A Russian military buildup near Ukraine has raised fears in Kyiv and the West that Moscow might invade its neighbor.
The tensions over Ukraine come amid a new low in relations between Russia and NATO, which once were so warm that President Vladimir Putin even floated the prospect of his country joining the military alliance.
Russia-NATO ties began to worsen in 2002 after Washington opted out of a Cold-War-era treaty, banning defenses against ballistic missiles, a move Moscow saw as a potential threat to its nuclear deterrent.
The U.S. war in Iraq in 2003 drew strong criticism from Moscow and further strained relations. Russia grumbled further when Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO in 2004.
Tensions between the West and Russia mounted in 2004 over the Orange Revolution protests in Ukraine that forced the cancellation of a fraud-tinged election victory of a Kremlin-backed presidential candidate. The Kremlin viewed those protests and the earlier ouster of an unpopular leader in the former Soviet republic of Georgia as Western-inspired meddling in what it considered Russia’s backyard.
In a watershed speech at a security conference in Munich, Germany, in 2007, Putin sharply criticized U.S. moves around the world, saying Washington “has overstepped its national borders in every way,” and called NATO’s eastward expansion “a serious provocation.”
In 2014, Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power by mass demonstrations that broke out when he decided to ditch an agreement with the European Union, in favor of closer ties with Moscow.
Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as the Donbas. The conflict, now in its eighth year, has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to seek a political settlement have failed. Moscow denies any involvement, saying any Russians involved in the fighting are volunteers joining the separatists.
The U.S. and its allies then slapped Moscow with sanctions, and NATO halted all practical cooperation with Moscow, bolstering its forces near Russia. The Kremlin denounced those deployments and drills near its borders as a security threat.
In October, Russia suspended its mission at NATO and ordered the closure of the alliance’s office in Moscow after NATO withdrew the accreditation of eight Russian officials to its Brussels headquarters over their alleged ties to Russian intelligence.
Tensions soared last month amid the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine. Putin has denied planning such an attack but sought a Western pledge that NATO wouldn’t incorporate Ukraine into the alliance or deploy its forces there — an expansion he described as a “red line” for Moscow.
In a video call last week, U.S. President Joe Biden warned Putin of “severe consequences” if Russia invades Ukraine, but promised to hold consultations to address Russian concerns.
Russia wants the West to make a legal pledge not to deploy forces and weapons to Ukraine, and the Russian Foreign Ministry demanded last week that NATO rescind its 2008 pledge to accept Ukraine and Georgia as members.
The U.S. and other NATO allies rejected Russia’s demands. “NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is going to be decided by the 30 NATO allies and Ukraine, no one else,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week.
Putin countered NATO’s argument by saying that while Ukraine is free to decide its security arrangements, those shouldn’t threaten Russia.
“Every country certainly has the right to choose the most acceptable way of ensuring its security, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t infringe on the interests and undermine security of other countries, in this case Russia,” Putin said. “Security must be global and equally cover everyone.”