Here’s What’s Sparking Tension Again Between Russia and Ukraine
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, gestures as he speaks during a news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump, in Helsinki, Finland. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Here’s What’s Sparking Tension Again Between Russia and Ukraine

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula ignited the tensest standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War and the region has been deadlocked ever since. Now, Russia is exacerbating the wound by massing troops near its neighbor’s contested eastern regions, raising concerns that the two sides could be dragged into a heightened military confrontation.

1. What’s sparked the flare up?

Russia’s troop deployments to Crimea and its neighbor’s border are raising the stakes after fighting intensified in what had in recent years settled into a low-level conflict between Ukraine’s army and Kremlin-backed insurgents. The government in Kyiv denies Russian accusations that it’s plotting a renewed offensive. Analysts see several possible reasons for Vladimir Putin to up the ante. Some say he could be testing the response of his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, or trying to signal a tougher line to Kyiv. His opposite number in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has taken what many in Russia see as a harder stance of late by closing Kremlin-friendly TV stations.

2. Why is all of this still a problem?

A 2015 peace accord ended the bloodiest fighting of the seven-year conflict, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives. But the terms have never been fully met and a lasting resolution remains some way off. The major stumbling block cuts to the core of the two former allies’ entire falling out: whether Ukraine leans eastward or westward. Protesters demanded a break from the nation’s Soviet past when they ousted Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. But Putin justified his subsequent annexation of Crimea and support for the fighters in eastern Ukraine by saying he must defend Russian-speakers, wherever they are. Fearing encroachment into his back yard, he continues to oppose long-term goals now enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution -- including European Union and NATO membership. Putin also points to roots between Ukraine and Russia that date back to the ninth century, when a collection of tribes founded Kievan Rus around modern-day Kyiv.

3. What’s been the sticking point?

Despite Zelenskiy coming to power pledging to bring lasting peace, in reality he has very little room to maneuver. The Kremlin wants its neighbor’s restive regions to gain autonomy that gives them an effective veto over major shifts in Ukraine’s orientation -- namely the Western integration backed by a sizable majority of its 42 million population. But granting the regions such powers would be tantamount to political suicide for Zelenskiy, who’s already struggling to tame the pandemic and meet other promises, such as curbing corruption. Putin, meanwhile, has repeatedly made clear he sees Ukraine’s ambition to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as an existential threat and see no reason to compromise now after weathering years of pressure from the U.S. and Europe over this issue. That’s why repeated diplomatic efforts by Germany and France to hammer out a resolution have failed.

4. What’s the fear over eastern Ukraine?

Most see the latest flare-up as little more than saber-rattling that will fade as previous episodes in recent years have. The major worry is that one side miscalculates, triggering the kind of unrestrained fighting that characterized the conflict’s earlier days. Russia’s five-day war with Georgia, another former Soviet republic that turned its gaze to the West, began in a similar fashion in 2008. In Ukraine this time, there’s another theory at play: residents of Crimea are suffering chronic water shortages that some speculate Russia may address by taking over supplies in nearby areas not yet under its control. Such talk harks back to the initial phase of the war, when Ukraine feared its neighbor would seek to create a land bridge between Crimea and Russia through a wider military offensive. Putin has spent billions on infrastructure to connect the two since the 2014 fighting, however.

5. What can the West do about it?

The U.S., the EU and the U.K. have already imposed several rounds of sanctions targeting Russian individuals, as well as the country’s energy and banking sectors. While the Kremlin says such measures have no effect, Russia’s economy has stagnated and its officials have tried repeatedly to have the punishments revoked. Some Western officials argue that more could be achieved by imposing additional measures. Possibly the most effective tool would be a U.S. ban on owning Russian sovereign debt, which has been discussed. Others include making life more difficult for the billionaires who have grown rich under Putin’s rule. Militarily, attempts by Ukraine to win Western backing for NATO membership have so far received only a lukewarm response.

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