As Russia builds up military near border with Ukraine, the West fears the worst
Escalating Ukraine-Russia tensions will be front and centre at NATO meeting next week
A Ukrainian soldier strides through a muddy trench near the city of Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, before stopping to poke a rifle through a barrier toward the Russia-backed separatists stationed about 250 metres away.
For more than seven years, war has played out in this region of the country, claiming thousands of lives and suspending communities in a continual state of fear and uncertainty.
Now, the Ukrainian soldiers on this front line say they are prepared for whatever may come next.
"We won't leave," said Vadim, a commander with the government forces who spoke with a freelancer working for CBC and only wanted to be identified by one name.
"We will stay here until the end."
The conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatist militias in the southeastern region of Donbas near the Ukraine-Russia border has continued to erupt despite multiple ceasefires since it broke out seven years ago. But now, U.S. and Ukrainian officials, as well as leaders of some NATO countries, have sounded the alarm that Russia could be planning to launch an invasion because it is moving military forces closer to its border with Ukraine.
The security situation in the region is expected to dominate a meeting of NATO foreign ministers when they meet in Riga, Latvia's capital, next week.
And in the most recent sign of deteriorating relations, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Friday accused Russia of plotting a coup against him, which the Kremlin has denied.
Unusual military movement
Russia has also denied claims it is planning an invasion and accused the West of "whipping up tension," but some experts contend that recent unusual troop movements and accompanying rhetoric send a worrying signal.
What is unknown is how much of this is part of a political bluff or a precursor to a large-scale military operation.
"Think of it as a chess board being set up. We are in the early stages of something," said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher in the Washington, D.C., office of the RAND Corporation, an American think-tank focused on military analysis.
"Russia is leaving itself with a lot of options at this point."
Massicot, who previously worked at the the U.S. Defence Department as a senior analyst focused on Russian military capabilities, says Russia's military has been moving forces from Siberia further west, which she describes as highly atypical and outside of the army's normal training window.
Given that the Kremlin hasn't explained the motivation for the movement beyond denying it is planning an invasion, she says analysts are searching to explain what Russia could be up to.
Different than last year
Massicot says unlike last spring, when Russia amassed troops near the Ukrainian border, also sparking fears of an attack, before eventually withdrawing many of the forces, this time, the equipment is being moved mostly at night instead of during the day.
Commercial satellites have captured images of military equipment parked in western Russia that have been posted online, but Konrad Muzyka, a defence analyst with Poland-based Rochan Consulting, says there haven't been many available because cloudy weather has obscured the views.
Still, he says that by examining open-source intelligence, he has been able to track the military buildup. He wrote on his website that over the last few weeks, not a day has gone by where there haven't been trains or vehicle convoys transporting military equipment spotted heading toward Ukraine or the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
It is hard to assess how many troops Russia has moved toward the border in recent weeks. Zelensky has said there are 100,000, but Massicot says the images she has reviewed suggest it's less than that but still in the "tens of thousands."
The fact that some of that military personnel and equipment is amassing near communities a couple of hundred kilometres from the Ukrainian border suggests an invasion is not necessarily imminent, Massicot said.
"It is not what you do when you are about to go in," she said. "It is basically a negotiation point: I can continue to move forward or I can stay here."
Russia warns of NATO's eastward expansion
There are reports that a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently being planned for December or early next year.
On Nov. 18, in a televised speech to foreign policy officials in Moscow, Putin seemed to imply that the current heightened tensions are advantageous to Russia, because they could force the West to acknowledge its demands to avoid a wider conflict.
Earlier this fall, Russia said one of those demands was a halt to the expansion of NATO military infrastructure into Ukraine. Putin said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had not taken its earlier warnings seriously and military infrastructure was expanding toward Russia's doorstep.
He pointed to NATO anti-missile defence systems in Romania and Poland, which he claimed could easily be converted for offensive use.
"Our concerns and warnings regarding NATO's eastward expansion have been totally ignored," Putin said, encouraging his foreign minister to push for long-term security guarantees.
"Russia cannot constantly be thinking about what could happen there tomorrow."
Canada considering increasing military support for Ukraine
By "there," he means Ukraine — and the possibility that the country could be admitted into the 30-member NATO bloc.
Ukraine has been pushing for inclusion the past 13 years, but its bid has been denied so far. Biden previously said Ukraine needed to do more to clean up corruption before it could be admitted into NATO.
It also has yet to contain the secessionist movement in the two self-proclaimed republics in Eastern Ukraine, which complicates its bid for NATO membership. During the last two years, between 400,000 and more than 500,000 residents of the region have been given Russian passports, according to media reports.
Despite not being a member of the security alliance, Ukraine has secured promises of continued military support from NATO countries.
Canada currently sends a rotating group of about 200 Canadian Armed Forces members to Ukraine every six months, and according to a report in the Globe and Mail, it's contemplating deploying additional troops and aircraft.
CNN recently reported that U.S. officials were also looking at sending extra weapons to Ukraine, and this week, the country received two former U.S. patrol boats.
Escalating tensions, deteriorating relations
The Kremlin, which severed its diplomatic ties with NATO in October, said the West was inflaming the situation in Eastern Ukraine.
Russia's defence minister said that the U.S. rehearsed a nuclear strike against Russia from two different directions earlier this month and that strategic bombers had come close to Russia's borders a number of times. A Pentagon spokesperson said the drills were announced publicly beforehand and adhered to international protocols.
Both Russia and Ukraine have ramped up military exercises amid the deteriorating security situation.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, says one of the biggest obstacles to launching a military operation now is the weather. This time of year is referred to as rasputitsa in Russia, which is when rain and melting snow make unpaved roads difficult to navigate.
If Russia has plans to invade, Felgenhauer says, the plan would have to be swift and could be more easily carried out on frozen terrain in January or February.
While Felgenhauer says he isn't convinced that an attack will happen, he admits it's possible — especially considering how bleak the overall security picture is.
"There is an increasing number of places where things could go wrong," he said, noting that diplomatic discussions between Russia and the West have greatly deteriorated.
Some American and NATO officials have also pointed to another destabilizing factor in the region, accusing Russia of helping to orchestrate the migrant crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland, an allegation Russia has denied.
The U.S. ambassador to Belarus recently voiced concerns that the crisis could be a way to divert attention from Moscow's military buildup.
Ukraine's border authorities have said they've deployed 8,500 extra soldiers and police officers to its border with Belarus in case it, too, sees a flood of people surge toward its border, even if the fact that Ukraine is not an EU member makes that less likely.
"We are kind of slowly but inevitably slipping into a situation where we could go into a confrontation," Felgenhauer said.
With files from Reuters and Corinne Seminoff