Russia’s feared invasion of Ukraine continues apace following Vladimir Putin’s announcement of his “special military operation” against the country in the early hours of February 24, when the Russian leader unfoundedly declared the need to “demilitarize and denazify” the country. neighbor after eight years of fighting in the Donbas.
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leads by example from the streets of kyiv, tirelessly rallying the international community behind him, his people mount an impressive resistance, holding off Russia’s armed forces as best they can.
Meanwhile, the aggressor continues to employ brutal siege warfare tactics, encircling the country’s cities and subjecting them to intense bombing campaigns, a strategy previously seen in Chechnya and Syria.
Countries such as Kharkiv and Mariupol have been targeted by Russian missiles seeking incremental territorial gains in eastern and southern Ukraine, while attacks on residential buildings, hospitals and nurseries have led to outrageous accusations that civilians and that war crimes are being committed. committed
Zelensky’s initial calls for NATO to implement a no-fly zone remain unanswered, as the West fears such an act could be interpreted as a provocation by Russia and lead the alliance into a much larger war for Eastern Europe. .
However, US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, their European counterparts and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned Moscow’s “unprovoked and unwarranted” attack and they promised to “hold accountable”, with the West introducing several rounds of tough economic measures. sanctions against Russian banks, businesses and oligarchs while providing Ukraine with additional weapons, hardware and defense funds.
That said, the allies have also faced criticism for not doing enough to support the more than 5 million refugees from the conflict, who have fled their homeland to neighboring states such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.
The rumbling tensions in the region, which began in December when Russian troops built up on its border with Ukraine, really escalated in the last week of February when Putin moved to officially recognize pro-Russian breakaway regions of the Donetsk People’s Republic ( RPD). and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent states.
This allowed him to move military resources into those areas, in anticipation of the oncoming assault, under the guise of extending protection to the allies.
That development meant months of frantic diplomatic negotiations conducted by the likes of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the UK Foreign Secretary. , Liz Truss, hoping to avert a calamity that ultimately came to nothing.
But what are the key issues behind the conflict, where did it all start, and how could the crisis unfold?
How did the crisis start?
Going back to 2014 gives more context to the current situation.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula that year after the country’s Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted from power by mass protests.
Weeks later, Russia supported two separatist insurgency movements in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, the Donbas, which eventually saw pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk declare independent DPR and LPR states, although they were not recognized by the international community.
More than 14,000 people have been killed in the fighting that has raged over the intervening years and has devastated the region.
Both Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to back the rebels, but Moscow has denied the accusations, saying Russians who joined the separatists did so voluntarily.
France and Germany negotiated a 2015 peace deal, the Minsk II agreement, to help end the large-scale battles. The 13-point agreement required Ukraine to offer autonomy to breakaway regions and amnesty to rebels, while Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in rebel-held territories.
However, the deal is highly complex because Moscow continues to insist that it has not been a party to the conflict and is therefore not bound by its terms.
In point 10 of the agreement, there is a call for the withdrawal of all the foreign armed formations and military equipment of the DPR and LPR in dispute. Ukraine says this refers to Russia’s forces, but Moscow has previously denied it has any troops of its own in those states.
Last year, a surge in ceasefire violations in the east and a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine fueled fears that a new war was about to break out, but tensions eased as Moscow withdrew most of its his forces after the April maneuvers.
How is the situation today?
In early December 2021, US intelligence officials determined that Russia planned to deploy up to 175,000 troops near the Ukraine border in preparation for a possible invasion that they believed could begin in early 2022.
kyiv also complained that Moscow had stationed more than 90,000 troops near the two countries’ border, warning that a “large-scale escalation” was possible in January.
In addition, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces said that Russia has around 2,100 military personnel in rebel-held eastern Ukraine and that Russian officers occupy all command positions within the separatist forces.
Previously, Moscow had repeatedly denied the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine, without providing any details about the number and location of its military, saying their deployment on its own territory should not worry anyone.
Meanwhile, Russia accused Ukraine of violating Minsk II and criticized the West for not encouraging Ukraine to comply with its conditions.
Amid the acrimony, Putin has rejected a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France and Germany, saying it is futile in light of Ukraine’s refusal to abide by the 2015 pact.
Moscow has also harshly criticized the United States and its NATO allies for supplying Ukraine with weapons and holding joint drills, saying this encourages Ukrainian hawks to try to retake rebel-held areas by force.
Putin is known to deeply resent what he sees as NATO’s gradual shift eastward since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and is determined to block Ukraine’s access to its ranks.
What could happen next?
With Putin’s February 24 announcement, the worst-case scenario has now come true.
Previously, the Kremlin had routinely denied that it had plans to invade, claims that few believed, and with good reason, it turned out.
Even after the Russian president’s declaration of war, a Russian envoy to the UN denied that Moscow had any grievances with the Ukrainian people, insisting that they would not be attacked, but only those in power.
That has turned out to be completely false.
Western leaders, united in condemnation, have made Russia a pariah state on the world stage, their sanctions promising to sink the Russian economy, which may ultimately put renewed pressure on Putin at home, despite his best efforts. efforts to silence critical media and nascent protests. movements
Meanwhile, Biden has moved to assure the international community that Russia will be held accountable for its actions.
“Only Russia is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive manner,” he said.
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