See why the conflict in eastern Ukraine is heating up

A buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border raises fears that the simmering separatist conflict may flare into outright war between the two countries.

Ukrainian soldiers patrol near the frontline with Russia-backed separatists in the Luhansk administrative region in April 2021.
Photograph by AFP, Getty Images

The word “Ukraine” literally translates into “on the edge” in English—and once again the country at the crossroads between East and West is feeling the pressure.

The current crisis in Ukraine first flared in early 2014, following the Ukrainian “Revolution of Dignity” that overthrew a pro-Russian president. Russia subsequently sent in troops to annex Crimea, claiming it had to protect the rights of Russian citizens and Russian speakers living in the southern Ukrainian territory. The annexation gave Russia a strategic Black Sea port, earned Russian president Vladimir Putin a surge in domestic support, and resulted in broad international condemnation.

Soon after the annexation, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s coal-rich Donbas region seized much of the Donetsk and Luhansk administrative regions—where the majority of residents are Russian speakers—and declared the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

Eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking populations are the result of a complicated history going back centuries. Parts of what is modern-day eastern Ukraine fell under Russian imperial rule by the late 17th century, much earlier than western Ukraine. Lands to the east of the Dnieper River became known as "Left Bank" Ukraine and as a center of industry and coal. Lands to the west of the Dnieper, or "Right Bank," found themselves more often under the shifting control of various European powers, including Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To this day, populations in eastern Ukraine tend to be more Russian-speaking, with parts of the west more Ukrainian-speaking.

Fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists in Donbas has continued sporadically since 2014, in spite of numerous cease-fire agreements. A so-called Line of Contact—a 240-mile-long barrier of trenches and fortifications—has remained largely unchanged since the beginning of the conflict. The UN estimates that more than 13,000 people have died in the fighting.

Over the past month Russia has significantly increased its military presence along its border with Ukraine, with Kremlin officials once again warning that it will vigorously defend its people— many of whom have been issued Russian passports—in the separatist enclaves. The troop buildup in Crimea and near the eastern border, which is believed to be the largest since 2014, is raising concerns that the simmering conflict could erupt into all-out war between the two countries. The Russian defense ministry claims it’s conducting more than 4,000 military drills in the area this month. Meanwhile, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is pushing for Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with the hope that the organization’s mutual-defense pact with 12 other nations, including the U.S., will deter Russian aggression and force an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia has long opposed Ukrainian aspirations to join NATO, as well as other western-oriented political and economic organizations, including the European Union.

One possible outcome of the separatist clash in Donbas is the crystallization, after seven years of skirmishes, of another post-Soviet “frozen conflict” where the fighting has faded but political status is unresolved— such as in the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russia also supports separatist movements.

Concerns about a frozen conflict in Donbas had already been raised back in 2014, says Serhii Plokhii, professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.

“But now, seven years later, with the conflict developing from open warfare, to the continuous shelling of each other’s positions, and back to the possibility of deployment of the regular Russian troops, a “frozen” conflict seems like a good scenario,” he says.

Other experts are viewing the Russian troop buildup near the border as just posturing, with Russia wanting to maintain just enough political status and support in eastern Ukraine to keep their neighbor from formalizing too many ties with Europe and the West. But that posturing could escalate, and fast.

“Probably it is a demonstration, it is a measure to prevent something,” says Ivan Safranchuk, a senior research fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.  “There were worries that the Biden administration may provide too much support to Ukraine and [Ukrainian president] Zelenskiy may go too far.” The Kremlin has expressed concern that the Ukrainian military might try to re-take the Russian separatist-controlled regions in the east, or pull out of peace talks based in the Belarussian capital, Minsk

 “But is it impossible that a demonstration to prevent something may slip into a demonstration to acquire something in more practical terms?” mulls Safranchuk. “I wouldn’t say that is 100 percent impossible.”

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