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Is Russia preparing another attack on Ukraine?

Kiev calls on UK and Nato for support as Moscow builds up its military on border

Six years after a ceasefire between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops in eastern Ukraine, concern is rising over the possibility of a new outbreak of violence.

Amid a crackdown on pro-Russian media and politicians in Ukraine, Moscow has begun building up its military presence in southwestern Russia, “stoking fears of renewed hostilities in eastern Ukraine”, The Telegraph reports.

The deployment includes military units, tanks and heavy artillery and has sent Ukrainan President Volodymyr Zelensky into a “frantic round of diplomatic activity”, The Guardian says, including calling for Nato to fast-track the country’s application for membership of the alliance.

‘Muscle-flexing’

The “large-scale and ostentatious” arrival of troops comes at a time when the situation in Donbass in eastern Ukraine, where demonstrations by pro-Russian and anti-government groups first broke out in 2014, has grown increasingly “volatile”, according to The Moscow Times.

A ceasefire signed in 2015 has “effectively broken down”, the paper continues, with both sides “accusing each other of provocations and regularly exchanging fire”, causing rising casualties among both military personnel and civilians.

Last month, four Ukrainian troops were killed on one day in the biggest escalation since last summer. However, “the scale of the ongoing military manoeuvres has prompted Ukrainian officials to speak about a potential large-scale invasion”, The Telegraph says.

Ukraine’s military intelligence last week “publicly warned about the danger of an incursion”, the paper adds, with President Zelensky accusing Moscow of “muscle-flexing”. 

Russia has not denied the troop movements, but a spokesperson for the Kremlin insisted it was “not threatening anyone”, says The Guardian. Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday that the nation’s military would do whatever necessary “to ensure our country’s security”, adds The Telegraph.

Cold diplomacy

Zelensky spoke to Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, on Tuesday, urging him to put Ukraine “on a pathway to future membership to halt the long-running conflict”, The Guardian says.

The Ukrainian president reiterated the same request during calls with Boris Johnson on Monday and again on Tuesday with Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister. Johnson has spoken of the UK’s “unwavering support” for Kiev, but the Ukraine government called on Britain and its allies to “strengthen its presence” in the area.

Officials in Kiev hope that formalising Ukraine’s relationship with Nato may deter Russian military intervention as it would draw other powerful western militaries into the dispute.

“Nato is the only way to end the war in Donbass. Ukraine’s MAP [membership action plan] will be a real signal for Russia,” Zelensky told Stoltenberg. 

Stoltenberg later tweeted that he had spoken to Ukraine’s president “to express serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine”, adding that Nato “firmly supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Nato sources told The Guardian that members were monitoring Russia’s military build-up, but said that Ukraine would need to “focus on domestic reforms” and “develop its defence capabilities in accordance with Nato standards” in order to become a member.

Amid the diplomatic wrangling, both Russia and Ukraine have said they are “doing everything they can to avoid a war”, The Moscow Times says. But the claims “ring hollow”, the paper says.

Second coming?

The purpose of Russia’s manoeuvres is as yet unclear, however “analysts are concerned about the scale of the posturing at a time of increased tensions between Moscow and Washington”, says The Guardian. 

Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the paper that the build-up may be “more serious than just a show of strength”, adding: “I don’t think we can rule out anything at this point.”

Writing on Politico, Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, says that the movement of troops towards the Crimean Peninsula is “most likely” part of a “ploy to unnerve the government in Kyiv and test the West’s reaction”.

But Pifer continues that “it could be something worse”, adding that “a Russian strike would plunge Europe into a major crisis” meaning “the West should ensure that Putin and the Kremlin understand the potential costs if Russian units move against Ukraine”.

The threatening move also comes at a time when Zelensky’s position is “weakening” at home, The Moscow Times adds. Despite an impressive showing in the 2019 election, “meager progress” in negotiations with Russia over the Donbass region and “economic woes” exacerbated by the pandemic have all weakened his hand, the site adds.

Russian “sabre-rattling in the region is not unusual”, The Telegraph says. But western powers must nonetheless “do more to dissuade Moscow from thoughts of a military adventure”, Pifer warns. 

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