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In April 2021, the EU estimated that there had been a buildup of roughly 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukraine border. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been high ever since the Crimea was annexed in 2014 and this recent buildup has put the EU, US and NATO on edge. In Putin’s most recent annual state of the union speech he warned the West not to cross the ‘red line’ and stated that ‘The organisers of any provocation against Russia will regret [their actions] in a way they never have before’.
Despite the recent announcement by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that he was ordering several units on the border to pull back tension is still high. Shoigu declared that the trop movement was simply a demonstration that Russia put up a ‘credible defence’. Conflict in Ukraine has been prevalent since the West backed western Ukrainians to topple their pro-Russia government and this has led to Russia supporting eastern groups in challenging the new government in Kiev. The division in Ukraine is a continuation of divisions during the Cold War. Relations between the West and Russia need to be re-evaluated if there is to be any prospect of a peaceful settlement for the region.
What is missing from the troop withdrawal is the actual movement of armaments from the border, the troops may be leaving but the means of invading Ukraine are deliberately being left in place. Putin’s aggression may simply be a means of re-asserting Russian influence and status as a great power. Russia wants to use the international pressure to force Kiev to negotiate with the Russian backed eastern Ukrainians. Once the eastern Ukrainians have been legitimised through diplomacy they can seek to gain constitutionalised autonomy and veto any Ukrainian involvement with the West.
Russian desire for a buffer zone from Western Europe is still an important factor in their foreign policy. Intimidating Ukraine and dominating news cycles is a way in which Russia can try to manoeuvre a path to gaining a buffer zone akin to the USSR again. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to London before heading to Kiev to demonstrate Washington’s support for Ukraine. President Biden has been clear about his support for Kiev but has stressed that reforms need to be made to address the notoriously corrupt political system. US support will be crucial in building up Ukraine’s defence in an effort to deter Russian action.
With tension escalating between the US and China we can only hope that conflict between Ukraine and Russia will ease following the troop withdrawal.