Explained: What you need to know about Ukraine-Russia tensions and US' role in the standoff

The Cold War ended 30 years ago but one unresolved issue — how closely Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, can ally with the West — is now creating some of the deepest US-Russian tensions in years.

FP Staff December 08, 2021 11:40:50 IST

Ukrainian and Western officials are worried that a Russian military buildup near Ukraine could signal plans by Moscow to invade its ex-Soviet neighbour. Ukraine claims that Russia has amassed around 90,000 troops at the border, and US intelligence reports say that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is possible as early as next month.

The Kremlin insists it has no such intention and has accused Ukraine and its Western backers of making the claims to cover up their own allegedly aggressive designs.

It’s unclear whether the Russian troop concentration heralds an imminent attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed for Western guarantees precluding NATO's expansion to Ukraine, and the buildup could reflect an attempt to back up the message.

Also read: ‘Greetings, Mr President’: Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin hold two-hour virtual summit

Here is a look at the current tensions:

What are the roots of the Russia-Ukraine standoff?

Ukraine, which was part of the Russian empire for centuries before becoming a Soviet republic, won independence as the USSR broke up in 1991. The country has moved to shed its Russian imperial legacy and forge increasingly close ties with the West.

A decision by Kremlin-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to reject an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow sparked mass protests that led to his ouster in 2014. Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and throwing its weight behind a separatist insurgency that broke out in Ukraine's east.

Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending its troops and weapons to back the rebels. Moscow denied that, charging that Russians who joined the separatists were volunteers.

More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting that devastated Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as Donbas.

A 2015 peace agreement brokered by France and Germany helped end large-scale battles, but efforts to reach a political settlement have failed, and sporadic skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact.

Earlier this year, a spike in cease-fire violations in the east and a Russian troop concentration near Ukraine fueled war fears, but tensions abated when Moscow pulled back the bulk of its forces after manoeuvres in April.

The latest Russian buildup

US intelligence officials last week determined that Russia is planning to deploy an estimated 175,000 troops and almost half of them are already stationed along various points near Ukraine’s border in preparation for a possible invasion that could begin as soon as early 2022.

Ukraine has complained that Moscow has kept over 90,000 troops not far from the two countries’ border following massive war games in western Russia in the fall.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said units of the Russian 41st army have remained near Yelnya, a town about 260 kilometres (160 miles) north of the Ukrainian border.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told lawmakers Friday that the number of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russian-annexed Crimea is estimated at 94,300, warning that a “large-scale escalation” is possible in January.

Additionally, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces says Russia has about 2,100 military personnel in Ukraine's rebel-controlled east and that Russian officers hold all commanding positions in the separatist forces. Moscow has repeatedly denied the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine.

Russia hasn't provided any details about its troop numbers and locations, saying that their deployment on its own territory shouldn't concern anyone.

What does Moscow want?

The Kremlin has accused Ukraine of failing to honour the 2015 peace deal and criticized the West for failing to encourage Ukrainian compliance. The agreement was a diplomatic coup for Moscow, requiring Ukraine to grant broad autonomy to the rebel regions and offer a sweeping amnesty to the rebels.

Ukraine, in turn, has pointed to cease-fire violations by Russia-backed separatists and insists there is a continuing Russian troop presence in the rebel east despite the Kremlin's denials.

Amid the recriminations, Russia has rejected a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France and Germany, saying it's useless in view of Ukraine’s refusal to abide by the 2015 agreement.

Moscow has strongly criticized the U.S. and its NATO allies for providing Ukraine with weapons and holding joint drills, saying that encourages Ukrainian hawks to try to regain the rebel-held areas by force.

Earlier this year, Putin ominously said a military attempt by Ukraine to reclaim the east would have “grave consequences for Ukrainian statehood.”

The Russian president has repeatedly described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” and claims that Ukraine has unfairly received historic Russian lands during Soviet times.

Putin has strongly emphasized that Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO represent a red line for Moscow, and also expressed concern about plans by some NATO members to set up military training centres in Ukraine. He said that would give them a military foothold there even without Ukraine joining NATO.

Last week, Putin emphasized that Russia will seek “reliable and long-term security guarantees” from the U.S. and its allies “that would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.”

He charged that “the threats are mounting on our western border,” with NATO placing its military infrastructure closer to Russia and offered the West to engage in substantive talks on the issue, adding that Moscow would need not just verbal assurances, but “legal guarantees.”

Putin's foreign affairs advisor, Yuri Ushakov, said the Russian leader will push for these guarantees in a video call with U.S. President Joe Biden set for Tuesday, but numerous former US and NATO diplomats say any such Russian demand to Biden would be a nonstarter. Biden himself said Friday that he doesn't “accept anyone's red line.”

Is the threat of Russian invasion real?

Russia rejected talk of an invasion plot as a Western smear campaign and charged the claims could conceal a Ukrainian intention for an attack in the east. Ukraine denies such plans.

Some observers interpret the troop buildup as a demonstration by Putin that Russia is prepared to raise the stakes to convince NATO to respect Moscow’s red lines and stop sending troops and weapons to Ukraine.

Last month, Putin noted with satisfaction that Moscow’s warnings finally have some traction and caused a “certain stress” in the West. He added: “It’s necessary to keep them in that condition for as long as possible so that it doesn’t occur to them to stage some conflict on our western borders that we don’t need.”

US officials conceded that Moscow's intentions are unclear, but pointed to Russia's past behaviour as a cause for concern.

Biden pledged Friday to make it “very, very difficult” for Putin to attack Ukraine, saying that a set of new initiatives coming from his administration are intended to deter Russian aggression.

What is the US' role in these tensions?

The Cold War ended 30 years ago but one unresolved issue — how closely Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, can ally with the West — is now creating some of the deepest US-Russian tensions in years.

For the United States and the European Union, Ukraine is a crucial buffer between Russia and the West. As tensions with Russia rise, the US and the EU are increasingly determined to keep Ukraine away from Russian control.

Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has since backed separatists fighting Kiev in the east of the country. The conflict has left more than 13,000 dead.

Moscow meanwhile wants to see an end to NATO's eastward expansion, after much of eastern Europe joined the alliance following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday called on US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to provide "security guarantees" that NATO would not come closer to Russia's borders.

The leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States expressed "determination" during a phone call on Monday that Ukraine's sovereignty should be respected, the French presidency said.

The leaders all stressed the need for Russia to re-engage in negotiations with Ukraine, as part of the "Normandy Four" group under the aegis of France and Germany, Emmanuel Macron's office said.

The diplomatic coordination on Ukraine comes on the eve of a long-awaited videoconference between Biden and Putin on the subject and after a warning earlier Monday from the White House that Washington was ready to act against Moscow in the event of aggression against Ukraine.

The United States was ready to boost its military presence in Eastern Europe should Moscow invade Ukraine, the White House warned.

Biden and Putin in a two-hour secure video conference on Tuesday that American and Russian officials both described as tense but occasionally pierced by humor, Biden also said an invasion could end Russia’s hopes of completing the Nord Stream II gas pipeline to Europe, which would be a major new source of energy revenue.

Russian officials said the tone of the call was “honest and businesslike.” But Putin’s key message, the Kremlin maintained, was that Western military activity was a threat to Russia and that the United States was raising tensions in the region by increasing its “military potential near our borders.”

What Putin sees as a red line, Ukraine and the West see as a reasonable defense for a country that already lost control of Crimea — still “occupied territory,” in the US’ description — and has been engaged in a war of attrition in Donbas, in the east.

With inputs from agencies

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