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Local citizens collect some of their belongings after a recent shelling near a front line outside Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on April 9, 2021.

The Associated Press

For weeks, Russian social media accounts have been flooded with videos showing long convoys of tanks, troop trucks and artillery pieces – all of them apparently headed toward the country’s border with Ukraine.

Many, even in the Ukrainian capital, think Russian President Vladimir Putin is bluffing. Some believe his intent is to pressure the Ukrainian government into making concessions to the Russian-backed separatists that control parts of eastern Ukraine. Others see Mr. Putin sending a message of defiance to U.S. President Joe Biden, who has vowed to support Ukraine and recently agreed with a television interviewer’s description of the Russian President as “a killer,” a remark believed to have personally offended Mr. Putin.

But not Major-General Serhiy Deyneko. The commander of Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service sees too many parallels with 2014, when Russia also massed troops near the frontier – then, as now, under the guise of holding a snap test of military readiness. Many dismissed the possibility of a Russian invasion then too, until masked Russian troops entered both the Crimean Peninsula in the south of the country, which Russia rapidly seized and annexed, as well as the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the east, where the Kremlin-fuelled conflict continues seven years later.

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Maj.-Gen. Deyneko, who was head of the Lugansk border guard service in 2014, and saw his own office taken over by pro-Russian fighters, says he feels an awful sense of déjà-vu about the latest build-up. He told The Globe and Mail that the Russian movements – which the Kremlin describes as the prelude to a training exercise – have brought 85,000 troops within a short drive of Ukraine’s eastern border, as well as the current line of control in Crimea.

That’s more than quadruple the number of Russian troops that Ukraine estimated were near its border at the end of March. Some fear that Mr. Putin – who has long sought to re-establish Russian domination over the entire territory of the former Soviet Union – may be planning further incursions into Ukraine, a country whose independence the Kremlin has never completely accepted.

As the scale of Russia’s build-up became plain this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a series of calls – including one to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – asking the NATO military alliance to open a path for Ukraine to rapidly join it. Ukraine’s leaders know from experience that their country is ill-equipped to face Russia’s military machine alone.

“The forces of the Russian Federation are well-trained, well-supplied and need just a few hours to reach the border and strike us,” Maj.-Gen. Deyneko said in an interview at the Border Guard headquarters in Kyiv. “In 2014, I witnessed myself how the situation escalated, and I see it happening again now. Therefore, we are prepared for any type of scenario.”

Maj.-Gen. Deyneko’s assessment was backed by a report this week from the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, which analyzed open sources to conclude that Russia had erected a temporary military base – complete with field hospitals – roughly 200 kilometres from the Ukrainian border.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks in a trench on the front line with Russian-backed separatists, near the town of Zolote, in the Lugansk region, on April 8, 2021.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

After six months of relative calm, there has also been a sharp rise in the fighting along the front line between the Ukrainian army and the separatist militias, with at least 27 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the start of the year. Maj.-Gen. Deyneko said Ukraine’s military viewed the separatist fighters as under direct Kremlin control.

Russia has blamed Ukraine for the recent escalation, accusing it of “provocative actions” around the ceasefire line in Donbass. On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the situation in eastern Ukraine was “very unstable … creating risks of full-scale combat operations.” He said Russia had a right to deploy its armed forces anywhere on its territory.

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While the Ukrainian military sees no option but to prepare for a larger war, most in Kyiv still believe that Mr. Putin is flexing his country’s military might without the intention of using it. The aim, many believe, is to compel Mr. Zelensky into accepting the Kremlin’s vision of how to make peace in Donbass, where the front line has been static for several years.

The Russian plan would see separatist fighters amnestied, and Lugansk and Donetsk brought back into Ukraine, but with wide autonomy – including the ability to veto any future Ukrainian effort to join the European Union or the NATO military alliance. The Russian plan is largely in line with a 2015 peace deal that was mediated by Germany and France and signed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. The pact was always unpopular in Ukraine – which agreed to the terms under the threat of losing more land – and successive Ukrainian governments have been slow to implement it.

