The Prime Minister has warned that the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is at its “most dangerous moment” ahead of Russia-Belarus military exercises set to last 10 days.
Tensions between Russia and the West are at their highest point since the cold war, as 100,000 Russian troops are positioned along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian officials deny any plans to invade Ukraine.
In 2014 separatist groups in Crimea, then part of Ukraine, seized control of the region, declared it a sovereign entity and held a referendum on merging with Russia. According to official counts 96.7% of voters, with a turnout of 83.1%, voted for Crimea to merge with Russia. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution declaring the vote illegal and invalid and accusing Russia of illegally annexing Crimea. Various sanctions were placed on Russia in the wake of the annexation.
Since 2014 the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has been in a constant state of conflict with Russian backed separatist groups attempting to secede from Ukraine. At least 14,000 people are believed to have been killed in the conflict.
Russia denies that it is at fault for the rising tensions, accusing the West of breaking promises made during the dissolution of the Soviet Union that NATO would not expand its membership eastwards. NATO denies that this promise was ever made, and it certainly doesn’t appear to be in any ratified treaty. However, some claim that it was a verbal promise made by American politician James Baker, who was Secretary of State at the time.
In an interview in 2014, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was Chairman of the Soviet Union at the time of the alleged promise, said:
“The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. … Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement was made in that context… Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled.”
However, Gorbachev did say that NATO enlargement went against the spirit of the agreement.
Putin has demanded that NATO agrees to expand no further east than it has already, and to explicitly prohibit Ukraine from becoming a NATO member. NATO has refused these terms.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss met with her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on Thursday to discuss the crisis. Liz Truss urged Russia to “abandon cold war rhetoric” and warned that any incursion would have “massive consequences and carry severe costs”. Lavrov said that talking to Truss was like “speaking to a deaf person who listens but cannot hear”. Lavrov also accused British politicians of using the situation in Ukraine to boost their domestic ratings.
Russia and Belarus are set to conduct an array of joint military exercises over the next 10 days. The US has said that this is an escalation and some have voiced fears that it could be used as cover for an invasion. Russian officials say they have the right to move troops across their territory as they see fit, and to move troops into allied nations with their permission. Belarus and Russia are both part of the CSTO, a body nearly identical in form and purpose to NATO, but composed of former Soviet states. Sergei Lavrov has stated that the Russian troops involved in the exercises will return to their respective bases once the exercises are complete.
Also on Thursday, Boris Johnson gave a news conference with Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, where he said:
“[This is] the most dangerous moment in what is the biggest security crisis that Europe has faced in decades.”
Johnson said that 1,000 more UK troops will be put on standby to help its NATO allies in the event of a humanitarian crisis. Johnson is set to meet with the Polish prime minister later today.
On Monday French President Emmanuel Macron talked with Vladimir Putin, claiming to have: “secured an assurance there would be no deterioration or escalation” of the conflict, although this now seems to have been somewhat naively optimistic. Nonetheless, Putin said that which was discussed with Macron “could form the basis of further joint steps”.
Also on Monday, US President Joe Biden met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in which Biden threatened to shut down the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline if Russia continued to escalate the situation in Ukraine. The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline is an important pipeline for transporting gas between Russia and Germany.
Later today, Russian, French, Ukrainian and German officials will meet to discuss the crisis. The Minsk agreement, the accord which heralded the defusing of tensions in 2014, was drawn up and agreed to by the above nations, with some hoping that a shift of focus back towards the Minsk agreement may be able to stop tensions escalating further.