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In early November 2021 Russia began building up its military forces along the borders of Ukraine, for the second time in a year. Over 100,000 Russian military personnel and assets have been deployed in Crimea and in the Voronezh, Kursk and Bryansk regions of Western Russia. Russian naval assets from the Baltic and Northern fleets have deployed to the Black Sea and 30,000 Russian troops are currently on exercise in Belarus, close to the Ukrainian border.

Tensions have escalated following a US intelligence assessment in December 2021, which suggested that Russia could be planning an invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

Russia’s “red lines”

Russia has denied suggestions that it is planning to invade and has linked its actions to what it regards as provocative actions by NATO. Russia is seeking longer term security guarantees from the Alliance that Ukraine will not be admitted as a Member State and that NATO military infrastructure will not be deployed in the country. The Kremlin has said these are “red lines” for Russia’s national security.

International response

Western nations have made clear their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and its right to choose its security partnerships. They have warned Russia that any military escalation will have significant economic consequences. Among measures being discussed are sanctions against Russia’s financial institutions, energy sector, and individuals close to the Kremlin. Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe could be halted as part of any sanctions package. Military assistance from the UK, US, NATO and the EU is also being provided to Ukraine.

Diplomatic talks

Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation are underway. A series of meetings between the US, NATO, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Russia were held in mid-January. Those meetings discussed Ukraine, but also European security more broadly, including Russian proposals for legally binding security guarantees between the US, NATO and Russia. Talks aimed at achieving a political solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine also resumed between the countries of the Normandy Format: Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany.

No breakthroughs were achieved, and Russia did not commit to de-escalate and withdraw forces from the Ukrainian border.

What happens next?

Russia has since been accused by the West of planning a series of aggressive moves against Ukraine as a pretext for military action, allegations which it denies. Russia stands by its statement that it has no plans to invade Ukraine and President Putin has accused the US of trying to draw Russia into a war.

In mid-February the Russian Ministry of Defence said that several units had begun to withdraw from the region back to their permanent locations, having completed their exercises. NATO said it had not seen any signs of de-escalation on the ground, thus far.  In the meantime, shelling between pro-Russian separatist forces and Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine has increased.

Diplomacy continues with several world leaders having visited Moscow for talks in recent weeks. At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the Kremlin will agree to NATO’s proposal for more substantive security talks in the longer term. A Russian response to the US’s counter proposals on legally binding security guarantees was received by the US administration on 17 February and is currently being considered.

 On 14 February 2022, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “I think our opportunities are far from exhausted. Of course, they should not be endless, but I think we should still continue to pursue and build on them at this point”.

Deterrence as well as diplomacy

In the meantime, NATO allies have moved to shore up the defence of eastern Europe with the deployment of additional ships and fighter aircraft to the region. Further consideration is being given to the deployment of additional battlegroups in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe.

NATO forces will not be deployed on the ground, however, as Ukraine is a partner country of the alliance and not party to NATO’s Article V mutual defence clause.

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