Russia is building up troops near its border with Ukraine. Moscow claims there is a growing threat on its western border. It all feels like a return to 2014… why the renewed tensions?
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Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.
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Today, is Vladimir Putin poised to start a war between Russia and Ukraine?
Recent US intelligence has revealed that Russia is in a position to launch a major military offensive against Ukraine. It’s massing 175,000 military personnel and 100,000 reserve troops on the border it shares with its neighbour.
World leaders and observers fear an invasion – and soon.
“Ukraine’s defence minister says Russia could be planning to invade his country within the next month.”American newsreader
Ukraine’s government is preparing for the worst. And alarm bells are ringing in Washington and Europe.
President Joe Biden told reporters that along with NATO – the military alliance of countries set up to rival Soviet power in the wake of World War Two – he is putting pressure on his Russian counterpart.
“What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make very, very difficult for Mr Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he will do.”President Joe Biden
That could mean heavy economic sanctions on Russia.
Joe Biden is talking to Vladimir Putin tomorrow in a bid to defuse the crisis.
So why has a potential war 7,000 miles from Washington got Biden worried? And how likely is it that Vladimir Putin will start one?
Well, the stand-off between the US and Russia goes back a long way.
“If we don’t stand up against the ambitions of the of the communist powers then no other nation or coalition of nations will be strong enough to withstand them.”Archive footage
Since the 1940’s and the start of the Cold War, the two nations have clashed repeatedly when it comes to ideology and rhetoric. However, they’ve been careful to avoid direct armed confrontation.
But modern Ukraine, which came into existence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, matters to Vladimir Putin.
For one, he wants Ukraine to be a buffer between Moscow and countries belonging to NATO.
Then there’s the question of the people living in Ukraine.
It consists of groups which are either pro-Europe or pro-Russia. Vladimir Putin portrays himself as someone who wants to rescue ethnic Russians from Western ideology.
That’s a position that appeals to his nationalist base – those who historically see Ukraine as part of Russia.
To an extent, however, we’ve been here before.
[Protestors shouting Russia and Ukraine]
In November of 2013 Ukraine’s president – Viktor Yanukovych, who favoured close ties with Russia – rejected plans for integration with the EU.
It sparked mass protest. Vladimir Putin backed Viktor Yanukovych while the US and NATO supported the protestors.
Yanukovych fled to Russia – and Ukraine shifted its gaze towards the West.
What followed showed how opportunistic Putin could be. In March 2014 he annexed the southern tip of Ukraine – Crimea. It became Russian territory – a move that delighted Russians but alarmed the West.
Since then, parts of Eastern Ukraine – like Donbas – have fallen under Russian influence.
There have been armed clashes between forces loyal to Kiev and those loyal to Moscow.
In total, an estimated more than 13,000 people have died in the violence.
You can see why Putin has mentioned the current tensions and the Cold War in the same breath.
But why does Ukraine matter to the US, NATO and Russia?
The West is always going to be sympathetic to a nation state which wants close links – links like membership of NATO. After all, why can’t it pick its alliances for itself?
But to Russia, any military partnership between NATO and Ukraine – with whom it shares a border – is seen as an existential threat. Locating NATO weaponry in the vicinity of Russia causes alarm.
NATO allies have declared an “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty. Something the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, stressed when he met Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov last week.
“Its now on Russia to de-escalate the current tensions by reversing the recent troop build up, returning forces to normal peacetime positions and refrain from further intimidation and attempts to destabilise Ukraine”Anthony Blinken, US Secretary for State
So how likely is a war in the new year?
Russia has so far said they are not looking for military action and are merely performing exercises. They also blame NATO, which has been supporting Ukraine’s army with machinery and training since 2014, for aggressive tactics.
But Ukrainian soldiers on the front line tell a different story.
“Maybe they are just provoking us, maybe yes, maybe no – nobody knows what our enemies are thinking right now. Our commander says we shouldn’t underestimate them.”Ukrainian soldier
It’s a fraught situation – and one that could have massive consequences not just for Ukraine but East-West relations. Putin and Biden have much to talk about.
Today’s episode was written by Phoebe Davis and produced by Gary Marshall.
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