Biden phones Zelenskyy amid Russian troop build-up along Ukrainian borders and escalation in Donbas.

On 2 April 2021, for the first time in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has called his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and held a 45-minute conversation amid the Russian military build-up on the east-Ukrainian borders and in Russian-occupied Crimea and ongoing escalation along the frontline in Ukraine’s Donbas.

Map: Euromaidan Press

Ukraine has been locked in a conflict with Russia since March 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine’s southernmost region of Crimea and later unfolded aggression in two oblasts in the Ukrainian east historically known as the Donbas region.

Back in mid and late 2014, the direct invasions of Russian regular troops were preceded by mass social media reports backed by photos and videos of military columns moving across Russia towards Ukrainian borders. The official cover-up for such build-ups was military drills.

After the most active stage from mid-summer 2014 until spring 2015, the fighting has been simmering for years now, with a stable 427-kilometer-long front-line and low-level sporadic clashes flaring up on a regular basis.

In this period, Russia had amassed troops on Ukrainian borders on several occasions. These build-ups didn’t end up with troops crossing the border and were rather attempts on political blackmail of the Ukrainian leadership.

Russian troops build up on borders amid ongoing escalation in Donbas

Now, in the course of this week, a number of reports emerged on social media showing the Russian heavy military equipment on the move by rail and roads towards the east of Ukraine and in the Russian-occupied Crimea on a scale unseen in years. The Ukrainian officials reported that intelligence data confirms the Russian build-up.

Digital sleuths of the Russian Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) compiled a map of the locations of the recent videos showing the Russian heavy equipment on move:

Russian military build-up near Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The markers show the alleged locations of recent videos of convoys of Russian heavy equipment. Source.

According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the Russian Ministry of Defense requisitioned thousands of flatbed railcars, to the point of disrupting agricultural machinery supplies just as sowing is about to start.

CIT says that Russia’s MoD usually requisitions rolling stock for large drills such as Zapad, which is set for September. Meanwhile, the last big exercise in the Southern Military district adjacent to southern and eastern Ukrainian borders ended a week ago, yet the trains keep coming.

These are several videos of the Russian equipment on move:

Russian self-propelled howitzers on the Kerch Strait bridge:
A column of infantry-fighting vehicles and military trucks in Yeysk, Krasnodar Krai, Russia:
26 March, Voronezh Oblast:
25 March, Askay, Rostov Oblast:

Pavlovsk, Voronezh Oblast, 2 April:

North of occupied Crimea:

March 31:

Rostov Oblast:

What Russia says and implies

In his talks with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron via videoconference on 20 March, Russian president Vladimir Putin , according to the Kremlin’s official readout, once again urged Kyiv establish “a direct dialogue with Donetsk and Luhansk and settling the legal aspects of a special status for Donbas. ” This is a recurring subject of Russian pressure on Ukraine.

Another point made by Putin was his

“serious concern about the escalation of armed confrontation on the contact line being provoked by Ukraine and its refusal to implement the additional measures to strengthen the ceasefire coordinated by the Trilateral Contact Group in July 2020.”

Zelenskyy came to power promising to stop the war and many of his actions as a president have been criticized as unduly pacifistic or even capitulationist. That’s why Putin’s blame on Ukraine for provoking the escalation in the Donbas sounds contrived.

A more likely explanation is that the military build-up on the Ukrainian borders and the escalation in the Donbas are ways of blackmailing Ukraine with a potential invasion so that Ukraine grants autonomy status to both Russian-occupied regions, as Russia wants.

On 29 March, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that provocations by the Ukrainian siloviki and the current aggravation of the situation in the Donbas are fraught with “an extremely dangerous forceful scenario,” implying that the Ukrainian military may be preparing an offensive operation in the Donbas.

This claim may easily become a causa formalis for the Russian military intervention in the future, which would be presented in such a case as a response to Ukraine’s alleged aggressive actions against the Russian citizens of the Donbas. A similar excuse was used as a reason for the invasion of Georgia back in 2008.

CIT theorizes that the Kremlin’s motivation for Russian military buildup

“might well be posturing intended to threaten Ukraine, which recently has made bold moves against politicians and media seen as Moscow’s agents of influence.”

Meanwhile, the water issue in occupied Crimea remains a painful issue for the Kremlin.

Ukraine had cut off supplies of water from the Dnipro River that satisfied most of Crimea’s demand back in 2014 shortly after the occupation. In the following years, the Russian occupation administration failed to provide the peninsula with drinking water which resulted in a severe crisis with dwindling agriculture and rationing water for the population.

If blackmailing Ukraine into resuming water supplies via the North-Crimean Canal is the main goal of the Kremlin-orchestrated ongoing military crisis, then Russia hasn’t voiced this demand yet, at least publicly. However, if the military operation is actually on the table, then Russia may be unfolding its troops for seizing the water pumping facilities in Kherson Oblast.

In general, not many experts and politicians in Ukraine believe that Russia is actually going to resume its invasion of Ukraine, the prevailing opinion is that the Russian build-up is nothing but saber-rattling and muscle-flexing.

At the same time, Jim Townsend , a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, believes that Russia is testing the NATO, Biden administration, and Ukraine,

“They’re probing, they’re trying to see what we’re going to do, what NATO would do, what the Ukrainians would do… Is this a jumpy administration, or is this an administration that’s going to act with resolve? They’re doing all of these things to assess where the new administration is,” he said according to FP.

