The U.S. is increasingly concerned about Russia’s buildup of 175,000 troops and military hardware on the Ukrainian border, which the Pentagon calls “unusual in size and scope.” The Russia-Ukraine conflict has been simmering for eight years and with the situation getting hotter, it’s worth taking a deeper dive at the tensions in the region. This excerpt from our January 2021 foreign policy primer is a great place to begin.
In December 2020, the International Crisis Group labeled the territorial conflict in Ukraine as having “deteriorated,” citing over 200 ceasefire violations in Eastern Ukraine that were recorded over just three days. This conflict, now entering its seventh year, was initially precipitated by Ukraine’s deteriorating domestic political situation. In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suspended the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, citing pressure from Moscow. In response, Ukrainian citizens took to the streets en masse in a series of protests known as “Euromaidan.” Following months of civil unrest, on February 21, 2014, Yanukovych and parliamentary opposition leaders signed the “Agreement on the Settlement of the Crisis in Ukraine.” By the next day, Yanukovych had fled to Russia, and shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian parliament removed him as president and set up an interim government.
In response to these political developments, and in an attempt to secure its own interests, Russia sent troops to Crimea and annexed it by March 2014. Shortly thereafter, pro-Russian separatists, aided by Russian military forces, declared the establishment of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. Moscow has denied the presence of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, with the Interpreter reporting that Russian President Vladimir Putin came close to admitting military involvement by saying that Russia was “forced to defend the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine has been widely condemned by the international community through targeted sanctions, United Nations General Assembly resolutions, and NATO deployments to Eastern Europe. Russia and Ukraine, in concert with other international actors, are in the process of trying to resolve the conflict diplomatically through the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II agreements, signed in September 2014 and February 2015, respectively. However, as noted by the Congressional Research Service, “measures in Minsk-2 for ending hostilities largely remain unfulfilled to date.”
The consequences of close to seven years of unresolved hostilities are grim; according to the Council on Foreign Relation’s Global Conflict Tracker, the conflict in Ukraine has resulted in over 10,000 civilian casualties and 1.5 million people being internally displaced. President Biden re-enters the White House to encounter a Russo-Ukrainian conflict much unchanged from his time as Vice President, but necessitating now more than ever a strong response from the United States to prevent further bloodshed and civil unrest.
The full version of Foreign Policy Challenges Facing The Biden Administration: Europe and Eurasia from January 2021 is available here.