Actual military conflict between the West and Russia seems incredibly unlikely given that it wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest

    That is word for word what all the Very Serious people were saying about the Great Powers in July 1914.

  10. Pinky says:

    @anjin-san: I’ve got enough hankies, thanks. But if dumb comments lead to insulting responses, don’t be shocked if your internet bravado leads to them too.

  11. CB says:

    Clashes in Donetsk between ProRussian and ProUkrainian protestors. Not good.

    If Russian tanks do start to roll into Eastern Ukraine, I don’t see a way for this to end peacefully.

  12. Tillman says:

    @michael reynolds: Oh no, I agree, the moment Russia moves beyond Crimea the EU is bound to act substantially. I just don’t think, regardless of massing forces, the EU will try wresting the Crimea from Russia.

    My understanding of Merkel in foreign policy is that she isn’t one to bluff, but I have to scratch my head at how much support she’d get in the Bundestag if she tried for sanctions. The American public isn’t really gung-ho for it so I really doubt the Germans are.

  13. Tillman says:

    @stonetools: Y’know, I’m not one for cheering on humanity killing itself in pointless wars, but drawing down our military and selling the Europeans gear to go get themselves killed with…the horrible realist in me says that’s a great way to get to full employment. As one children’s cartoon put it recently, “If you can’t make money during a war, you just flat out can not make money.”

    I don’t think Putin is that dumb to bluster into another world war, but my faith in humanity has been broken before.

  14. rudderpedals says:

    @CB: One death so far. She’s gonna blow.

  15. Dave E. says:

    It has been almost two weeks since Putin seized Crimea. Since then he has not been subjected to any serious repercussions from either the EU or the US, just finger wagging and what increasingly looks like empty threats.

    Ukraine revealed this week that their military is a shambles, only able to field about 6,000 troops.

    Why wouldn’t Putin think that he can take this one step further and seize the eastern half of Ukraine? What’s the most he is going to face anyway, the sanctions the West has threatened but still not implemented?

  16. dazedandconfused says:

    @Dave E.:

    Russia has a key naval base in Crimea. Real key. Like 300 years of Russian naval history key.

    I think the deal remains “Feb 21 deal or I take Crimea.” That deal wasn’t half bad compared to the EU deal, with all it’s draconian “austerity” and whatnot. Putin may feel there was no rational reason for the people to rise up and violently overthrow their government to get that austerity over his generous package of free money and cheap gas, so it was a stirred up plot by our Nuland/Kagan neocons.

    WTF did we have those clowns monkeying around in there for, anyway? They live to keep military spending high. Perhaps they know how to do that too.

  17. Dave D says:

    @legion: Realistically speaking they can’t accept it either, it is unconstitutional. Any changes to Ukraine’s borders must be voted upon in a national referendum. Therefore, one region cannot unilaterally vote to change their borders or switch their allegiances.

    @Dave E.: The only backlash they have been seeing since the invasion is the decline of the MICEX 16.5%, 5% of which came in the past two days. Besides foreign investment in their stock market both the US and EU seem impotent to actually impose any sanctions symbolic or not.

  18. Neil Hudelson says:

    That is word for word what all the Very Serious people were saying about the Great Powers in July 1914.

    Read your Tuchman. That’s simply not true.

  19. stonetools says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Tuchman is an excellent writer. But there has been a half a century of scholarship since.
    Whle some statesmen did want a war ( or thought it was inevitable), most opinion makers and the public really were taken by suprise when war came. They thought that the Great Powers would have too much to lose and would not start a general war out of “some foolishness in the Balkans”, and that the July 1914 crisis would be resolved like previous kerfuffles in the previous decade. Some people were confused about who even the enemy was. Some Russian villagers, for example, thought Russia was going to war against England, not Germany.
    Recommend the book “Sleepwalkers” which incorporates the latest scholarship.

  20. Neil Hudelson says:


    Just picked up “Sleepwalkers” actually. Of course I realize that there has been half a century of scholarship since, but I haven’t seen in other literature (again–haven’t read sleepwalkers) any major contradiction in her layout regarding what European leadership thought as the liklihood of war.

    (Man that was a tortured sentence, but I just dont’ care enough to fix it).

    I agree that perhaps the “general public” didn’t think a war was likely, and there were indeed some opinion makers that were stating it was unlikely (“Great Illusion” primarily, although that has been greatly misinterpreted–the main theme was that european war was futile, not improbable). That said, if “very serious people” means “general public and some opnion makers” then your first statement is seriously misleading.

    The most “serious” people–prime ministers, generals, and kings–were very much preparing for an expected war, and were jockeying for decades for a war that everyone assumed would start soon.