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Explainer: What's the latest with Russia-Ukraine tensions and is an invasion likely?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Ukraine today ahead of talks with Russia on Friday.

featureimage Russian troops Source: PA Images

US SECRETARY OF State Antony Blinken is visiting Ukraine today to show support before crunch talks with Russia later this week.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, tensions between Moscow and the West have reached a post-Cold War high and there are growing fears of a major conflict in Eastern Europe.

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.

Moscow insists it has no plans to invade, but is demanding wide-ranging security guarantees – including a ban on Ukraine ever joining NATO – in exchange for deescalation.

So, how has the situation escalated in recent weeks? Let’s take a look…

What has been happening on Ukraine’s borders?

In recent months, 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.

Tensions increased yesterday as it was reported that Russia is sending troops from the country’s far east to Belarus for major war games, in a deployment further beefing up Russian military assets near Ukraine amid Western fears of an invasion.

Deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin said the drills are intended to practice a joint response to external threats by the alliance of Russia and Belarus, which have close political, economic and military ties.

He did not say how many troops and weapons are being redeployed for the exercises.

Ukrainian officials have warned that Moscow could launch an attack from various directions, including from the territory of its ally Belarus.

The deployment would dramatically bolster an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons amassed near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion.

Fomin said the drills, which involve an unspecified number of troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District that encompasses Eastern Siberia and the Far East, reflect the need to practise concentrating the country’s entire military potential in western Russia.

Is an invasion likely?

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

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.

Last Friday, the White House said US intelligence officials have determined a Russian effort is under way to create a pretext for its troops to further invade Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the intelligence findings show Russia is also laying the groundwork through a social media disinformation campaign that frames Ukraine as an aggressor that has been preparing an imminent attack against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.

washington-united-states-22nd-dec-2021-white-house-press-secretary-jen-psaki-speaking-to-reporters-at-a-press-briefing-in-the-white-house-press-briefing-room-credit-sopa-images-limitedalamy-li White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Psaki charged that Russia has already dispatched operatives trained in urban warfare who could use explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces — blaming the acts on Ukraine — if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides he wants to move forward with an invasion.

“We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion in Ukraine that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives,” Psaki said.

The White House, however, did not provide details about how much confidence it has in the assessment.

Psaki today warned of an “extremely dangerous situation” around Ukraine, saying “no option is off the table” in terms of a US response to an invasion.

Moscow denies it has fresh plans to attack its neighbour.

What exactly does Putin want?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that NATO halt its expansion and withdraw troops or military equipment from countries neighbouring Russia like Ukraine, but also allies like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

In exchange, Russia would pledge to limit its war games, as well as end aircraft buzzing incidents and other low-level hostilities.

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.

Speaking in December, Putin said that letting NATO approach Russia’s borders without reacting would amount to “criminal inaction”.

sochi-russia-7th-dec-2021-russias-president-vladimir-putin-r-is-seen-in-his-office-in-the-bocharov-ruchei-residence-in-sochi-during-a-bilateral-meeting-with-us-president-joe-biden-on-the-scree Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of virtual bilateral discussions with US President Joe Biden in December Source: Alamy Stock Photo

And what does the US and NATO have to say?

In a meeting last week, Russia laid out its security demands for easing tensions over Ukraine to the US and NATO.

However, the US and NATO rejected the demands, but left open the possibility of future talks with Moscow to discuss other issues like arms control, missile deployments and ways to prevent military incidents.

Speaking after a meeting of the Nato-Russia Council last Wednesday, US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman reaffirmed that some of Putin’s security demands “are simply non-starters”.

“We will not slam the door shut on Nato’s open-door policy,” she told reporters after almost four hours of talks at the military organisation’s headquarters in Brussels.

“We are not going to agree that Nato cannot expand any further.”

Speaking yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there would be no further negotiations until the West responds, in writing, to its demands for sweeping security guarantees.

The Nato-Russia Council was the first meeting of its kind since July 2019. The forum was set up two decades ago but full meetings paused when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. It has met only sporadically since.

Where are we at now?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Kyiv today to show support before crunch talks with Russia later this week.

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Speaking at the US embassy after he landed in the Ukrainian capital, Blinken urged Putin to choose the “peaceful path” on Ukraine and to dispel fears he is planning an invasion of his pro-Western neighbour.

“I strongly, strongly hope that we can keep this on a diplomatic and peaceful path, but ultimately, that’s going to be President Putin’s decision,” he said.

Blinken’s arrival in Europe has upped the diplomatic stakes, and after Kyiv he is headed to Berlin for four-way talks with Britain, France and Germany to seek Western unity, and finally to Geneva on Friday for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

u-s-secretary-of-state-antony-blinken-speaks-in-the-briefing-room-of-the-state-department-in-washington-u-s-january-7-2022-andrew-harnikpool-via-reuters US Secretary of State Antony Blinken Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Speaking at the embassy today, Blinken warned that Russia could easily send more forces towards Ukraine.

“We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine,” he said.

A senior US official meanwhile confirmed that the United States had authorised an additional $200 million in security aid to Ukraine, on top of $450 million already delivered by President Joe Biden’s administration.

Blinken also today met with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who thanked Washington for its support, including the increased military assistance.

“We understand that to take steps quickly to modernise the army, we need help, especially in these… difficult times,” Zelensky said.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has so far left more than 13,000 dead.

Includes reporting by Press Association and © – AFP, 2022

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