In recent weeks, a major Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border has sparked fears of a possible major escalation in the simmering seven-year conflict between the two countries. Speaking in Brussels on April 19, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that Russia has now deployed more than 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine, and warned that “a spark” could set off an escalation.
Russia’s troop deployments have been conducted in a highly public and demonstrative manner, leading many to conclude that the current build-up is an act of intimidation that aims to increase the pressure on Ukraine during ongoing peace negotiations while also testing the reactions of the new Biden administration. However, with Russia’s lightning seizure of Crimea in 2014 still fresh in the mind, few are prepared to rule out the possibility of a fresh Kremlin offensive.
Russian rhetoric has added to the sense of alarm. Senior Kremlin officials have warned that any escalation in hostilities would mark “the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” while leading Putin regime propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov used his flagship current affairs TV show on April 11 to brand Ukraine a “Nazi state” and claim that Russia may be forced to intervene militarily in order to “De-Nazify” the country.
The international community has responded to the threat of a new Russian escalation in Ukraine by voicing strong support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. US President Joe Biden has called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to reaffirm his support, while there have been a series of official statements from Western capitals calling on Russia to deescalate. Since the start of the crisis in early April, Zelenskyy has also met with a number of international leaders including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron.
However, the Western world has yet to adopt the kind of concrete counter-measures that might decisively deter Putin. Direct military intervention in defense of Ukraine is not under consideration and any non-military steps have so far proved underwhelming. EU officials announced this week that there were no plans to increase sanctions on Russia, while recent calls from Kyiv for progress in Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership bids have failed to produce any response. Many in Ukraine are now growing increasingly concerned that this lack of tangible action risks encouraging further Russian aggression.
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