Situation Update - Ukraine-Russia tensions increase amidst Russian military build-up Anvil News & Updates
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SITUATION UPDATE 20 April, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Ukraine-Russia tensions increase

Leanne Self

Ukraine-Russia tensions increase amidst Russia military build up

Summary

  • Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are elevated as Russia has amassed around 100,000 troops in Crimea and along its western border with Ukraine in recent weeks.
  • The Russian military build-up is taking place amid an escalation in fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been battling pro-Russian separatists since 2014.
  • Russia has downplayed its military build-up and said it is part of a snap military drill held in response to 'threatening' actions by NATO.
  • NATO has expressed its solidarity with Ukraine whilst the UK has said it will send warships to the Black Sea.
  • Several governments have issued aviation and overflight warnings in response to possible escalated hostilities.
  • Ukraine's president has called for a summit with Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany aimed at easing tensions in eastern Ukraine.

Situation

Since late March, Russia has deployed several thousand additional troops and military equipment to Russian-controlled Crimea and near Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian separatists since 2014. Russia is now expected to have an estimated 100,000 troops amassed on Ukraine's eastern border and in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.

The increased military presence has heightened regional tensions and has triggered fears of a possible invasion. In response, the US military’s European Command has raised its watch level from ‘possible crisis’ to ‘potential imminent crisis’, the highest level.

In what has been described as the largest build-up of Russian forces on Ukrainian borders since the annexation of Crimea seven years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated its military movements are an “internal affair”, assuring that its presence is part of a three-week drill that poses no threat. On Tuesday, 13 April, the Kremlin justified its large-scale military exercises citing "provocations” and "threatening" actions by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO has denied Moscow’s claims, which accuse the alliance of recently increasing arms supplies to Ukraine.

On Thursday, 15 April, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned what he described as the Kremlin’s “aggravation of the security situation”, warning Moscow that Ukraine's troops are on the "highest level of combat readiness" and that any escalation in the region would have “very painful” consequences for Russia. Ukraine's army claim that pro-Russia separatists have violated a ceasefire agreement several times in recent days. On 17 April, Ukraine reported 17 enemy attacks in Donbas, while on Sunday, 18 April, one Ukrainian solider was killed and another was injured "as a result of enemy fire".

On Friday, 16 April, the day before Russia expelled a Ukrainian diplomat accused of trying to access classified databases, Zelensky called for a summit with his counterparts in Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to discuss the security situation and potentially defuse tensions. Diplomatic advisers from the four countries are expected to meet on Monday, 19 April.

Analysis

As national and international concerns intensify over a possible escalation of hostilities in Ukraine’s east, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called on Russia to halt its military build-up, describing it as “unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning”. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden has affirmed the United States’ “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Although Biden withdrew plans on Wednesday, 14 April, to send two warships to the Black Sea following protests from Russia, the UK is expected to deploy warships in May to show its solidarity with Ukraine.

Russia has largely ignored requests by Ukraine and other Western nations for clarification over its increased military activity at Ukraine's eastern border. The lack of clarity combined with rhetoric reminiscent of the 2014 conflict, means that regional tensions are running high. The Donbas region, which Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are a part of, has been the centre of a pro-Russian rebellion since 2014, shortly after Crimea was annexed by Russia.

Prior to this, months of pro-Western, anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine's capital Kyiv toppled the government and forced out pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in March 2014.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine started out as low-level fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels; however, in July 2014 hostilities began to escalate. To end the ongoing conflict between the pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine’s government, Minsk Agreements were signed in 2014 and 2015, which included a ceasefire and prisoner exchange. Implementation of the agreements has however been hampered as both sides have continued to accuse one another of violating the ceasefire. In July 2020, additional ceasefire measures were agreed which relatively stabilised the situation for a few months; however, fighting has escalated in recent weeks.

Russia's increased military presence along its western border comes amid several developments. Firstly, Ukraine has recently approved two strategies, which both explicitly highlight Russia as a ‘threat’. One strategy seeks to "save Crimea" through “de-occupation” and reintegration and the other is a military strategy. Secondly, there has been a recent intensification of discussions about Ukraine accelerating its NATO membership, which has always been firmly opposed by Moscow. While Ukraine is unlikely to become a member in the near term, Zelensky argues that NATO is the only way to end the conflict in Donbas. Thirdly, in February, Ukraine imposed economic sanctions on pro-Russian and Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk and his associate Taras Kozak. Although the move likely irritated the Kremlin, Moscow has been relatively muted in its public response to the sanctions.

Kyiv has expressed concerns regarding the coverage and representation of the recent developments in Kremlin-controlled Russian media outlets. Following warnings issued by Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev on Wednesday, 14 April, Russian state media is reporting that Kyiv is planning an offensive in Donbas and that Crimea is vulnerable to “militant attacks" on "critically important infrastructure". There is no evidence to back the accusations, which Kyiv has denounced as "cynical and insane"; however, it has prompted speculation that Putin is using the military build-up as part of an electoral strategy ahead of Russia’s State Duma elections in September, hoping to distract Russians from the ongoing agitation demanding the release of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny.

Several other factors have also been widely discussed including further strained relations between the US and Russia following the election of US President Joe Biden, the ongoing water insecurity issues in Crimea and a recent increase in support to Ukraine from Turkey in addition to already tense relations between Moscow and Istanbul.

Implications

It remains unclear whether Moscow is only engaging in ‘saber-rattling’ to test Western nations and Zelensky, or whether it actually intends to launch a military offensive.

However, as tensions escalate there is always the risk of miscalculation or over-reaction. Should hostilities in the region intensify, it is unclear whether NATO and other allies will offer military backing. No international military support was offered when Crimea was annexed in 2014. Without support, the costs of a potential military escalation could be too great for Ukraine, as well as for Russia.

Overall, conditions in the region remain unpredictable and highly fluid, while the potential risk of violence may further increase and intensify in the coming weeks. During sporadic fighting between Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian separatists, civilians have often become victims inadvertently. It is estimated that more than 14,000 people have been killed and approximately 1.5 million residents have been internally displaced since 2014 as a result of the conflict.

Due to the risk from heightened military activity and anti-aviation weaponry, several governments have imposed flight restrictions including overflight controls since 2014. The risk to civil aircraft was highlighted by the downing of commercial Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 using a surface-to-air missile. All 298 passengers and crew onboard MH17 were killed.

In response to the latest developments in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a statement on Tuesday, 13 April, which continues to warn all airlines from operating in the region.