In Russia’s borderlands near Ukraine, military buildup becomes part of the scenery

A mother and her son, a Russian soldier, take a train from Novocherkassk to Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Feb. 1.
A mother and her son, a Russian soldier, take a train from Novocherkassk to Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Feb. 1. (Arthur Bondar/For The Washington Post)

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia — From a train window, travelers had a rolling view of some of Russia’s vast military realignment: a warehouse with armored vehicles and antiaircraft guns near a base in southwestern Russia, not far from the border with Ukraine.

Nearby, troops, radio equipment and other military cargo made their way along highways, then onto smaller, rutted roads near Novocherkassk, about 15 miles northeast of the regional hub, Rostov-on-Don.

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Novocherkassk is the headquarters of the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army, which was reestablished in 2017 to cover Russia’s southwestern borders and is ready to deploy in the case of a threat to the breakaway corner of Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

The base is also a nerve center in a growing Russian military buildup that the United States and allies fear could be the vanguard of an invasion of Ukraine meant to block its Western ties and aspirations of future NATO membership. Russia insists it has no plans for military action, but has not stepped back from demands for guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO.

And, still, more forces arrive near Rostov-on-Don.

Just outside the Novocherkassk train station earlier this month, the Russian military conducted drills for tank crews to practice “skills in driving through difficult terrain conditions,” according to a Russian Defense Ministry news release.

They rumbled over the doughy mix of snow and thick, clay-like soil. In January, the same training grounds at the Kadamovsky Range were the site of snap drills to see how efficiently a local motorized rifle division could deploy after traveling long distances.

According to the most recent U.S. intelligence assessment, Russia is close to completing its buildup near Ukraine, having dispatched 83 battalion tactical groups. This is about 70 percent of what Russian President Vladimir Putin would need to launch a large-scale operation, U.S. intelligence estimates say.

Moscow sent Washington a list of “security proposals,” including a ban on admitting Ukraine to NATO and scaling back the alliance’s presence in Eastern Europe. The United States and NATO rejected the key demands, and now talks hang in a diplomatic limbo with no clear path to a swift resolution.

Russia held tank drills in the Rostov region near the Ukraine border on Jan. 12, as Moscow rejected Western complaints about its troop buildup near Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)

Meanwhile, videos of Russia’s military moving hardware and troops toward the country’s western borders continue to pile up on TikTok and Instagram, with some units hailing from Far Eastern bases thousands of miles away.

When approached by The Washington Post, many people in Rostov-on-Don were reluctant to talk about a war possibly breaking out next door, saying they are too preoccupied with everyday struggles, poor roads, or the coronavirus pandemic as cases spike again in Russia.

Those who did comment seemed fatigued by all the brinkmanship.

“I don’t watch the news or TV,” said Alisa Kantemirova, 22. “However, I see all these TikToks and it’s worrying.”

“But I try not to get into politics,” she added, “because if I do, my panic attacks will triple.”

“It will happen, but who knows when?” said Alexander, 36, while on a stroll with his pregnant wife in one of the city’s parks. “Nobody wants it, of course, but it’s a conflict where it’s brothers against brothers, and this division must resolve somehow.” Like others, he spoke on the condition that only his first named be used for fear of drawing the attention of local authorities.

The tendency to tune out the crisis is common among Russians, said Denis Volkov, head of the Moscow-based Levada Center, an independent polling group.

“That’s a very typical answer,” Volkov said. “The respondents often say: ‘Whenever I hear anything about Ukraine, I immediately switch the channel. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to be scared. There is blood and bad news. We are tired of Ukraine.’”

For years, Russian state media conditioned its viewers to think of the Ukrainian government as chaotic and violent, ridiculing its presidents and parliament.

“Russia has no motivation to attack Ukraine and conduct large-scale military operations against it, and every sane person understands that,” said a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician, Ilya Kiva, on Russia’s “60 Minutes” TV show. “But you need to have brains for that … unfortunately the Ukrainian authorities don’t have one.”

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Now, as Ukrainian civilians train in guerrilla tactics in case of Russian aggression, a potential war is seen as a defensive one on the Russian side of the border.

“What invasion? We are not invading anyone and have never invaded!” said Mikhail, 56. “Didn’t Ukraine mass their soldiers near our borders? Didn’t NATO approach our borders?”

According to a December poll by the Levada Center, just 4 percent of Russians think Moscow is the aggressor in the current escalation with the West, while the majority blame the United States.

It’s a long-standing trend. Russians tend to consider all conflicts their country has engaged in — for example, the 2008 war in Georgia — to be proxy standoffs with the West, said Volkov.

“The overall fear of a major war is strong, and it has been for years. Another thing is that there is understanding that we don’t want to have [a war,] it’s the other side. They are cooking it up and we can only respond,” Volkov said.

The message from Putin’s Kremlin: “Russia doesn’t want to, but it must intervene,” Volkov said.

“Look, we survived so much and we will survive this,” said Valentina, a pensioner in a village near a newly built World War II memorial park, Sambekskie Vysoty, which features burned German tanks as a reminder of Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia.

“We are used to these flare-ups,” she said. “They come and go. But we need to live our lives.”