Why Are Tensions Between Russia and Ukraine Ratcheting Up?

Western countries have grown increasingly nervous in recent days over signs of a Russian military buildup close to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and on the annexed Crimean peninsula.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine — which broke out in 2014 following Ukraine’s pro-Europe Maidan revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea — has seen repeated flare-ups since a ceasefire was brokered in 2015, but the warnings and statements coming from Moscow, Kiev and Washington are the most serious and strongly worded in months.


Moscow and Kiev have been locked in conflict since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass started a bloody civil war, declaring independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The United Nations says more than 13,000 people have died in the fighting — most in the first few bloody months as the Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces battled for territory.

Despite an EU-brokered ceasefire known as the Minsk Protocol that came into force in 2015, there have been repeated bouts of conflict since, as the two sides face off across a 500-kilometer frontline dividing the disputed territory between Ukrainian forces and the Russia-backed separatists. Peace talks have been largely stalled for the last six years.

The conflict-monitoring Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) continues to report dozens, sometimes hundreds, of ceasefire violations every day, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Thursday that 20 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed so far in 2021 — including four earlier this week in the deadliest single confrontation for months — and another 57 injured.

What developments have we seen this week?

  • Several reports, including videos and photos shared on social media, have documented significant Russian military presence being deployed both in Crimea — the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 — and near the border between Russia and the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.
  • The Conflict Intelligence Team, an open source intelligence outfit which monitors Russia’s military and security services, also said the buildup could be “posturing intended to threaten Ukraine.” Analysts there pointed to Ukraine’s recent banning of three Kremlin-friendly media outlets — a move seen in Moscow as an attack on Russian-speakers in Ukraine and a direct threat to Russia’s influence in the country.
  • Russian military expert, James Sherr, senior fellow at the Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security who has advised western governments on Russia’s military capabilities wrote that he sees “a localized escalation, dramatic and devastating, leading to the deployment of Russian ‘peacekeepers’ on the current demarcation line, as probably the most realistic option.”

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