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Russia-Ukraine Conflict Summary: What’s happening in Ukraine?

As Russian troops mass on the Ukraine border, a look at the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the Donbass region - and what has happened in recent weeks to cause mainstream media reports to ask if we may see a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russia-Ukraine conflict summary: What's happening in Ukraine?

Prior reporting from Intelligence Fusion on the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the Donbass region has revealed the constant violations of ceasefire and withdrawal agreements from both Russia-backed DPR and LPR (Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic) separatists and Ukrainian forces. These ceasefire and withdrawal violations have been a constant feature of our reporting for some time now, with rhetoric and actions periodically escalating but neither side escalating to the point of outright warfare as seen prior to the Minsk Agreements of 2014-15.

However, these violations appear to have taken on a different dimension in recent weeks.

Most recently, in an intelligence report dated 24th November 2021, Senior Regional Analyst for Europe, Matt Pratten noted the following:

“Reports used to log ceasefire violations in Donbass often provide good information (for open sources) on the dates, times and locations of incidents; but little to no indications of who is responsible for ceasefire violations. Separate, on-the-ground reporting has provided greater insight into ceasefire violations in this regard. The Russia-backed separatists have reportedly been frequently trying to force Ukrainian forces to retaliate in order to create the perception among local nationals and the international community that Ukrainian forces are not complying with the Minsk II agreement. If this narrative is accepted, the separatists – in some cases fighters directly from Russia – can then launch an offensive to solidify/increase their gains in Donbass. Greater control of the Donbass region by Russia or its proxies would help strengthen Russian territory in the south – both the Volgograd gap to exposing access to the Caspian Sea and its hold on Crimea – and gain greater control over the oil, gas and mineral resources in Donbass.”

Russia has also made repeated claims of Ukrainian aggression; as recently as 10th December, the Russians claimed that a Ukrainian naval vessel had attempted to cross into the Kerch Strait from the Azov Sea. Claims of violation of sovereignty is a common complaint from Moscow – in June 2021, for example, they made claims of Royal Navy’s HMS Defender entering Russian waters near Sevastopol which later proved to be based on falsified location data. When viewed alongside the reported provocation from the Russian-backed DPR/LPR forces in Donbass, this behaviour can be seen as further attempts to find justification for Russia to invade Ukraine.

The same report noted a significant build-up of Russian forces on Russia-Ukraine borders:

While the Poland-Belarus border has been dominating open source reporting, significant activity has been noticed in the Donbass region from October. There have been reports of Russian military movements in its regions close to Ukraine; including a convoy of SS-26 Stone Ballistic missiles and TOS-1A Flamethrowers. Russian armour and artillery has been sighted on rail transports and BM-21 Grad multiple barrel rocket launch systems operated exclusively by Russian forces have been sighted within Donetsk Oblast. Separate reporting alleges up to 92,000 troops have been amassed around Ukraine’s borders. This is the second time this kind of activity has happened, but reports for logging these incidents – supported by contextual reporting – suggest that Russian military assets have been moved to the border in a more covert manner this time around. The nature of these movements have sparked concerns that Russia could be planning another offensive into Ukraine to take full control as early as January 2022.”

Since then, this new build-up has been highlighted in widespread media reporting, with the potential for Russia to invade Ukraine becoming a hot topic for mainstream media sources. This has been bolstered in the early days of December, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stating at a NATO ministers meeting on 1st December that there is “evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine”, and with the Kremlin saying on 2nd December that ‘the probability of a new conflict in eastern Ukraine remained high’, saying that Moscow was concerned by “aggressive” rhetoric from Kyiv. Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s Defense Minister, told Ukraine’s Parliament on 3rd December that “the probability of large-scale escalation from Russia exists” and that late January would be the most likely period for the escalation in Donbass to take place – adding, however, that “the escalation is a possible scenario, but not the inevitable one”. 

