What is happening?
Vladimir Putin said Russia would recognize the territorial claims of its two proxy states in eastern Ukraine and ordered its forces into Russian-held territory, amid a sharp escalation of already high tensions.
The move follows days of warnings from the United States and others about the possibility of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On February 22, a Reuters witness saw columns of military vehicles, including tanks and APCs, on the outskirts of Donetsk, the capital of one of Russia’s claimed territories:
How did we come here?
Over the past few months, Russia has deployed hundreds of tanks, self-propelled artillery and even short-range ballistic missiles from as far away as Siberia to within striking range of Ukraine.
Moscow’s rhetoric has also become more bellicose. Putin has demanded legal guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO or host its missile strike systems, concessions he is unlikely to obtain. A flurry of diplomatic activity did little to ease tensions.
The second half of February has long been considered the most likely period for a potential offensive. The Russian soldiers remained in Belarus beyond the end of the planned military exercises, and the Winter Olympics, organized by the Chinese ally, ended.
What do we know about deployments?
Dozens of Battalion Battlegroups, the Moscow Army’s smallest operational unit of around 800-1,000 troops, have been set up near Ukraine’s borders, both in Russia and more recently in Belarus. As of February 18, the United States estimated that Russia had between 169,000 and 190,000 troops in and around Ukraine.
An estimated 32,000 separatist forces were already operating in the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk – some of which were likely unrecognized Russian forces – before Putin announced he was sending troops.
Many heavy weapons stationed near Ukraine arrived as early as spring 2021.
In the new year, Russia also began moving tanks, artillery, air defense systems and combat aircraft to Belarus for joint exercises in February. This deployment has since increased.
NATO has warned that Russian forces in Belarus could reach 30,000, including Speznaz special operations forces, SU-35 fighter jets, S-400 air defense systems and Iskander missiles, which can carry nuclear weapons and have a range of 500 km.
Half of the Russian air force is now deployed near Ukraine, according to Western estimates, and Russian warships have conducted training exercises in the Black Sea. This footage released by the Russian MOD shows a Ka-27PS helicopter taking off and landing on the deck of a frigate during exercises on February 22:
These satellite image composites show the buildup of troops in Yelnia and Pogonovo over the new year:
Satellite photographs also show increased deployments in Novoozernoye, western Crimea.
US estimates 10,000 troops entered Crimea late January and early February. This image from February 18 shows deployments including armor, helicopters and field hospitals in Novoozernoye:
Satellite images taken on February 20 showed troops and equipment being moved from holding areas to what the UK Defense Secretary described as potential launch locations.
What can happen next?
Putin’s decision to formally recognize the territorial claims of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk allows him to justify a new invasion of Ukraine beyond the existing line of contact. This in turn could be the prelude to a wider conflict.
A new invasion could take place on several axes, with Russian forces trying to surround the Ukrainian army in the east of the country, although Western intelligence agencies believe that the most likely objective of a Russian offensive would be to encircle Kiev and force regime change.
Belarus is considered the easiest route of invasion to the Ukrainian capital, as it would allow Russian forces to cross the great Dnieper River into friendly territory and attack from the west.
This runs counter to Ukrainian opinion in late January that a targeted attack in the east was the most likely scenario. On January 21, Ukrainian military intelligence said that since the beginning of the month, Moscow had provided separatists in eastern Ukraine with additional tanks, self-propelled artillery, mortars and over 7,000 tons of fuel.
A map released by Ukrainian military intelligence in November showed a worst-case scenario: Russian forces crossing the Ukrainian border from the east and attacking from annexed Crimea, as well as launching an amphibious assault on Odessa with the support of Russian soldiers in Transnistria and troops sent from Belarus .
How do the military compare?
Any Russian invasion of Ukraine will pit the large, newly modernized Kremlin army against an adversary largely using older versions of the same or similar Soviet-era equipment. Russia has significant numerical advantages on land and especially in the air and at sea, even if the Ukrainians would defend their homeland.
What is the historical context?
In 2014, Putin sent troops to annex Crimea, a predominantly Russian-speaking region of Ukraine. Russia also instigated a separatist uprising in southeastern Ukraine, smuggling in soldiers and weapons to provoke a conflict that turned into a full-blown war.
A 2015 peace accord drew a dividing line and called on both sides to make concessions. Since then, low-intensity fighting has continued along the front and both sides have accused the other of violating the accord, which observers say is on the verge of collapse.
Going back further, Russia has long opposed any attempt by Ukraine to draw closer to the EU and NATO. One of Putin’s oft-repeated demands is a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO, the 30-nation alliance that has expanded eastward since the end of the Cold War.
What is the role of Nord Stream 2?
On February 22, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz halted the certification process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in response to Russia’s recognition of the two self-declared republics.
First announced in 2015, the $11bn (£8.3bn) pipeline owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom was built to transport gas from Western Siberia to Lubmin in the north- East Germany, doubling the existing capacity of the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline and keeping 26m of German homes warm at an affordable price.
Europe’s most controversial energy project, Nord Stream 2 bypasses the traditional gas transit nation of Ukraine by skirting the bed of the Baltic Sea. He has met with resistance within the European Union, the United States and Ukraine, on the grounds that he increases Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, refuses transit costs to Ukraine and makes it more vulnerable to Russian invasion.