What does Russia want with Ukraine? Tensions between Putin and NATO explained

Ukrainian Military Forces take part in drills in their base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region on January 31, 2022 (Photo: AFP)
Ukrainian Military Forces take part in drills in their base near Klugino-Bashkirivka village, in the Kharkiv region on January 31, 2022 (Photo: AFP)


Ukraine is the focus of global attention as Russia builds up troops on its border and NATO allies respond

kraine has become the focus of geopolitical attention in recent weeks as a Russian troop buildup along its eastern border and a list of demands from the Kremlin have prompted threats of sanctions by the West and military deployment by NATO allies. As attempts to defuse the crisis diplomatically continue, the United Nations Security Council is set to meet Monday to discuss the matter.

Why is Ukraine important to Russia?

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union before it collapsed at the end of the Cold War in 1991, and it borders Russia to its east. The disintegration of the Soviet Union left Russia with a vastly depleted population, territory and economy. It also diminished Russia’s superpower status. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to reclaim some of that glory and undo some of what Russia lost in the Cold War. He has described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people, a single whole."

Does Russia want to invade Ukraine?

Russia has repeatedly denied having plans to invade. But Moscow has massed 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and has been moving tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers and other military equipment westward from bases in Russia’s far east.

In addition, Russia is moving troops and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems into Belarus, which borders Ukraine and NATO members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. Russia also has moved several ships near Ukraine’s shores in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

It is also holding naval exercises in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and in the Arabian Sea with Chinese naval forces. On Jan. 25, Moscow announced new military exercises in the North Caucasus.

In late January, Western defense officials said Russia had sent medical units to the front, moving to a level of readiness that it hadn’t reached in past buildups.

In massing troops near Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s goal is to extract concessions from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and force him to give Russia a say in Ukraine’s future. That would send a message to other former Soviet states that the West can’t guarantee their security. To ratchet up the pressure, Mr. Putin has an array of military options short of a full occupation, from low-profile incursions to a limited conflict in the eastern Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have declared themselves independent of Ukraine but aren’t recognized by the government in Kyiv.

President Biden has said that he expects the Russians will move against Ukraine in some way, although Washington and Moscow have agreed to continue talks on how to defuse the crisis.

Where is Ukraine?

Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe and its eastern flank borders Russia. To the west, it is bordered by Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, and to the north by Belarus. The Black Sea runs along Ukraine’s southern coast.

Is Ukraine a U.S. ally and is it part of NATO?

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union when Ukraine gained its independence, the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. is eager to see Ukraine thrive as a democracy in the face of what the State Department describes as “continued Russian aggression."

Ukraine isn’t a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but it is a “partner country“ to the military alliance, and agreements in place mean it could become a NATO member in the future. Mr. Biden has said that Ukraine’s prospective membership of NATO isn’t likely in the near term, though he said the decision ultimately belongs to the alliance.

What is NATO doing in response to Russia’s military buildup?

NATO allies are bolstering the alliance’s eastern flank, which borders Ukraine, deploying jet fighters and ships to the region in response. The European Union has set out plans for loans and grants to Ukraine worth more than $1.3 billion. The Pentagon ordered thousands of troops to prepare for possible deployment.

What does Putin want?

Mr. Putin has been clear about wishing to reassert Russia’s influence over its neighbors, particularly Ukraine. In 2014, he annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, fomenting an eight-year war in the country’s east.

But he has cultivated an aura of unpredictability about his next moves.

So far, Mr. Putin has left Western leaders guessing about whether he would stage a major invasion of Ukraine and provoke a possible breakdown in ties with the West, or whether he would be satisfied with wringing a few concessions from an expansive list of demands he has put forth. These include that NATO guarantees that it won’t give membership to Ukraine.

Moscow has also demanded that NATO curb military exercises in Ukraine and other former Soviet nations, and that the alliance pull its forces back from its eastern member states. NATO deployed about 5,000 troops to Poland and the Baltic countries after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.

What has the U.S. said to those demands?

The U.S. and its allies rejected Moscow’s demands at a series of meetings with Russian officials in mid-January, arguing that states are free to associate with any other states they choose.

The U.S. delivered unpublished proposals to the Russian Foreign Ministry on Jan. 26 that, according to U.S. officials, included constraints on military maneuvers that Moscow considers provocative. But the Russian leader said his “fundamental concerns"—a drawdown of NATO troops and a bar on Ukraine joining the alliance—had been ignored.

What would happen if Russia invaded Ukraine?

Mr. Biden said that if all of the troops on the border moved into Ukraine, it would amount to the largest invasion since World War II. Russia has amassed sufficient combat power to take cities and substantial swaths of territory in Ukraine, according to the Pentagon. However, Kyiv’s leadership has urged the U.S. to dial back its public rhetoric over the Russian threat to avoid creating panic.

Ukraine’s army has bulked up since Russia invaded Crimea and, though still outgunned by Russia, could inflict a high price on any invading army, its leaders and analysts say.

In the event of an invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. has said it would unleash a barrage of fresh economic sanctions against Russia, hitting major banks, state companies and key imports, though the targets have yet to be confirmed. Mr. Biden has also said the U.S. and NATO would consider further beefing up their presence in Eastern Europe.

Experts say that despite efforts by Moscow to sanction-proof its economy since penalties were imposed after it annexed Crimea, harder-hitting measures could cause the country broad economic pain.

What is the feeling in Ukraine about the crisis?

Ukrainian leaders, excluded from U.S.-Russia talks over the standoff, have urged their citizens not to panic and say the Kremlin’s likely aim isn’t to invade but to destabilize their country in more insidious ways.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zolensky, a Russian-speaking ex-comedian who had no political experience, wants his country to join the EU and NATO. He came to power in 2019 promising to end the continuing war with Russia-backed separatists in the east of Ukraine that has so far claimed 14,000 lives.

Many Ukrainians, having endured eight years of that conflict, are resigned and prepared for war with Russia.

Ukraine is bulking up its territorial-defense force, aiming to have a brigade of reservists in each of the country’s regions, able to react quickly if Russia blasts or sneaks its way through.

And in the largest city in eastern Ukraine, sentiment has shifted dramatically against the Kremlin. Any Russian military operation in Kharkiv is now likely to face significant resistance from ordinary civilians.

What is Nord Stream 2 and what part does it play in the crisis?

Nord Stream 2 is a natural-gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany, a NATO member, and is awaiting signoff from German regulators.

U.S. lawmakers and some officials worry that the 764-mile pipeline will strengthen Russia’s grip on the European energy market and weaken Ukraine as it tries to resist Russian aggression. Germany is the world’s biggest buyer of Russian gas, drawing more than half of its supply from Russia. Nord Stream 2 would double capacity for Russian gas exports to the country currently being channeled through the parallel Nord Stream 1 pipeline.

Officials in the government of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have said privately that it would mothball Nord Stream 2 in the case of Russian aggression.

Publicly, Mr. Scholz hasn’t made any such commitment despite repeated urging from Washington and other allies, which hope to use the pipeline as leverage against the Kremlin. The chancellor has said that Nord Stream 2 is a purely private-sector project that must be separated from political discussions.

European officials have been scrambling to secure backup energy supplies in the event that a conflict disrupts flows from Russia, enlisting the help of the U.S. and talking with gas producers such as Qatar and Azerbaijan.

U.S. officials have tried for years to persuade Europe to buy American natural gas as a bulwark against Russia, with the Trump administration dubbing it “molecules of freedom." But most countries stuck with the cheaper Russian supplies, with some expressing environmental concern about the fruits of U.S. fracking.


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