A serviceman covers military hardware with a camouflage net during an exercise held by units of the Novorossiysk guards mountain air assault division of the Russian Airborne Troops at Opuk range.

Sergei Malgavko/Getty Images

“I see [the Russian military build-up] as a ‘Minsk enforcement operation,’ a coercive show of force to induce Kyiv, Berlin and Paris to accept Moscow’s terms for implementing Minsk,” said Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based political analyst and former Russian diplomat.

Mr. Zelensky’s plan for Donbass is almost precisely the opposite of Mr. Putin’s. He made a frantic diplomatic push this week – calling Mr. Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as well as Mr. Trudeau – asking for Ukraine to be offered a swift route to joining the 30-member NATO alliance. NATO membership for Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky wrote on his Twitter account, was the only way to get Russia to back off and leave his country alone.

Western diplomats say the possibility of Ukraine being invited to join NATO remains remote, in part because Ukraine’s accession would immediately put the rest of the alliance in direct confrontation with Russia, which has signalled for decades that it will never accept Ukrainian membership. But Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, said Ukraine’s friends in the West should not abandon the country to face Russia on its own.

“Volodymyr Zelensky is talking to our partners and asking, ‘Guys, we’re facing a lot of risk. Give us an answer: Are you ready to share these risks or not?’” Mr. Podolyak said in an interview at his office in the Presidential Administration building in Kyiv. “We would like to hear a definite answer, that yes, we are in this together.”

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On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was discussing the situation with its allies. “Russia now has more troops on the border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014,” she told a news briefing. On Friday, Turkey said that two U.S. warships were due to pass through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles en route to the Black Sea region bordered by both Ukraine and Russia.

Some take comfort in the fact Russia’s troop movements are as obvious as they are. “If Russia wanted to hide something, they would hide it,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a Kyiv-based military analyst, who added there were now 53 Russian battalions – or roughly 36 per cent of its total ground forces – in the border area. “I think they want us to see it.”

Mr. Podolyak said that he saw the Russian military build-up as a “psy-op” meant to sow fear in Ukraine and to “blackmail” the new U.S. administration into negotiating with Russia on the Kremlin’s terms. But, he said, that didn’t mean that Mr. Putin couldn’t suddenly change direction and order an invasion.

“If you look at the situation from a rational perspective, a military escalation will mean more sanctions, and [Russia] being kicked out of the international banking system. The cost-benefit ratio doesn’t look good for Russia. But Vladimir Putin is surrounded by people who believe they can cross the line if needed.”

This handout picture taken and released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on April 9, 2021, shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the front line in Mariupol region.

STR/Getty Images

The hardened new stance from Mr. Zelensky’s team vis-à-vis Moscow represents a significant shift for a politician who was elected in 2019 on a promise to do whatever was necessary to stop the fighting in eastern Ukraine. On Thursday, the 43-year-old President was filmed visiting troops in the trenches near the front line. He said on Twitter that he wanted to “be with our soldiers in the tough times in Donbass.”

Once seen as soft on Russia, Mr. Zelensky moved earlier this year to close down three pro-Russian television channels controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, a powerful Ukrainian oligarch. Mr. Medvedchuk, whose personal assets were also frozen, was a key figure in the country under former presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych, and is considered a close personal friend of Mr. Putin.

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Mr. Podolyak accused Mr. Medvedchuk, who heads the opposition For Life party – which had surged to the lead in some recent opinion polls – of operating at the Kremlin’s behest in Ukraine.

“This is one of the reasons Putin started this escalation. He was very angry about these sanctions on Medvedchuk and these three channels,” said Taras Berezovets, a Ukrainian political analyst. “Medvedchuk was like Putin’s special envoy in Ukraine. He saw those sanctions as an attack on him.”

Mr. Medvedchuk’s office did not reply this week to questions from The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Berezovets is among those who see Russia’s military moves as an effort to force Ukraine into compliance with the Kremlin’s interpretation of the Minsk agreement. But with tensions between Russia and the West rising since Mr. Biden came to office, the escalation could quickly get out of control

“It looks like blackmail to me. But we know Putin will go as far as he can if there’s no response to his blackmail.”

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