Russia’s long-feared invasion of Ukraine rages on after Vladimir Putin announced his “military special operation” against the country in the early hours of February 24.
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leads by example from the streets of Kiev and tirelessly appeals to the international community for support, his people are putting up an impressive resistance, holding back Russian forces as best they can.
The attacker, meanwhile, continues to use brutal siege tactics, surrounding the country’s cities and subjecting them to intense shelling campaigns, a strategy previously observed in Chechnya and Syria.
Kharkiv and Mariupol have been targeted by Russian missiles in a bid for incremental territorial gains in eastern and southern Ukraine, while the attack on residential buildings, hospitals and kindergartens has prompted outraged allegations that civilians have been deliberately targeted and war crimes committed.
Mr. Zelensky’s appeals for NATO to establish a no-fly zone go unanswered as the West fears such an act would be interpreted by Russia as a provocation and drag the alliance into a much larger war over Eastern Europe.
However, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have joined other global powers in condemning Moscow’s “unprovoked and unjustified” attack and vowed to “hold it accountable”, saying the West initiates several rounds of tough economic policies sanctions against Russian banks, corporations 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 homes to neighboring countries such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.
Rumbling tensions in the region, which began in December when Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, really escalated in the last week of February when Putin officially recognized the pro-Russian breakaway regions of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent states.
This allowed him to move military resources to these areas in anticipation of the impending attack, under the guise of extending protection to allies.
This development meant that months of frantic diplomatic negotiations conducted by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in hopes of averting disaster had ultimately fizzled .
But what are the central questions behind the conflict, where did it all start and how could the crisis develop?
How did the crisis start?
A look back over eight years gives more context to the current situation.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 after mass protests ousted the country’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych from power.
Weeks later, Russia threw its weight behind two separatist insurgency movements in eastern Ukraine that eventually led to pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk proclaiming the DPR and LPR independent states, despite being completely ignored by the international community.
More than 14,000 people have died as fighting has raged on in recent years, devastating Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbass.
Both Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to support the rebels, but Moscow has denied the accusations, saying that Russians who had joined the separatists did so voluntarily.
A 2015 peace agreement – the Minsk II Accords – was negotiated by France and Germany to help end the large-scale fighting. The 13-point deal committed Ukraine to offering separatist regions autonomy and amnesty for the rebels, while Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in rebel-held areas.
The deal is very complex, however, as Moscow continues to insist it was not a party to the conflict and therefore not bound by its terms.
Point 10 of the agreement calls for the withdrawal of all foreign armed forces and military equipment from the disputed DPR and LPR. Ukraine says this refers to forces from Russia, but Moscow has previously denied it has any troops of its own in those states.
Last year, a spike in ceasefire violations in the east and a concentration of Russian troops near Ukraine fueled fears a new war would break out, but tensions eased when Moscow withdrew most of its forces after maneuvers in April.
What is the current situation?
In early December 2021, US intelligence officials noted that Russia plans to deploy up to 175,000 troops near the border with Ukraine in preparation for a possible invasion, which they believe could begin in early 2022.
Kyiv also complained that Moscow had over 90,000 troops stationed near the two countries’ border and warned that a “large-scale escalation” was possible in January.
In addition, the Supreme Commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said that Russia has about 2,100 military personnel in rebel-held eastern Ukraine and that Russian officers hold all command positions within the separatist forces.
Moscow had previously repeatedly denied the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine, gave no details of their military numbers and locations, and said that their deployment on its own territory should not affect anyone.
Meanwhile, Russia has accused Ukraine of violating Minsk II and criticized the West for not encouraging Ukraine to comply with its terms.
Amid the acrimony, Mr Putin has rejected a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France and Germany, saying it was useless given Ukraine’s refusal to honor the 2015 pact.
Moscow has also slammed the US and its NATO allies for providing weapons to Ukraine and holding joint drills, saying that this encourages Ukrainian hawks to try to take back rebel-held territories by force.
Mr Putin is known for his deeply opposed what he sees as a gradual eastward shift of NATO since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and is determined to block Ukraine’s entry into its ranks.
What could happen next?
With Putin’s announcement of his “military special operation,” the worst-case scenario has now materialized.
The Kremlin had previously routinely denied having any invasion plans, claims few believed – and with good reason.
Even after the Russian president’s recent announcement, a Russian UN envoy denied that Moscow had any complaints about the Ukrainian people, whom he said were not being targeted, only those in power.
That turned out to be completely wrong.
Western leaders, united in condemnation, have made Russia a pariah state on the world stage, their sanctions promising to weaken Russia’s economy which could ultimately put renewed pressure on Mr Putin at home, despite his best efforts, critical media and to silence emerging protest movements.
Mr. Biden, meanwhile, has struggled to reassure the international community that Russia will be held accountable for its actions.
“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond with unity and determination,” he said.
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