Tampa Bay Times

Message to Biden? Russia shifts troops toward Ukraine

- BY ISABELLE KHURSHUDYA­N, DAVID L. STERN, LOVEDAY MORRIS AND JOHN HUDSON

MOSCOW — Russia is steadily massing its largest military presence in years near the Ukrainian border — on land and sea — as the Kremlin tests Western support for Kyiv and its battles against pro-Moscow separatist­s less than three months into the Biden administra­tion.

Russia’s motivation­s for the buildup are unclear and do not necessaril­y signal a looming offensive, Ukrainian and Western officials said.

But moving forces from as far away as Siberia — more than 2,000 miles away — to near Ukraine and onto the Crimean Peninsula has injected new levels of alarm in a region that has been a key flash point since 2014.

In March that year, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, prompting internatio­nal condemnati­on and sanctions. The following month, war broke out in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas between Russian-allied separatist­s and Ukraine’s military.

More than 13,000 people have been killed in the fighting since then, according to the United Nations. The last bout of large-scale combat was more than four years ago, but there have been periodic exchanges of artillery along a front line that has barely budged.

Russia’s sudden military surge appears to be more about sending messages, analysts said.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s warm relations with the U.S. and Europe are a challenge to Moscow’s influence in the region, especially as Biden has vowed to take a harder line with the Kremlin. Ukraine’s aspiration­s of joining NATO are seen by Russia as a potential threat on its doorstep.

Some of the Russian military moves have a long-term feel. Russian troops and military hardware are at a recently constructe­d camp near Voronezh, about 155 miles from the Ukrainian border.

“Russia is testing everyone’s nerves and declaring its position: It should remain an important player for other countries, both the United States and Ukraine,” said Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligen­ce Team.

“They are trying to show that Russia will not tolerate any sanctions or other actions put in place to pressure them to return Crimea to Ukraine or to change the course of things in Donbas,” he added.

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The Russian military began the shift about a month ago, Leviev said. At first, the redeployme­nt was thought to be part of planned exercises. But when the maneuvers ended in late March, the military array stayed.

Tanks have crossed the bridge connecting Russia and Crimea. Trains carrying military hardware from northern Russian regions have made multiple trips, Leviev said.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense has said it is moving more than 10 naval vessels, including landing boats and artillery warships, from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, which lines Ukraine’s coast, for “exercises.”

It has all happened in the open.

The Conflict Intelligen­ce Team has flagged around 150 videos, mainly from TikTok, showing the Russian military on the move. “It feels like the Russian Ministry of Defense wants these convoys and trains to be filmed,” Leviev said.

“Because then the message about muscle-flexing and the costs of playing with its power will reach Ukraine and Western countries through the media,” he added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia “is moving troops within its own territory at its own discretion, and this shouldn’t concern anyone.”

Serhii Deineko, the head of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service, estimated that there are at least 85,000 Russian troops positioned between six and 25 miles from the Ukrainian border and in Crimea.

Russia has more troops on Ukraine’s eastern border than at any time since 2014, said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary.

“We’ve asked Russia for an explanatio­n of these provocatio­ns,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, “but more importantl­y, what we have signaled with our Ukrainian partners is a message of reassuranc­e.”

An unnamed senior U.S. official said these troop movements could set back efforts to work with Moscow on areas of mutual interest.

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