MOSCOW (AP) – Ukrainian and Western officials fear that Russian military armament near Ukraine could signal Moscow’s plans to invade its former Soviet neighbor.
The Kremlin insists it has no such intent and has accused Ukraine and its Western supporters of covering up their own allegedly aggressive intentions.
It is unclear whether the Russian troop concentration announces an imminent attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed for Western guarantees preventing NATO expansion into Ukraine, and the armament may reflect an attempt to back the message.
Here is a look at the current tensions:
WHAT ARE THE ROOTS OF THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE STANDOFF?
Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 after the country’s president, who was friendly with Moscow, was ousted from power by mass protests. Weeks later, Russia threw its weight behind a separatist uprising that broke out in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending its troops and weapons to support the rebels. Moscow denied this, accusing the Russians who joined the separatists of being volunteers.
More than 14,000 people were killed in the fighting that devastated Donbass in eastern Ukraine.
A 2015 peace agreement brokered by France and Germany helped end large-scale battles, but efforts to reach a political settlement have failed and sporadic skirmishes continued along the strained line of contact.
Earlier this year, a surge in ceasefire violations in the east and a concentration of Russian troops near Ukraine fueled war fears, but tensions eased when Moscow withdrew most of its forces after maneuvers in April.
THE LATEST RUSSIAN MILITARY CONSTRUCTION
U.S. intelligence agencies determined last week that Russia is planning to deploy an estimated 175,000 soldiers, nearly half of whom are already stationed at various points near the Ukrainian border, in preparation for a possible invasion that could begin as early as early 2022.
Ukraine has complained that after massive war games in western Russia in the autumn, Moscow held over 90,000 soldiers near the border between the two countries.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said units of the 41st Russian Army had stayed near Jelnja, a town about 260 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told lawmakers on Friday that the number of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russia-annexed Crimea is estimated at 94,300, warning that a “large-scale escalation” is possible in January.
In addition, the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces says Russia has around 2,100 military personnel in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine and that Russian officers hold all commanding positions in the separatist forces. Moscow has repeatedly denied the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine.
Russia does not provide any information on troop strength or location and says that the operation on its own territory should not concern anyone.
WHAT DOES MOSCOW WANT?
The Kremlin has accused Ukraine of failing to comply with the 2015 peace agreement and criticized the West for failing to promote Ukrainian approval. The agreement was a diplomatic coup for Moscow, which obliged Ukraine to grant the rebel regions extensive autonomy and to offer the rebels a comprehensive amnesty.
Ukraine, in turn, has drawn attention to ceasefire violations by Russia-backed separatists and insists that despite the denial of the Kremlin, Russian troops are still stationed in the east of the rebels.
Amid the allegations, Russia has refused a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France and Germany, saying it is useless given Ukraine’s refusal to adhere to the 2015 agreement.
Moscow has sharply criticized the US and its NATO allies for providing Ukraine with weapons and conducting joint exercises.
Earlier this year, Putin ominously said that a military attempt by Ukraine to retake the east would have “serious consequences for the Ukrainian statehood”.
Putin has insisted that Ukraine’s move to join NATO is a red line for Moscow and also expressed concern about plans by some NATO members to set up military training centers in Ukraine. He said that would give them a military foothold there even without Ukraine joining NATO.
Putin stressed last week that Russia would obtain “reliable and long-term security guarantees” from the USA and its allies, “which would rule out further NATO advances to the east and the stationing of weapons systems that threaten us in the immediate vicinity of Russian territory”.
He accused that “threats on our western border are increasing,” with NATO moving its military infrastructure closer to Russia and offering the West to enter into substantive talks on the issue, adding that Moscow was giving not just verbal assurances but “legal guarantees.” ” need .”
Putin’s foreign affairs advisor, Yuri Ushakov, said Russia’s head of state will push for these guarantees in a video call scheduled for Tuesday with US President Joe Biden, but numerous former US and NATO diplomats say such a Russian demand on Biden would be a non-starter . Biden himself said Friday that he “doesn’t accept anyone’s red line”.
IS THE THREAT OF RUSSIAN INVASION REAL?
Russia dismissed invasion plans as a smear campaign against the West, alleging that it was hiding Ukraine’s intention to attack the East. Ukraine denies such plans.
Some observers interpret the build-up of troops as a demonstration by Putin that Russia is ready to step up the stakes in order to convince NATO to respect Moscow’s red lines and to stop sending troops and weapons to Ukraine.
Last month, Putin noted with satisfaction that Moscow’s warnings are finally having an effect and causing “a certain amount of stress” in the West. He added: “It is necessary to keep them in this state for as long as possible so that they do not get the idea of staging a conflict on our western borders that we do not need.”
US officials admitted Moscow’s intentions were unclear but cited Russia’s past behavior as a cause for concern.
Biden on Friday promised to make an attack on Ukraine “very, very difficult” for Putin, saying that a number of new initiatives by his government should deter Russian aggression.
Dasha Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.