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EXPLAINER: What’s behind Russia-Ukraine tensions?, FILE – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy surrounded by servicemen as he visits the war-hit Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, on Oct. 14, 2021. Ukrainian and Western officials are worried that a Russian military buildup near Ukraine could signal plans by Moscow to invade its ex-Soviet neighbor. The Kremlin insists it has no such intention and has accused Ukraine and its Western backers of making the claims to cover up their own allegedly aggressive designs. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP, File) AP
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Ukrainian and Western officials are worried that a Russian military buildup near Ukraine could signal plans by Moscow to invade its ex-Soviet neighbor. The Kremlin insists it has no such intention and has accused Ukraine and its Western backers of making the claims to cover up their own allegedly aggressive designs. It’s unclear whether the Russian troop concentration heralds an imminent attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed for Western guarantees precluding NATO’s expansion to Ukraine, and the buildup could reflect an attempt to back up the message. Here is a look at the current tensions: WHAT ARE THE ROOTS OF THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE STANDOFF?
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Ukraine, which was part of the Russian empire for centuries before becoming a Soviet republic, won independence as the USSR broke up in 1991. The country has moved to shed its Russian imperial legacy and forge increasingly close ties with the West. A decision by Kremlin-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to reject an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow sparked mass protests that led to his ouster in 2014. Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and throwing its weight behind a separatist insurgency that broke out in Ukraine’s east. Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending its troops and weapons to back the rebels. Moscow denied that, charging that Russians who joined the separatists were volunteers. More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting that devastated Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland known as Donbas. 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 have continued along the tense line of contact.
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Earlier this year, a spike in cease-fire violations in the east and a Russian troop concentration near Ukraine fueled war fears, but tensions abated when Moscow pulled back the bulk of its forces after maneuvers in April. THE LATEST RUSSIAN MILITARY BUILDUP U.S. intelligence officials last week determined that Russia is planning to deploy an estimated 175,000 troops and almost half of them are already stationed along various points near Ukraine’s border in preparation for a possible invasion that could begin as soon as early 2022. Ukraine has complained that Moscow has kept over 90,000 troops not far from the two countries’ border following massive war games in western Russia in the fall. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said units of the Russian 41st army have remained near Yelnya, a town about 260 kilometers (160 miles) north of the Ukrainian border.
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Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told lawmakers Friday that the number of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Russian-annexed Crimea is estimated at 94,300, warning that a “large-scale escalation” is possible in January. Additionally, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces says Russia has about 2,100 military personnel in Ukraine’s rebel-controlled east 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 hasn’t provided any details about its troop numbers and locations, saying that their deployment on its own territory shouldn’t concern anyone. WHAT DOES MOSCOW WANT? The Kremlin has accused Ukraine of failing to honor the 2015 peace deal and criticized the West for failing to encourage Ukrainian compliance. The agreement was a diplomatic coup for Moscow, requiring Ukraine to grant broad autonomy to the rebel regions and offer a sweeping amnesty to the rebels.
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Ukraine, in turn, has pointed to cease-fire violations by Russia-backed separatists and insists there is a continuing Russian troop presence in the rebel east despite the Kremlin’s denials. Amid the recriminations, Russia has rejected a four-way meeting with Ukraine, France and Germany, saying it’s useless in view of Ukraine’s refusal to abide by the 2015 agreement. Moscow has strongly criticized the U.S. and its NATO allies for providing Ukraine with weapons and holding joint drills, saying that encourages Ukrainian hawks to try to regain the rebel-held areas by force. Earlier this year, Putin ominously said a military attempt by Ukraine to reclaim the east would have “grave consequences for Ukrainian statehood.” The Russian president has repeatedly described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” and claims that Ukraine has unfairly received historic Russian lands during Soviet times.
