What’s happening in the Ukraine-Russia crisis

Tensions between NATO and Russia have risen to their highest level in years, as Washington and its European allies try to deter a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces massed at the border.

  • President Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday, and the two leaders “agreed on the importance of continuing to pursue diplomacy and deterrence” in response to the Russian military buildup. The day prior, Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in an hour-long call of “swift and severe costs” if Russia attacks Ukraine, the White House said.
  • The U.S. State Department began evacuating staffers from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Saturday. A growing number of countries have told their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. Russia said it was pulling its diplomatic staff from Ukraine.
  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that U.S. officials grew more alarmed about a possible invasion because of an accelerated Russian military buildup near Ukraine in the past 10 days — a position, he said, from where they could launch military action “very, very rapidly.” He told CNN that an invasion would probably begin “with a significant barrage of missiles and bomb attacks,” followed by “an onslaught of a ground force moving across the Ukrainian frontier.”
  • The heightened U.S. warning came amid new intelligence, and evidence on the ground, indicating that Russia is fully prepared to launch an attack.
  • Russia on Thursday began 10 days of joint military exercises with ally Belarus, a move that Western officials fear could become a cover for Moscow to invade Ukraine. Also, six Russian warships reached Crimea and docked in a strategic port on the Black Sea. Kyiv is holding its own tit-for-tat drills, making use of weapons supplied by NATO.
  • Diplomats and European leaders continued to try to steer the situation back from the brink but made little progress. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who faced criticism that his government is not doing enough to support Ukraine, is set to meet with Zelensky on Monday and Putin on Tuesday.

The Russian view: Kremlin officials have focused on the 2015 Minsk peace deal, which was designed to end a conflict between Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists in the contested Donbas region of eastern Ukraine after the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The Kremlin has accused Ukrainian officials of not fulfilling their side of the agreement.

Moscow also has sought assurances that Ukraine, a former Soviet state, will never be allowed to join NATO. In a Dec. 17 ultimatum presented to the United States, Russia said it wanted commitments that NATO would withdraw troops from countries that joined the military alliance after 1997.

Putin said Monday that Russia was opposed to any eastward NATO expansion “because it poses a common threat to us.”

The Ukrainian view: Officials in Kyiv have criticized the Minsk deal, which was brokered after a string of military losses. They have said they will support the agreement only if it is restructured.

Still, officials say they are open to talks with Russia — provided they take place in a third country.

“Ukraine stands ready for negotiations in Istanbul, as well as in Geneva, Vienna or any other place that is impartial and doesn’t depend on one of the sides, namely Russia,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said last week, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. (The 2015 agreement was negotiated in Belarus, whose leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is an ally of Putin’s.)

The Western view: The United States and other allies have said they support the 2015 Minsk deal but have called on all parties to the agreement — including Russia — to live up to their parts of the bargain.

The Biden administration has rejected Russia’s demands on NATO and instead called for Moscow to pull its forces back from the Ukrainian border and to stop supporting separatists in Donbas.

A grim U.S. assessment reported last week concludes that Russia soon may complete preparations for what appears to be a large-scale invasion. The review predicted that a war could cause Ukraine’s government to collapse within two days, kill or wound up to 50,000 civilians and displace up to 5 million people.

Russian troops: Moscow began moving troops to regions bordering Ukraine last year. Western officials say more than 130,000 Russian troops are in the region and Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014. Russian military drills with Belarus, which also borders Ukraine, began Thursday. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, said Tuesday that Russian forces massed in Belarus would depart later this month.

The Biden administration believes Russia is planning to invade, possibly after Moscow creates a pretext by broadcasting staged images of civilian casualties to drum up anger against Kyiv. Sullivan on Friday ruled out a U.S. military evacuation if a rush invasion takes place.

The most recent U.S. assessment concluded that Russia has massed about 70 percent of the combat forces it would need to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and attack Kyiv. If executed, the assault probably would be the largest land offensive in Europe since World War II.

NATO forces: The United States has responded by sending more troops to Eastern Europe, with about 3,000 U.S. personnel moving to NATO’s eastern flank in Romania and Poland from their posts in Germany and Fort Bragg, N.C. U.S. officials said Friday that the Biden administration would deploy an additional 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland.

NATO allies also have repositioned military hardware, with Denmark and Belgium sending F-15 and F-16 fighter jets to the Baltics last month. Britain has offered to send jets, warships and military specialists, as well.

NATO allies have said that they would not send troops to Ukraine in the event of an invasion. Even though Ukraine is at the center of the dispute between Russia and the West, it is not a NATO member and, therefore, is not covered by the alliance’s collective-defense clause. Washington and London said Saturday that they would pull military personnel on training missions in Ukraine.

What about Ukraine? Ukraine’s political leadership has largely downplayed the risk of conflict, with Zelensky telling Ukrainians to “take a breath” and “calm down.”

But he also signed into law in February plans to strengthen the country’s armed forces, bringing them from 250,000 active troops up to about 361,000. That is only about a third or so of Russia’s 900,000-strong armed forces.

On Sunday, a former defense minister of Ukraine, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, called the situation “pretty dire.” He assessed that Russia had massed enough troops to occupy Kyiv or another city but not enough to seize the entire country. Concern from Kyiv appeared to mount last week, and Ukraine hosted a military exercise of its own while officials condemned the Russian operations as a threat to Ukrainian sovereignty.

All sides say that they are willing to talk. French President Emmanuel Macron this week embarked on a diplomatic push that saw him meet with Putin and Zelensky, as well as the leaders of Germany and Poland. Macron appeared determined to strike a mediating tone, at one point referring to Russia as a “neighbor and friend.”

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to mediate talks between Ukraine and Russia. His offer was greeted warmly by Zelensky, who was hosting the Turkish leader in Kyiv. Turkey is a member of NATO but has maintained relations with Russia — even, controversially, buying Russian-made missile defense systems.

Scholz, the German chancellor, is to travel to Kyiv on Feb. 14 and to Moscow the next day.

One potential U.S. concession: Officials confirmed recently that they offered to let Russia inspect missile defense systems in Romania and Poland to verify that there are no Tomahawk cruise missiles there. In return, the United States would seek inspections of similar sites in Russia. The United States has long maintained that no Tomahawk missiles are deployed in Europe, despite Russian claims.

Sanctions? Western nations have warned of retaliatory sanctions against Russia if aggression continues, potentially targeting even Putin himself. The Biden administration has discussed everything from blocking Russia’s access to electronic supplies made with U.S. technology to cutting Moscow off from the SWIFT banking system, which handles the flow of money worldwide.

Energy? Russia is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe, raising significant questions about what would happen if a conflict led Moscow to cut off the supply. At the heart of the debate is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a major infrastructure project that, if completed, would transport natural gas from Siberia to Germany.

The United States views the pipeline as a geostrategic threat. At a news conference with the German chancellor Monday, Biden said that “there will no longer be Nord Stream 2” if Russia invades Ukraine.

Robyn Dixon in Moscow, Rick Noack in Paris, Sammy Westfall in New York and Rachel Pannett in Sydney contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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