What you need to know about the Russian-Ukrainian crisis

Another option would be for European players to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which would transport gas under the Baltic Sea directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. This pipeline significantly reduces Kiev’s influence in any dispute.

The United States has opposed Nord Stream 2 from the start, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently call it is a “Russian geopolitical project that threatens European energy security and undermines Ukraine’s security”. But so far Germany, Russia’s main partner in the project, has given little indication that it would be willing to cancel.

In the UK, the escalation came at a time of heightened interest in the concentration of oligarchs and suspicious wealth in London. Transparency International has identified $1.5 billion worth of assets belonging to Russian oligarchs and organized crime, and British MPs have called for greater transparency about those assets.

What diplomatic efforts are being made?

There are several diplomatic channels. The first is the Trilateral Contact Group, which includes representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The band first got together in June 2014 and signed a deal in Minsk, Belarus later that year.

This, however, did not prevent a resumption of heavy fighting the following winter, when pro-Russian and Russian forces took a series of key positions in the Donbass, brutally repelling Ukrainian troops.

The Trilateral Contact Group met again in Minsk and signed a new agreement known as the Minsk 2. This agreement set out a plan for a ceasefire and subsequent reintegration of the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk through elections, special status in the Ukrainian constitution and an amnesty for those who had participated in the armed uprising.

The second main channel is the Normandy Format, bringing together Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. This is a series of talks related to the Minsk agreements. There are also the NATO-Russia Council and the The OSCE negotiates with Russia.

What’s wrong with the Minsk 2 agreement?

Minsk 2 is today at the center of discussions on the separatist region of Donbass in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials have previously called the document a political and diplomatic gesture which is not binding under international law; Russia considers it binding.

Ukrainian authorities are reluctant to recognize a special status for territories beyond their control, as this would give Russia influence over Ukrainian territory. Previously, public demonstrations have bursts in Ukraine for fear of capitulation to Russia.

More concretely, Minsk 2 provides that within the framework of the reintegration of the uncontrolled territories of Donbass, local elections will be held. The Ukrainian government says elections can only be held after it regains control of its border and territory in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s interpretation, on the other hand, focuses on the order of the steps as set out in the agreement.

What is the military balance between Russia and Ukraine?

In December commercial satellite pictures showed several unusual deployments of Russian troops in strategic locations near Ukraine’s borders. One series was a base in the Crimea that had been nearly decommissioned in October, but by December was bristling with Russian armor and personnel.

Other pictures published since then show military build-ups in the northern border regions and, most worryingly, deployments on the Belarusian border within striking distance of Kiev.

In addition to the approximately 127,000 troops currently stationed near the Ukrainian border, the Russians have also deployed artillery, armored vehicles and air defenses. Ukrainian intelligence services have also reported evidence of increased flows of aid and military equipment and supplies to separatist forces in Donbas.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine found itself with one of the largest armed forces in Europe. But when hostilities began in 2014, Ukraine’s military had been gutted due to decades of corruption and underinvestment.

Ukraine’s top military officials still privately complain that they were advised by their Western military advisers not to challenge Putin’s annexation of Crimea, a decision many remain bitter about.

When Ukrainian forces attempted to retake important separatist-held territories in early 2015, they were surrounded and suffered rout at the Battle of Debaltseve. It was this defeat that forced Ukraine to enter into negotiations and temporarily abandon its ambitions to regain control of its territory by military means.

The fierce fighting has also killed civilians – whether in the rocket attacks on Mariupol by separatist forces in January 2015 or in the airstrike on government buildings in Luhansk by Ukrainian forces in mid-2014. Civilians remain at high risk today as thousands continue to cross the line of contact and live in surrounding areas.

Since the start of the war, a program of sweeping reforms, Western military training and a significant increase in military funding have left Ukraine with modern, well-equipped armed forces numbering more than 200,000 soldiers. They could put up serious resistance to a new Russian invasion.

The Ukrainian army was also reinforced by Western military aid. In 2018, the Trump administration began supplying Javelin man-portable anti-tank missiles to Ukrainian forces. More recently, they received Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones, the same unmanned aircraft that gave the Azerbaijani forces a decisive advantage in that country’s 2020 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yet the issue of foreign aid has also caused divisions in Western capitals. While Washington and London have pledged to increase offensive military aid, Berlin has been much more skeptical, even blocking the transfer of German-made weapons from the Baltic countries to Ukraine.

Where would a Russian attack come from?

Depending on the bet Moscow decides to take, Russia has several military options. At one end there’s a surge of ‘hybrid warfare‘ including cyber attacks, industrial sabotage and increased military aid to Donbass separatists. The other extreme is a full-scale invasion and occupation that attempts to forcibly install a pro-Kremlin government in Kyiv.

If the Russians were to launch an invasion, there are roughly three possible routes, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Russian forces could move through breakaway republics and northeastern Ukraine to the Dnipro River, which would likely involve attempting to besiege Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

Russian troops could also break through north of their existing bases in occupied Crimea and attempt to capture Black Sea ports such as Mariupol, Kherson and, most importantly, Odessa. This would cut Ukraine off from the sea and threaten its economic viability as a state.

The bolder option would be an attack by Belarus in a decapitation strike that quickly captures Kiev and overthrows the Ukrainian government.

Weather conditions will determine what Russia can do. The current wintry weather and frozen ground make an armored assault possible, but by March the thaw will turn much of eastern Ukraine into swampland, neutralizing Russia’s armored advantage and favoring the defenders. Russia should wait until the summer, giving Ukraine crucial time to prepare and strengthen, as well as rally international opinion on its side.

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