On Russia’s military activities near Ukraine’s border and in Russia-occupied Crimea

As delivered by Chargé d’Affaires Courtney Austrian to a special joint session of the Forum for Security Cooperation and the Permanent Council, Vienna
April 14, 2021


Thank you, Mister Chair.


The United States joins other participating States in expressing our continued and considerable concern over Russia’s military activities near Ukraine’s border and in Russia-occupied Crimea.  These provocations only threaten to further destabilize an already tense and fragile security situation.  We regret that Russia has to date refused to participate in this joint FSC-PC meeting and a previous meeting with Ukraine, and that Moscow has not clarified the situation on the ground regarding the location, dates, and purpose of the military activity and information on the forces involved, as requested by Ukraine under Vienna Document Chapter III, Risk Reduction.  The provision of such information would go a great way in helping to reduce tensions in eastern Ukraine, tensions for which Russia is solely responsible for escalating. 


Russia’s refusal to provide sufficient information about unusual military activities near its border with Ukraine and in Russia-occupied Crimea is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Vienna Document, which was adopted by all 57 participating States, including Russia.  We urge Russia to remember its commitments to this organization and to the principles we are all expected to adhere, including those outlined in the Vienna Document. 


After having fomented and fueled seven years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia now has the opportunity to do the right thing.  Now is the moment for Russia to clearly articulate the nature of its military activities near Ukraine’s border and dispel the concerns of its neighbors and OSCE participating States in accordance with the Vienna Document.  All of the available evidence suggests this is not a routine military exercise. 


We also find dubious any suggestions that these activities may be related to Russia’s ZAPAD exercise later this year, given the timing, location, and composition of Russian forces involved.  We specifically note Russia indicated in its F30 notification that ZAPAD would take place 10-16 September in training areas of the Western Military District.  Its connection to current activity is implausible, even when considering potential changes to exercise plans, especially without an updated notification.


Ukraine is right to be concerned about these activities.  In both 2008 and 2014, Russia massed forces in a similar manner before it launched military operations against Georgia and then Ukraine.  For months now, Russia has been using its PC statements to outline a false narrative asserting a large-scale Ukrainian military operation was evident.  Such escalation on the part of Ukraine has not been seen.


Russia’s unilateral military activities only serve to further destabilize an already volatile situation and threaten to unravel the fragile ceasefire on the ground in eastern Ukraine.  Its absence from today’s FSC-PC meeting does nothing to assuage the concerns of this body.  Rather, it serves as another worrisome signal and suggests that Russia aims to flaunt its commitments and continue on this provocative path, with real risks to regional security. 


Based on information available in the Vienna Document and open sources, Russia has declared a significant number of forces based at facilities in the region:  more than 17,000 on Ukrainian territory in Crimea, for example.  A field activity involving even a portion of these forces would exceed the 9,000 troop threshold for pre-notification of a military activity under paragraph 40.1.1, at least by the time the troops involved commenced the activities.  If those forces were augmented by troops and equipment from outside the region, which we assess to be the case, the numbers obviously grow.


According to information obtained from available sources, Russia has more troops stationed on the Ukrainian border now than at any time since 2014.  Russia has moved 15,000-25,000 troops to Crimea or closer to the Ukrainian borders.  This number includes infantry, tank battalions, helicopters, and air defense assets.  These forces add to Russia’s already significantly increased combat capabilities in Crimea and along its internationally recognized border with Ukraine.  In Crimea, we assess Russia has an estimated 31,500 troops and has deployed advanced air defense systems, such as the S-400, fighter aircraft, and coastal defense cruise missiles.  Along the internationally recognized border with Ukraine, Russia has increased its force posture considerably since 2015, stationing tens of thousands of troops, reactivating units, refurbishing bases, and deploying more capable ground, air, and air defense equipment.   


The United States notes the paragraph 16 mechanism is not confined to instances of “significant military activity that is required to be reported under the VDoc 2011,” as Russia appears to suggest in its recent note verbale.  Under paragraph 16, pS will consult and cooperate with each other about “any unusual and unscheduled activities of military forces outside their normal peacetime locations,” including activities that are below Vienna Document thresholds.

Large military activity on the border of – or indeed in the territory of – a neighbor without prior notification, as is the case here, is destabilizing, particularly given the context and history.  It raises questions about intentions.


To our knowledge Ukraine has taken no step that could be viewed as provoking such a response.

We again call on Russia to explain the size, composition, and purpose of this activity.  

The Vienna Document and the Stabilizing Measures for Localized Ceasefires (DOC.FSC/2/96) outline a number of potential measures that can form the basis of recommendations to stabilize the current situation. Among such measures, we recommend that Russia provide a briefing detailing their activities of concern, following the parameters of the Ukrainian F10 request; and that Russia host a voluntary visit to dispel concerns about its military activities, as is encouraged under paragraph 18 of the Vienna Document 2011.


Thank you, Mister Chair, I request that my statement be attached to the journal of the day.


Right of Reply to Russia On Russia’s Military Activities near Ukraine’s border and in Russia-occupied Crimea

As delivered by Chargé d’Affaires Courtney Austrian
to a special joint session of the Forum for Security Cooperation and the Permanent Council, Vienna

April 14, 2021


Thank you, Mister Chair.


For months now, Russia has woven fantasies about Ukraine’s alleged military preparations to expel Russia-led forces from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Our esteemed Russian colleagues painted a picture of worsening conditions on the ground in eastern Ukraine, long before it had truly worsened. Despite Russian efforts to convince us these fabrications hold a shred of truth, there is zero evidence Kyiv is planning a large-scale military operation. We’re less sure about Moscow.


When Russia first began spinning its false narrative of worsening tensions in the Donbas, the United States and other participating States accurately noted that the real situation was actually far better than in previous years. Total ceasefire violations, as well as civilian and military casualties were fewer than when compared with the same period last year. That said, each one of these casualties is a tragedy, and all are due entirely to Russia’s aggression.


I would remind my Russian colleagues that large military activities on the border of, or indeed in the territory of, a neighbor without prior notification, as is the case here, are destabilizing, particularly when given the context and the history. It raises questions about intention, and to our knowledge, Ukraine has taken no step that could be viewed as provoking such a response. We again call on Russia to explain the size, composition, and purpose of this activity.


Related to the points raised by my esteemed colleague, NATO has acted in a responsible, transparent, measured, and open manner in the context of significant uncertainties in the region caused by Russian activities. It is Moscow that needs to meaningfully and immediately deescalate and to do so in a transparent and verifiable manner. If Russia has concerns about NATO or U.S. forces in Europe, it should use the appropriate provisions of the Vienna Document to request additional information or transparency.


Related to our assistance to Ukraine, our assistance is provided in a legal and transparent manner and consistent with Ukraine’s right to self-defence.