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Red alert in Ukraine : After the invasion of Crimea in 2014, is Moscow bluffing or genuinely preparing for an invasion of Ukraine ?

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has always asserted and claimed its sovereignty and defended its political independence from Russia. In 2004, tensions went up a notch with the Orange Revolution, which marked a rapprochement with the European Union and NATO.

But in 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine. He drew closer to Russia and refused certain agreements with the European Union, which triggered the Maidan revolution in 2014.

Today, Crimea has been annexed by Russia and there is an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine between pro-Ukrainian forces and Russian separatists. It is a conflict that has left nearly 14,000 people dead and led to the displacement of over 1.5 million people in the region. 

Ukraine has a strong Russian community in the east and, in particular, in Crimea, with more than 90% who are Russian speakers. It is for this reason that Russia prefers not to talk about annexation but rather about reintegrating Crimea into Russia by referendum, although this has never been recognised by the international community.

Since 2014, the EU has imposed different types of sanctions against Russia in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea; these include economic sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy, sanctions against individuals and entities, restrictions on business and the exclusion of Russia from the G7.

On the Russian side, the Maidan revolution was instigated by the West in order to enlarge the zone of influence of NATO and the European Union on Ukrainian territory. Indeed, for the Russians it is very important that Ukraine remains a « buffer zone » between Russian territory and the West, whereas Europe regards Ukraine as a sovereign state with the right to ensure its own security.

The recent concentration of Russian soldiers and military equipment on the Ukraine/Russia border is undoubtedly a show of strength on Russia’s part. However, an invasion is a much less realistic possibility as it entails many risks without significant gains in return.

Indeed, the risks are mainly economic sanctions by the European Union, such as trade embargoes, but also the stopping of the Nord Stream 2 project with Germany that Russia has put an enormous amount of effort into securing. It is rather a question of raising the stakes to widen the margin of manoeuvre and putting pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Western partners, such as NATO and the EU.

Germany and France are mediators in the Minsk agreements, which has the aim of de-escalating the violence with regard to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The European Union is trying to proceed through diplomacy, while Russia is no longer interested in talking to Brussels. Russia believes that dialogue is very difficult, especially with the weight of EU Member States hostile to Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic States.

Europe has a central role in this crisis. Indeed, Russia has broken ties with NATO and multilateral institutions, preferring to conduct dialogue with major European countries at the bilateral level. Furthermore, since 2014, Russia has hardened its discourse and has become increasingly prepared to protect its influence with force. This makes the West very vulnerable to the Russian bear, and presents an ongoing challenge to the unity of the EU where foreign policy is concerned.

Martin JOSSE

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