Russia’s feared invasion of Ukraine continues to rage after Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operation” against the country in the early hours of February 24.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leads by example from the streets of kyiv, tirelessly rallying the international community to support him, his people mount an impressive resistance, holding back the Russian armed forces as best they can.
Meanwhile, the aggressor continues to employ brutal siege warfare tactics, surrounding cities across the country and subjecting them to intense bombing campaigns, a strategy already seen in Chechnya and Syria.
Cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol have been battered by Russian missiles in pursuit of incremental territorial gains in eastern and southern Ukraine, while the targeting of residential buildings, hospitals and nurseries has led to outraged accusations of intentionally targeting civilians and war crimes. engaged.
Mr Zelensky’s calls for NATO to set up a no-fly zone go unanswered as the West fears such an act could be interpreted as a provocation by Russia and drag the alliance into a much larger war against Eastern Europe.
However, US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined other world powers in condemning Moscow’s “unprovoked and unwarranted” attack and vowed to hold it “accountable”, with the West introducing several rounds of tough economic measures. sanctions against Russian banks, companies and oligarchs.
They have also been criticized for not doing enough to support the more than 4 million refugees from the conflict, who have fled their homeland for neighboring states such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.
Rising tensions in the region, which began in December when Russian troops gathered on its border with Ukraine, really escalated in the last week of February when Mr Putin moved to officially recognize the regions pro-Russian secessionists from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent states.
This allowed him to move military assets into these areas, in anticipation of the coming assault, under the guise of extending protection to the allies.
This development meant months of frantic diplomatic negotiations by the likes of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in the hope of avoiding the calamity.
But what are the main issues behind the conflict, where did it all start and how could the crisis unfold?
How did the crisis start?
Going back eight years gives more context to the current situation.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 after the country’s president, Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted from power by mass protests.
A few weeks later, Russia backed two separatist insurgent movements in eastern Ukraine, which eventually saw pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk declare the DPR and LPR as independent states, although they have not been recognized by the international community.
More than 14,000 people died in the fighting that continued in the years that followed and devastated the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine: the Donbass.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to support the rebels, but Moscow has denied the claims, saying Russians who joined the separatists did so voluntarily.
A 2015 peace deal – the Minsk II Agreement – was brokered by France and Germany 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.
The deal is highly complex, however, as Moscow continues to insist that it was not 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 foreign armed formations and military equipment from the disputed DPR and LPR. Ukraine says this refers to forces from Russia, but Moscow has previously denied having any of its own troops in those states.
Last year, a spike in ceasefire violations in the east and a concentration of Russian troops near Ukraine fueled fears that a new war was about to break out, but tensions subsided when Moscow withdrew most of its forces after maneuvers in April.
How is the situation now?
In early December 2021, US intelligence officials determined that Russia planned to deploy up to 175,000 troops near the Ukrainian border in preparation for a possible invasion which they said could begin in early 2022.
kyiv also complained that Moscow had placed 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 Armed Forces of Ukraine said that Russia has about 2,100 military personnel in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine and that Russian officers occupy all command positions within the forces. separatists.
Moscow had previously repeatedly denied the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine, providing no details of its military strength and locations, saying their deployment on its own territory should not concern anyone.
Meanwhile, Russia has accused Ukraine of violating Minsk II and criticized the West for not encouraging Ukraine to meet its terms.
Amid the acrimony, Mr Putin rejected a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France and Germany, saying it was unnecessary given Ukraine’s refusal to abide by the 2015 pact.
Moscow has also sharply criticized the United States and its NATO allies for supplying arms to Ukraine and holding joint exercises, saying this encouraged Ukrainian hawks to attempt to regain military-held areas by force. rebels.
Mr Putin is known to deeply resent what he sees as NATO’s gradual eastward shift since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and is determined to prevent Ukraine’s access to its ranks.
What could happen next?
With Mr. Putin’s announcement of his “special military operation”, the worst-case scenario has now come true.
The Kremlin had previously regularly denied plans to invade, claims few believed – with good reason.
Even after the Russian president’s latest announcement, a Russian envoy to the UN denied that Moscow had any grievances against the Ukrainian people, who he said would not be targeted, only those in power.
This turned out to be completely wrong.
Western leaders, united in condemnation, have made Russia a pariah state on the world stage, with their sanctions promising to bring down the Russian economy, which could ultimately put renewed pressure on Mr Putin at home, despite his best efforts to silence critical media and nascent protests. movements.
Mr Biden has meanwhile assured the international community that Russia will be held accountable for its actions.
“Russia bears sole responsibility for the death and destruction this attack will cause, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive manner,” he said.
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