Will russia invade ukraine russia troop buildup russia ukraine conflict

Recent developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict [Source: Intelligence Fusion]

Will Russia invade Ukraine?

Previous troop build ups have been reported in the past that have ultimately acted as a bluff or form of muscle flexing from Moscow rather than being the first steps towards a Russia-Ukraine war. The most notable or recent example of this took place in March-April 2021, when Russia deployed a high level of troop, artillery and military vehicle, and even naval movement into the region. On that occasion Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu eventually instructed Commanders to return their units to their respective bases; stating the ‘snap inspection’ objectives had been achieved. 

However, as noted in our prior analysis, what is striking on this occasion is the more covert way in which military assets have been deployed to the Russia-Ukraine border – in contrast to the way in which no secret had been made of previous troop movements, which were readily available to track through open source reporting. This suggests that the motivation behind this Russian troop build-up may be different to the previous movements of military assets – leading to greater speculation on this occasion of a potential Russia-Ukraine war.

Intelligence released from the Ukrainian military suggests that preparation for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine is underway – in the map below they have highlighted the strength of Russian forces on its borders with Belarus and Russia to the North, East and South of the country.

Ukrainian military mapping of Russian and allied forces on Ukraine’s borders [Source: Ukrainian military; Geopolitical Futures]

According to the statement made by Oleksiy Reznikov on 3rd December, there were 94,300 Russian army servicemen on Ukraine’s border and in separatist occupied territory in Donbass.

In recent days, US President Joe Biden has stated that the US would take a more direct role in diplomacy in the region, in an attempt to dissuade Russia from a potential invasion. On 8th December, President Biden warned of severe consequences if Russia did invade, but that putting American troops on the ground in Ukraine “is not on the table”. Instead he said that there would be “economic consequences like none [Russian President Vladimir Putin] has ever seen”. In the same conversation President Putin refused to say whether he would order troops into Ukraine.

In a report dated 9th December, the Associated Press cited anonymous US administration officials, who reportedly suggested that “the U.S. will press Ukraine to formally cede a measure of autonomy to eastern Ukrainian lands now controlled by Russia-backed separatists” in an attempt to resolve the situation peacefully. According to former US ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, this could include allowing the separatist controlled Donbass region to control its own health care, police and schools.

What is the wider context?

This Russian build-up on the Ukraine border has coincided with both the Poland-Belarus border crisis and Russia’s attempts to double its supply of natural gas to Western Europe through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. To further understand the context surrounding the troop build-up, we have included our prior analysis on both of these issues below – as well as the significance of the Russia-Ukraine conflict for Ukraine’s Oil and Gas economy.

The Russia-Ukraine Conflict and the Poland-Belarus Border Crisis

As noted, this recent build-up of Russian military assets on the Ukraine border has coincided with the Poland-Belarus border crisis, with Belarus – an ally of Russia, although by no means a ‘puppet state’ – accused of state-sponsored human trafficking. 

 

The Russia-Ukraine Conflict and the Nord Stream 2 Gas Pipeline

At the same time, Russia has completed construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would provide natural gas directly to Western Europe via Germany. The certification process for this pipeline has yet to be completed, however, with Germany suspending approval on 16th November, likely in some part in response to Belarus’ threat to halt gas supplies from the Yamal pipeline.

 

The Russia-Ukraine Conflict, Oil and Gas and the Energy Sector

Click to expand and read our prior analysis of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and its impact on Oil and Gas, originally published on 23rd August 2021. New additions and comments have been added in bold.


Intelligence Fusion’s Russia-Ukraine conflict summary is made possible by our 24/7 team of experienced, military standard trained intelligence analysts, who use open-source intelligence sources to track, verify, map, and analyse the latest developments across the global threat landscape.

As the situation continues to develop we will be posting regular updates as well as answering any questions people might have about the conflict in the Donbass region in our new OSINT community on Discord, exclusively available to our email subscribers. To learn more, follow the situation or to give your own take on the latest in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, you can sign up here.

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