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Explainer: What's happening on the Russia-Ukraine border and how likely is an invasion?

Nearly 100,000 Russian troops have massed on the Ukrainian border in recent weeks.

pictures-of-the-week-europe-and-africa-photo-gallery Ukrainian soldiers walks at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Katerinivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine Source: Andriy Dubchak via PA Images

OVER THE PAST few weeks, the West has been accusing Russia of planning to invade Ukraine, with US President Joe Biden warning Russian leader Vladimir Putin of sanctions “like none he’s ever seen” if he attacks.

The warning comes as nearly 100,000 Russian troops have massed on the Ukrainian border in recent weeks. 

Russia already seized Ukraine’s entire Crimea region in 2014 and backs a large-scale separatist force in the east, but the US and Ukraine fear it is preparing an even larger scale invasion.

The Kremlin, however, has denied the plans. Putin says Russia has no intention of invading but is adopting a defensive posture out of alarm that Ukraine is getting too close to the Western NATO military alliance.

How has the situation escalated to this point and is an invasion of the Ukraine likely to happen? Let’s take a look…

What’s happening on Ukraine’s borders? 

Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Moscow of massing tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine in preparation for an invasion.

Earlier this month, it was reported that US intelligence officers found that planning is under way for a possible military offensive against Ukraine that could begin as soon as early 2022.

According to an official with US President Joe Biden’s administration who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the intelligence finding estimated the Russians are planning to use an estimated 175,000 troops and almost half of them are already deployed along various points near Ukraine’s border.

The official added that the plans call for the movement of 100 battalion tactical groups along with armour, artillery and equipment.

Moscow said the troop build-up is part of routine deployments, saying it has the right to do what it wants on its territory.

“Everything Russia does is on the territory of the Russian Federation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday. 

Is an invasion likely?

Ukraine’s military command believes a possible escalation could come at the end of January.

Experts, however, doubt the likelihood of an offensive, especially since the Ukrainian army has seen significant improvements after more than seven years of conflict against pro-Russia separatists in the east.

A Russian-Ukrainian confrontation would therefore risk a huge human and financial toll.

Moscow’s troop surge follows a similar build-up in the Spring, when the first fears of an invasion emerged but never materialised.

Some analysts suggest Russia’s aim was to extract diplomatic benefits.

The Kremlin and its army, however, can act quickly, as they did during Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Since 2014, the US and European allies have worked to bolster Ukraine’s military when the country’s armed forces crumpled in the face of Russian pressure. However, there is no appetite for direct military conflict with Russia.

sochi-russia-07th-dec-2021-russian-president-vladimir-putin-smiles-at-the-start-of-virtual-bilateral-discussions-with-u-s-president-joe-biden-via-teleconference-rom-his-black-sea-residence-bochar Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of virtual bilateral discussions with US President Joe Biden Source: Alamy Stock Photo

So, what exactly does Putin want?

During a high-stakes video summit on Tuesday with Joe Biden, Putin demanded “legal guarantees” that NATO will halt its eastward expansion short of Ukraine, which wants to join the alliance, but is nowhere near to being accepted.

12 countries took part in the founding of NATO in 1949: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the US. 

There are now 30 countries signed up to NATO, with countries near the Ukraine such as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia joining over the years. 

The longtime Russian leader accuses the alliance – set up to counter the Soviet Union – of betraying their promise from the end of the Cold War of not expanding eastwards.

“Russia has a peaceful foreign policy, but has the right to defend its security,” Putin said on Wednesday. 

He added that letting NATO approach Russia’s borders without reacting would amount to “criminal inaction”.

The Kremlin has also spent weeks denouncing US-led military exercises in the Black Sea.

At the same time, Moscow wants to reconnect with Washington on key issues like strategic stability and Iran.

Despite the tensions, Putin said his talk with Biden was “constructive.”

What about the US?

After and during his call with Putin, Biden threatened his Russian counterpart with sanctions “like he’s never seen before” in the event of an attack on Ukraine.

Washington has also said it is ready to beef up its military presence in eastern Europe.

But the US leader ruled out sending troops in support of Ukraine.

US options for assisting Ukraine are limited, as the country is not in NATO and the United States has no appetite for direct military confrontation with Russia.

Still, the United States helps train Ukrainian forces and has committed more than $2.5 billion to bolster a military that crumpled in the face of the Russian assault in 2014.

Biden said that deliveries of that kind of “defensive capability” would be boosted if the conflict escalates.

The US president says the possibility of sending American troops into Ukraine’s fight is “not on the table.” But when it comes to the nine eastern flank NATO countries, Biden is promising the opposite.

“We would probably be required to reinforce our presence in NATO countries to reassure particularly those in the eastern front,” he said.

Where are we at now?

Biden yesterday phoned the leaders of Ukraine and nine eastern European NATO allies today, promising support if Russia attacks Ukraine, as well as severe economic sanctions against Moscow.

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Biden for his “strong support” and tweeted that they’d spent 90 minutes on the phone.

Zelensky said that Biden briefed him on his Tuesday video summit with Putin.

The White House said that after Zelensky, Biden spent 40 minutes talking to the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – all of which, unlike Ukraine, have joined NATO.

Biden is closely coordinating with major European powers, reaching out to the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy both before and after the Putin video summit. 

president-joe-biden-holds-a-call-with-president-volodymyr-zelenskyy-of-ukraine-at-the-white-house US President Joe Biden holds a call with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to discuss Russia's military build-up Source: DPA/PA Images

Biden and European leaders are also talking up their willingness to impose harsh economic penalties on Moscow over any further Russian attack.

Among them, the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, warned of “consequences” for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a controversial Russian project to deliver natural gas to Germany.

In Moscow, the foreign ministry said yesterday that Russian diplomats had begun working on follow-ups to the summit with the US. No details were given, however.

Ukraine this week held new ceasefire talks, focusing on ending fighting, releasing detainees and reopening travel in the disputed eastern regions.

And looking at matters on the frontline of the conflict between Kiev and pro-Russia rebels, the situation is tense, but does not seem to have deteriorated significantly in recent weeks.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said yesterday that while the number of ceasefire violations in the last two weeks was “lower” compared to previous weeks, the situation on the frontline was “still of concern”.

Includes reporting by  © – AFP, 2021

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