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Putin has strongly emphasized that Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO represent 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. Last week, Putin emphasized that Russia will seek “reliable and long-term security guarantees” from the U.S. and its allies “that would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory.” He charged that “the threats are mounting on our western border,” with NATO placing its military infrastructure closer to Russia and offered the West to engage in substantive talks on the issue, adding that Moscow would need not just verbal assurances, but “legal guarantees.” Putin’s foreign affairs advisor, Yuri Ushakov, said the Russian leader will push for these guarantees in a video call with U.S. President Joe Biden set for Tuesday, but numerous former U.S. and NATO diplomats say any such Russian demand to Biden would be a nonstarter. Biden himself said Friday that he doesn’t “accept anyone’s red line.” IS THE THREAT OF A RUSSIAN INVASION REAL?
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Russia rejected talk of an invasion plot as a Western smear campaign and charged the claims could conceal a Ukrainian intention for an attack in the east. Ukraine denies such plans. Some observers interpret the troop buildup as a demonstration by Putin that Russia is prepared to raise the stakes to convince NATO to respect Moscow’s red lines and stop sending troops and weapons to Ukraine. Last month, Putin noted with satisfaction that Moscow’s warnings finally have some traction and caused a “certain stress” in the West. He added: “It’s necessary to keep them in that condition for as long as possible so that it doesn’t occur to them to stage some conflict on our western borders that we don’t need.” U.S. officials conceded that Moscow’s intentions are unclear, but pointed to Russia’s past behavior as a cause for concern. Biden pledged Friday to make it “very, very difficult” for Putin to attack Ukraine, saying that a set of new initiatives coming from his administration are intended to deter Russian aggression.
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Biden and Putin speak at a critical moment for Ukraine
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are speaking over a secure video call on Tuesday in what is expected to be a highly consequential meeting for the two leaders amid escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
During the last several months, Russia has erected supply lines, including medical units and fuel, that could sustain a drawn-out conflict should Moscow choose to invade Ukraine, two sources familiar with the latest intelligence assessments told CNN. And recent US intelligence findings estimate Russia could begin a military offensive in Ukraine in a matter of months as it amasses up to 175,000 troops along the border.The meeting began shortly after 10 a.m. ET, according to the White House.
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In what was expected to be one of the most pivotal foreign policy meetings of Biden’s still-young presidency, the President was set to lay out to Putin what sanctions and other actions the US could take if the Russian President decides to invade Ukraine. The US intelligence community believes Putin has still not made up his mind to launch a military offensive against Ukraine, and Biden plans to tell Putin the US is prepared to take “substantive economic countermeasures” meant to inflict “significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy” should Putin go ahead with a military escalation, a senior administration official told reporters Monday.
The two leaders took part in a summit in Geneva last June. Their last publicly known call was in July.On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that it has continued to observe “added military capability” by Russian forces along the country’s border with Ukraine.
“What we continue to see, and what we continue to see is added capability that President Putin continues to add, added military capability in the western part of his country and around Ukraine,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
US officials in recent days have weighed whether to issue wide-reaching sanctions on Russia meant to deter Putin from launching an invasion into Ukraine. They include new actions against members of Putin’s inner circle and on Russian energy producers, and one potential “nuclear option” — disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT international payment system used by banks around the world.
The officials said final decisions hadn’t been made on whether and when to apply the new sanctions, and said the Biden administration is currently in talks with European partners — many of whom have closer economic relationships to Russia — in the hopes of coordinating action.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during Monday’s press briefing that Biden “will be clear — as we have conveyed publicly — that we have been preparing a range of economic sanctions or economic options that could have a detrimental impact on the Russian economy.”
The administration is also exploring options for a potential evacuation of US citizens from Ukraine if Russia were to invade the country and create a dire security situation, half a dozen sources tell CNN. The contingency planning is being led by the Pentagon, the sources said, and comes as the administration briefs Congress on how the US is preparing. In a “gloomy” briefing to senators by senior State Department official Victoria Nuland on Monday night, Nuland outlined the tough sanctions package being prepared by the administration in response to a potential Russian attack but acknowledged that the US’ options to deter an invasion are fairly limited, a person familiar with the briefing said.
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