Tensions in Eastern Europe have heightened rapidly over the past few months, with the Russian military conducting self-prescribed drills within areas close to the Ukrainian border. Outlining recent developments, Ben explains troop movements and some history.
On the 20th of February, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence stated that Russian forces would continue to remain ‘indefinitely’ after joint military drills officially concluded on the same day.
Despite this, later in the day a French official reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had told his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, that Russian troops would withdraw after training exercises concluded.
The contradictory messaging, exemplified by the example above, continues to be a key reason why tensions remain so high in the region – with a mutual distrust appearing in all aspects of diplomacy. Western democracies continue to seek a peaceful arrangement, yet at the same time Biden has stated he is “convinced” Putin has decided to invade Ukraine.
Up to 190,000 Russian soldiers are near the border with Ukraine, deployed within Russia and Belarus, according to US officials on Friday. This estimate is higher than that of 150,000 soldiers provided on Tuesday. The increase in troop numbers comes after a close call with de-escalation last week. On the 15th of February, Russia announced that some troops had returned from the Ukrainian border, and later in the day Putin stated “of course” Russia does not want war.
While Western leaders have been urging that an invasion is imminent, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has continued to downplay such warnings, asking that panic not be created lest it risk the Ukrainian economy.
The sentiment is shared by University of Nottingham (UoN) student Aleksa Stirãne, who is half-Russian half-Latvian, who stated “personally I don’t think full blown war is actually going to happen”. Additionally, another UoN student Misha Kennerley, who has relatives residing in Russia, shared with me that they do not think war is likely.
The conflict between Ukraine and Russia contains roots within the ‘Donbas War’, which started when anti-government protests began in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in response to the ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in favour of a more pro-Western President.
These protests eventually turned into an armed conflict around the same time as the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014. The war in Donbas has continued up to the present day, claiming over 10,000 lives.
Russia has often felt threatened by pro-Western governments alongside its border and has taken subversive military action in the past to undermine expanding NATO influence. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated in 2011 that had Russia not invaded Georgia in 2008, it (and other ex-Soviet Republics) likely would have joined NATO.
It will take time to see whether the current crisis in Ukraine will inhibit ambitions to join NATO, or instead speed up the process.
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