Why have tensions between Russia and Ukraine resurfaced?
Ukrainian and Western officials are concerned that a Russian military buildup near Ukraine may indicate Moscow’s intention to attack its former Soviet neighbor.
The Kremlin says that it has no such plans and has accused Ukraine and its Western allies of using such accusations to cover up their own purportedly aggressive plans.
It’s unclear if Russia’s troop concentration foreshadows an impending invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought for Western assurances that would prevent NATO from expanding into Ukraine, and the buildup might be an effort to back up his stance.
What are the origins of the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
Ukraine, which had been a part of the Russian empire for centuries before becoming a Soviet republic, gained independence when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. The nation has made strides to shed its Russian imperial history and build ever-closer connections with the West.
Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian president, rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favor of stronger relations with Moscow, sparking major demonstrations that ultimately to his removal in 2014. Russia retaliated by annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed a separatist conflict that erupted in Ukraine’s east.
Ukraine and the West accused Russia of deploying soldiers and weaponry to support the insurgents. Moscow refuted this, claiming that Russians who joined the rebels were doing so voluntarily.
More than 14,000 people have died as a result of the war in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as Donbas.
A 2015 peace accord signed by France and Germany helped bring large-scale warfare to a halt, but attempts to achieve a political solution have failed, and isolated clashes have occurred along the sensitive line of contact.
A jump in cease-fire breaches in the east and a Russian army buildup near Ukraine fuelled war worries earlier this year, but tensions eased when Moscow withdrew the majority of its units following drills in April.
Russia’s most recent military buildup
According to US intelligence authorities, Russia is planned to deploy an estimated 175,000 soldiers, with over half of them already stationed at different sites along Ukraine’s border in preparation for an invasion that could begin as early as 2022.
Following large war drills in western Russia last autumn, Ukraine has protested that Moscow has stationed around 90,000 soldiers close to the two nations’ borders.
According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, elements of Russia’s 41st army have stayed around Yelnya, a town roughly 160 miles north of Ukraine’s border.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned MPs on Friday that the number of Russian forces near Ukraine and in Russian-annexed Crimea is believed to be 94,300, threatening a “large-scale escalation” in January.
Furthermore, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces claims that Russia has around 2,100 military soldiers in Ukraine’s rebel-controlled east and that Russian commanders occupy all leadership posts in the separatist forces. Moscow has denied the deployment of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine on several occasions.
Russia has not disclosed any information regarding its soldier numbers or placements, claiming that their presence on its own soil should not worry anybody.
What does Moscow desire?
The Kremlin has accused Ukraine of violating the 2015 peace agreement and has chastised the West for failing to support Ukrainian compliance. The accord was a diplomatic success for Moscow, compelling Ukraine to cede substantial autonomy to rebel territories and award the insurgents amnesty.
Ukraine, for its part, has pointed to cease-fire breaches by Russia-backed separatists and claims, despite the Kremlin’s denials, that Russian troops remain in the insurgent east.
In the midst of the recriminations, Russia has refused a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France, and Germany, claiming that it would be futile given Ukraine’s failure to comply with the 2015 deal.
Moscow has severely denounced the United States and its NATO partners for arming Ukraine and undertaking joint exercises, claiming that this encourages Ukrainian hawks to attempt to retake rebel-held territories by force.
Putin warned earlier this year that a military effort by Ukraine to regain the east would have “severe implications for Ukrainian sovereignty.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has regularly referred to Russians and Ukrainians as “one people,” claiming that Ukraine was unjustly given ancient Russian regions during the Soviet era.
Putin has often said that Ukraine’s desire to join NATO is a red line for Moscow, and he has voiced alarm over plans by certain NATO nations to establish military training camps in Ukraine. He said it would provide them a military footing in the country even if Ukraine did not join NATO.
Last week, Putin said that Russia would seek “solid and long-term security assurances” from the United States and its allies, “which would exclude any future NATO movements eastward and the deployment of military systems that endanger us in close proximity to Russian territory.”
He alleged that “threats are rising on our western border,” with NATO relocating its military facilities closer to Russia, and invited the West to participate in real negotiations on the matter, adding that Moscow would want “legal guarantees” in addition to verbal pledges.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, claimed the Russian leader would press for similar assurances in a video conversation with US President Joe Biden scheduled for Tuesday, although many veteran US and NATO officials think such a Russian demand to Biden would be a nonstarter. Biden said on Friday that he would not “accept anyone’s red line.”
Is there a serious danger of a Russian invasion?
Russia dismissed suggestions of an invasion plan as a Western smear campaign, accusing it of concealing a Ukrainian determination to strike in the east. Such proposals are denied by Ukraine.
Some analysts read Putin’s military surge as a sign that Russia is willing to escalate the stakes in order to persuade NATO to respect Moscow’s red lines and cease deploying soldiers and weapons to Ukraine.
Last month, Putin expressed delight that Moscow’s warnings had finally gained traction, causing “some tension” in the West. “It’s vital to maintain them in that position for as long as possible so that they don’t think of staging some battle on our western borders that we don’t need,” he continued.
Officials in the United States acknowledged that Moscow’s goals remain unknown, but they cited Russia’s prior actions as grounds for alarm.
Biden promised on Friday that his administration would make it “very, very difficult” for Putin to attack Ukraine, announcing a slew of new steps aimed at deterring Russian action.