The massing of troops and hardware by Russia along its border with Ukraine in April 2021 brought back memories of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in 2014–15 and raised fears of another round of Russian aggression against its neighbor. Although the worst-case scenario did not materialize, these events require close attention and in-depth research because they could happen again should Russia’s leadership assess that their national security interests are at stake once more.

Several observations arise from a detailed analysis of this spring’s war scare between Russia and Ukraine. First, statements on the number of Russian troops involved were misleading in certain respects—the majority of troops in question were already at Ukraine’s borders from past incursions. Second, Russian armed forces involved in these exercises practiced complex scenarios, including encirclement of the Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation in Donbas and blocking of Ukrainian access to the Black Sea. Third, Russian public justifications of the movement of troops and hardware near Ukraine’s border were unpersuasive upon closer look. It seems that a major driver of Russian actions was the desire to send signals to the new U.S. administration—namely that the Biden administration should not attempt to challenge the status quo vis-à-vis Ukraine by bringing it closer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or aid in the liberation of parts of occupied Donbas. Finally, though Russia might have succeeded in sending specific signals to the Biden administration, the intended effect backfired in the case of Ukraine.

In April 2021, the international community’s attention was focused on the latest round of tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Kyiv and its international partners accused Moscow of unprovoked concentration of troops and equipment along the Ukrainian border. At the same time, Moscow acted as if nothing unusual was taking place and framed it as just another round of Russian armed forces readiness checks after the winter period of training.1

It is not unusual for Russia to use armed forces readiness checks to work out complex scenarios involving masses of troops and equipment. For instance, in April 2019, the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Fourth Air and Air Defense Forces Army of the Southern Military District practiced different elements of high-intensity warfare in the region against a hypothetical threat from the United States and NATO.

What was unusual was the size and scope of Russian military activities near the Ukrainian border in the spring of 2021. Reports and photo and video materials of movements of Russian armed forces’ hardware and troops toward the Ukrainian border were reminiscent of Russia’s actions in 2014–15. At that time, Russia had stationed forces along the Ukrainian border, some of which took part in fighting in Donbas. Given this experience, this year’s mass movement of hardware and troops made some experts think about the worst-case scenario—an all-out Russian aggression against Ukraine—which would go beyond the more limited use of force in 2014–15.

The spring 2021 war scare raised several interesting questions: First, how many Russian troops were involved? Second, what possible scenarios were the Russian forces preparing for along the Ukrainian border? Third, what grand strategy aims did Russia want to attain with this mass concentration of equipment and troops? And finally, what kind of wider geopolitical implications could this war scare have produced?