Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 359, 7 April 2021

Russia and Ukraine: Provocation and conflict escalation at the borders
Harini Madhusudan

In the news 
On 1 April, the US pledged to stand by Ukraine in the likely event of a Russian "aggression." The statement came after the Ukrainian President announced that Russia was increasing its troop presence on the border. Through the week, there has been an increase in the military build-up on the borders near Crimea, and eastern Ukraine and a rise in the fighting between the government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the border region. This is seen as a violation of the Minsk Protocol of 2015.

On 26 March, Kyiv blamed Moscow responsible for four Ukrainian soldiers' death, but Russia has denied any involvement. While warning against the provocations from the Ukrainian side, Russia revealed that the four soldiers had died after a landmine exploded while the soldiers were inspecting a minefield. They state that the Russian movement in the region is only a part of their military exercise. 

Issues at large 
First, the Russia-Ukraine conflict since 2014. It began with the then President Viktor Yanukovych suspending preparations to implement an association agreement with the European Union. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, after unrest in Kyiv toppled the Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych. A civil war followed; the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's Donbas region successfully declared Donetsk and Luhansk regions' independence. The EU brokered a ceasefire agreement in 2015. However, there have been repeated incidents reported of violations of the ceasefire. The disputed territory between Ukrainian forces and the Russia-backed separatists is spread across the 500 km border, and efforts at peace talks have been stalled for the last six years. 

Second, the recent developments. There has been a significant increase in the Russian military presence, first in Crimea, which is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and second, near the border between Russia and the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. The New York Times reported that an estimated 4,000 Russian troops had been deployed to the border with Ukraine, citing an unnamed US official, while also reporting that in response to the troop build-up, the US military's European Command has raised its alert level to a "potential imminent crisis." In Crimea, people have complained of months-long water shortages that were partly triggered by Ukraine switching off supplies through the North Crimea Canal, as a possible source of tensions. Another reason could be the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Russia. 

Third, the international response. The US White House has expressed its firm support for Ukraine in a call to Zelenskiy on 2 April. By 5 April, UK's Boris Johnson and the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, declared their 'unwavering support' to Ukraine. The Russian Presidential spokesman has stated that the situation in eastern Ukraine at a boiling point and said, the deployment of NATO troops near the conflict zone or Russia's borders would trigger a strong response from Moscow. Russia has also stated that its troop movements are defensive in nature and have claimed for weeks that Ukraine has also been moving military units toward the conflict zone.

In perspective 
There is a pre-war paranoia that the military build-up of Russia and Ukraine could lead to confrontations, specifically with NATO also strengthening its troops in the region. Both sides, Russia and Ukraine, have made public statements against the conflict escalating, but their actions on the ground seem to lack the same spirit.  It is also likely that the provocation is to test waters with the new leadership in the US. Coupled with Navalny's issue and the Nord Stream 2 issue, one can notice an increase in the international scrutiny on Russia and its activities in the region.

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