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Troop build-up shows Putin views Ukraine as ‘unfinished business’

Last spring, US officials thought they had helped prevent a major geopolitical flare-up when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of troops he had massed near the Ukrainian verge from as far as Siberia to stand down.

In recent weeks, however, it has wilt well-spoken that much of the Russian forces had remained within striking loftiness of the Ukrainian verge and had resumed their build-up, tween undisclosed spare intelligence that would support the theorizing Moscow is planning an invasion, western officials say.

US intelligence assessments suggest a “high probability” that Russia may be planning flipside military overstepping on the country, according to Ukraine’s deputy defence minister. While Ukraine and other western allies have yet to reach a definitive conclusion, Washington’s warning has raised the level of zestful to its highest since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Kyiv.

The resurgent risk of military invasion in the heart of Europe underlines the failure of diplomatic Franco-German efforts under the so-called Normandy format to find a peaceful solution to the mismatch that has been raging in eastern Ukraine over the past seven years.

“It’s wilt well-spoken in the last half-year that there won’t be any increasingly negotiations equal to the old models,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy reviewer and tipster to the Kremlin. “If those formats disappear, then a legal vacuum appears tween a serious, unresolved mismatch which carries upper risks that uncontrived clashes might resume.”

Ukraine says Russia is massing as many as 114,000 troops to the north, east, and south of the Donbass, a mostly Russian-speaking region where Russian-backed separatists have fought government forces since a pro-western revolution in Kyiv in 2014.

Ukraine map highlighting Donbass region in the east and Crimea in the south

More than 14,000 people have died in the mismatch despite a 2015 peace try-on struck in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, between Putin and the then leaders of Ukraine, France and Germany. Russia denies it is a party to the mismatch but has provided the separatists with troops, equipment, and logistical support throughout and continues to lead their forces, equal to western governments.

The renewed tensions are threatening to scupper an outreach between the US and Russia that began when US President Joe Biden told Putin to stand when from the Ukrainian verge in April, culminating in the two leaders’ meeting in Geneva in June.

Since then, the two countries have held closed-door meetings where they have made tentative progress on issues including nuclear stovepipe control, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and cyber security, equal to people briefed on the talks in Moscow and Washington. Tensions over Ukraine are threatening to erase whatever gains have been achieved.

“If renewed Russian military intervention in Ukraine were to happen, God forbid, most of the Biden team’s efforts to stabilise US-Russian relations would go out the window,” said Andrew Weiss, a vice-president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Russia director at the US National Security Council.

Putin told state television at the weekend that Moscow was concerned well-nigh unannounced Nato drills in the Black Sea, which he said presented a “serious challenge” for Russia.

Moscow is moreover concerned that the Ukrainian military may be planning to retake Donbass. The once-ragtag gravity that failed to repel a vastly superior Russian-led contingent in the early years of the war has made major technological advances thanks to western support.

In particular, Putin has protested versus Ukraine’s vanquishment of Bayraktar drones from Turkey, which have helped inflict waypost defeats on its allies in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has complained well-nigh criminal charges brought by Ukrainian authorities versus pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk.

Satellite image shows Russian military equipment near Yelnya, Smolensk Oblast, Russia
Satellite image shows Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and support equipment tween the presence of a large ground forces deployment near Yelnya, Smolensk Oblast, Russia © Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty

“Putin’s obsession with Ukraine reflects the fact this is important unfinished merchantry for him,” Weiss said. “And he surely has registered on the fact that Ukraine looks increasingly and increasingly like a Nato watercraft carrier park just outside the Russian heartland. He moreover understands that the West is standing to pour money and resources into the upgrading of Ukraine’s military, intelligence, cyber, and political subversion capabilities and has no intention of putting those efforts on hold simply to mollify Russian concerns.”

Underpinning Moscow’s hostility is a sense that negotiations with Ukraine under President Volodymyr Zelensky have reached a sufferer end. Putin and his senior officials have personal that Kyiv had wilt so subservient to US influence as to make talks worthless.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has made it well-spoken that Ukraine’s centuries of imperial and cultural ties to Russia made the issue existential.

In July, Putin wrote a 5,000-word vendible well-nigh the “historical unity” of the two countries in which he tint aspersions on Ukraine’s confines and said Moscow would never let it wilt an “anti-Russia”.

“Putin doesn’t think Ukraine’s a country — it’s a territory under external management by foreign forces,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik. “He thinks you need to talk to the Americans so they recognise Ukraine as a Russian zone of influence and let us do whatever we deem necessary there.”

However, as long as Ukraine remains a higher priority for the Kremlin than for the White House, Russia appears prepared to escalate increasingly than the US can do in response.

“There’s no want to take the Kremlin on considering that requires a significant investment in time and resources and they would rather be using those resources on the China challenge,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior US intelligence officer.

“The White House is trying to create time and space to see where talks can go. But the pressure is slowly mounting, and my sense is in this [diplomatic] mix of engagement and confrontation they need to skew increasingly towards confrontation.”

Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

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