Anyway, so far no one really knows what Russia’s real intentions are and how far it could go for achieving its current goal.

Reaction of Ukraine and the West

On 30 March, Ukraine Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak addressed the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament), saying that Russia has been deploying troops near Ukrainian borders under the guise of preparing for the military exercises West-2021. They are planned not earlier than September. According to him, Russia amassed 28 battalion tactical groups on Ukraine’s eastern borders and in Crimea as of 30 March.

A map from Khomchak’s presentation showing the Russian Army’s build-up near the Ukrainian borders and in Crimes. Screenshot: Ukrainska Pravda.

Moreover, the Ukrainian military command expected that Russia would soon deploy “up to 25 more battalion tactical groups” in the area, which, added by forces and means previously deployed near the state border of Ukraine, “poses a threat to the state’s military security.”

On 31 March, the top Pentagon general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley , called his counterparts – Russian Armed Forces chief of staff Valery Gerasimov and Ukrainian commander Ruslan Khomchak as the US Defense Department expressed concerns about a reported buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border and in Crimea.

On 1 April, Ukrainian ministers discussed the escalating situation with Western allies, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau as Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Moscow of building up troops on the Ukrainian border for creating “a threatening atmosphere.”

In a statement, Zelenskyy said that

“military exercises and possible provocations along the border are traditional Russian games.”

The Russian build-up has been unfolding amid the gradual escalation in the Donbas frontlines that has been gaining momentum since the start of the year, the time the ceasefire declared in summer 2020 collapsed. That was so far the last in the row of the countless ceasefires regularly negotiated throughout the seven years of war, and it initially resulted in a significant decrease in hostilities for months.

Now, Zelenskyy says 20 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 57 wounded in the Donbas since the beginning of the year.

On 26 March alone, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in an artillery attack near the city of Horlivka north of Donetsk.

Meanwhile, Khomchak reiterates that 28,000 Russian-backed militants and more than 2,000 Russian military instructors and advisers have been currently stationed in the occupied region with additional 32,700 Russian regular troops in Crimea.

On 2 April, US President Joseph Biden held a phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It was the first call of the American leader to Ukraine’s in Biden’s presidential tenure. According to the official readout of the call published by the White House,

“President Biden affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea. He emphasized his administration’s commitment to revitalize our strategic partnership…”

President Zelenskyy said in a video statements after the conversation,

“We discussed the situation in the Donbas in detail. President Biden assured me that Ukraine will never be left alone against Russia’s aggression.”

Hostilities escalate in Donbas

In recent days, not only the official accounts report increased hostilities, but also the local Donbas residents’ reports on social media. Most of the social media accounts mentioned further on are anonymous, however, the author of this article has been monitoring them since the early stages of the war and their reports have been relevant for years.

Here are several examples from 2 April.

A report from Donetsk on the morning developments goes,

“Donetsk, 06:59, a “good morning” from [Russian-hybrid forces] in the north (i.e. sounds of explosions, – Ed). 08:20 a car of the Joint Control and Coordination Center went north and it died out, but at 09:00 they resumed pounding with single shots that were flying towards Avdiivka/Pisky up until 12:00. Then there were rare single shots.”

Multiple tweets from other local sources confirmed the morning fighting and alleged that it was going on in the area of Donetsk Airport. A video by RFE/RL backs those reports:

An afternoon report from another Donetsk resident reads,

“All day through, the north of Donetsk has been rumbling. There was a short-lasting black smoke, they probably hit something.”

The Joint-Forces Operation press center reported that a 59-year old man from Krasnohorivka (Ukraine-controlled Donetsk suburb) sustained a shrapnel wound as the town came under attack by Russian forces who had used 120-mm mortars.

An evening report from Donetsk reads, “20:34 Donetsk, Putilovka: One, but loud [explosion sound].”

A resident of Popasna, a small Ukraine-controlled frontline city in Luhansk Oblast not far from Donetsk Obalst, wrote on Twitter, “Popasna residents report in their local FB group that they can hear it loud” citing the tweet reading “Zolote (town not far from Popasna): a battle [heard from] Svitlodarsk bulge (Donetsk Oblast, south from Zolote-Popasna) started it with shots in the evening.”

A Twitter report by a Svitlodarsk local reads,

Today near Svitlodarsk from 14:00 until 15:30, there were 4-5 [hits of shells of the calibers] over 100mm, in the evening after 19:00 there was gunfire and grenade launchers, fiercely, and some 10 minutes ago (= around 20:30) something massive rumbled.

Earlier, a report on an explosion in Luhansk’s eastern suburbs emerged, locals speculated that it could have been a gas pipe explosion. Nevertheless, the area is less than 10 kilometers away from the so-called disengagement zone near Stanytsia Luhanska and the event may be a mere provocation in order to put blame on the Ukrainian troops. Luhansk, the Russian-occupied regional capital, didn’t witness serious military actions since 2015.

A resident of Donetsk suburb, Makiivka, wrote on 2 April shortly before midnight:

“ Some wild activity has been heard, and here at 23:35 from Yasynuvata direction towards the Daki [microdistrict] nine tanks with escort vehicles, each having kind of a mortar on them.”

As of 17:00, Ukraine recorded 14 instances of ceasefire violations, including 13 fire attacks of Russian formations on Ukrainian positions and one attack on civilian infrastructure in Krasnohorivka. Two Ukrainian soldiers were wounded in action.

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