Kyiv, Ukraine – Russia denies it wants war.
Asked why it amassed 40,000 troops, armoured personnel carriers, tanks and artillery near Ukraine’s eastern border and another 40,000 servicemen in annexed Crimea in recent weeks, Moscow “refused to provide substantial information”, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday.
A day earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Nobody is planning to move towards the war.”
However, he added a veiled threat.
“But Russia has always said that it won’t remain indifferent to the fate of Russian-speakers in southeastern Ukraine,” he said, referring to the population of Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russian separatists took up arms against the central government in 2014 and carved out two “People’s Republics”.
Even though other Russian officials claim the buildup is preparation for ordinary drills, there is mounting evidence of Moscow’s preparations for war.
There are amateur videos showing the movement of armed personnel carriers near the Russian western city of Voronezh that lies some 250km (155 miles) east of the Ukrainian border, and tanks on railroad cars in the southwestern Krasnodar region, where a recently-built bridge to Crimea begins.
There is satellite imagery of Russia’s military buildup in the same areas – including the deployment of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, a division of the Russian airborne troops that suffered heavy casualties in 2014 while helping the separatists, according to Ukrainian officials, witnesses and media reports.
Russia denies it ever sent servicemen to Ukraine and calls the conflict a “civil war”.
And there is a surge in deaths of Ukrainian servicemen in the front-line trenches, despite a ceasefire deal brokered last July.
The latest casualty occurred on Sunday, bringing this year’s death toll to 27. In 2020, 50 Ukrainian soldiers died.
Military experts and analysts believe the Kremlin’s preparations for war are in full swing.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made a preliminary decision” to start a low-intensity local war within the separatist regions,” Ihor Romanenko, a retired lieutenant-general and Ukraine’s former deputy chief of staff, told Al Jazeera.
“It doesn’t mean that the war starts tomorrow, but it means he is creating conditions for making a final decision,” he said.
The concentration of troops and artillery resembles similar buildups in late 2013 and early 2014 that preceded the annexation of Crimea and the separatist war that killed more than 13,000 people, uprooted hundreds of thousands, and hobbled Ukraine’s economy.
“All signs indicate that military action is unavoidable,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher at Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.
Russia has plenty of reasons, he said.
Putin’s popularity is plummeting against the backdrop of an economic recession and the pandemic, which has reportedly killed more people than the Kremlin admits.
At the same time, Western pressure is growing on Moscow over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who has started a hunger strike in jail after allegedly being denied medical attention.
In 2017, Ukraine dammed a canal that supplied 85 percent of annexed Crimea’s water, annihilating agriculture and forcing pro-Russian authorities to ration the water supply.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has this year begun to root out pro-Russian politicians and curb their clout, closing down three television networks controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk – who has been sanctioned by Kyiv. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.
“Putin is a master of mimicry and empty buzz, and now’s a good time for the world leaders to show their solidarity with Ukraine and the importance of its pro-European choice,” Mitrokhin said.
These leaders have already started warning Putin.
“If Russia acts recklessly, or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in televised remarks on Sunday.
A day earlier, British defence secretary Dominic Raab urged Moscow to “immediately de-escalate the situation.”
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin started meeting with key NATO allies in Europe and Israel, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called Zelenskyy on April 6 to discuss the “aggravation”.
However, some analysts believe the buildup is nothing but a show of force designed to coerce Ukraine and its Western backers to stick to the 2015 Minsk agreements that prescribe a peaceful reintegration of the separatist regions and an amnesty to separatist forces once they disband.
Moscow insists that under the accords, Ukraine has to “federalise”, granting more autonomy to the separatist regions known collectively as Donbas, which will be able to use Russian as their second official language and deal more freely with Russia.
So, is the buildup a bluff?
“Russia does that intentionally, which makes one presume that it doesn’t want to go to war but wants to pressure Ukraine into forcing it to implement the Minsk accords on its own conditions, and also to pressure Germany and France so that they pressure Ukraine,” Pavel Luzin, a defence analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
However, “Russia may use its current escalation to transfer its military presence in Donbas from something it denies and hides into an open [presence] disguised as a ‘humanitarian operation’,” he said.
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Ruslan Khomchak said 28 Russian battalions have been deployed along the Ukrainian border and that Russia plans to add up to 25 battalions.
Other officials say there is a growing presence of Russian snipers and reconnaissance groups in the separatist regions, while Russian instructors train local fighters.
However, a military officer stationed near the front line in the Donetsk region said there is “no panic”, and the recent surge in casualties partially has to do with landmines that were buried deep in 2014 and are now moving closer to the surface of thawing soil.
“Young boys are exploding on the mines because the earth is pushing them up,” the officer, who withheld his name because he is not authorised to talk to the media, told Al Jazeera.
During the 2014 offensive, the poorly-armed and disorganised Ukrainian army suffered heavy losses.
But, since then, Ukraine has trained more servicemen, substantially modernised its weaponry and received sizeable military aid from the West.
“We’ve become much stronger,” said Oleh Korostelyov, heads of the Luch Design Bureau in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which develops advanced arms.