Russia has been tightening its military grip around Ukraine since last year, amassing tens of thousands of troops, equipment and artillery on the country’s doorstep. The aggression has sparked warnings from US intelligence officials that a Russian invasion could be imminent.
In recent weeks, whirlwind diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions failed to reach a conclusion.
The escalation in the years-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine has triggered the greatest security crisis on the continent since the Cold War, raising the specter of a dangerous showdown between Western powers and Moscow.
So how did we get here? The picture on the ground is shifting rapidly, but here’s a breakdown of what we know.
What’s the situation on the border?
More than 150,000 Russian troops now encircle Ukraine
like a horseshoe on three sides, according to estimates from US and Ukrainian intelligence officials. The White House has repeatedly warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin could launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine at any moment
On February 15, Putin claimed that he was pulling some troops back
to base after completing drills and was open to a diplomatic route out of the standoff.
But the claim was met with skepticism from Western officials, followed by frustration as the US alleged that rather than drawing forces down, Russia was quietly mobilizing several thousand more. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken cautioned that America had seen no immediate sign
of a Russian military pullback, noting, “Unfortunately, there’s a difference between what Russia says and what it does.”
NATO has raised the readiness of its rapid response force, while member countries put troops on standby and deployed battalions, planes and ships to the region. The US ordered 3,000 additional soldiers
to be deployed to Poland, bringing the total number of reinforcements sent to Europe in recent weeks to about 5,000. The US says it has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.
Biden and European leaders have warned that Russia would suffer serious consequences, including sanctions, should Putin move ahead with an invasion. But that has not stopped Russia from continuing to bolster its military positions. In late 2021 and early 2022, satellite images revealed new Russian deployments of troops, tanks, artillery and other equipment cropping up in multiple locations, including near eastern Ukraine, Crimea and Belarus, where its forces were participating in joint drills with Moscow’s closest international ally.
Despite receiving funding, training and equipment from the US and other NATO member countries, experts say Ukraine would be significantly outmatched by Russia’s military
, which has been modernized under Putin’s leadership. If an all-out war broke out between the two countries, tens of thousands of civilians could die and up to 5 million made refugees, according to some estimates
What has set the stage for the conflict?
Ukraine was a cornerstone of the Soviet Union until it voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, a milestone that turned out to be a death knell for the failing superpower.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO pushed eastward, bringing into the fold most of the Eastern European nations that had been in the Communist orbit. In 2004, NATO added the former Soviet Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Four years later, it declared its intention to offer membership to Ukraine some day in the distant future — crossing a red line for Russia.
Putin has indicated he sees NATO’s expansion as an existential threat, and the prospect of Ukraine joining the Western military alliance a “hostile act.” In interviews and speeches, he has emphasized his view that Ukraine is part of Russia, culturally, linguistically and politically. While some of the mostly Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s east feel the same, a more nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking population in the west has historically supported greater integration with Europe. In an article
penned in July 2021, Putin underlined their shared history, describing Russians and Ukrainians as “one people.”
Ukrainians, who in the last three decades have sought to align more closely with Western institutions, like the European Union and NATO, have pushed back against that notion. In early 2014, mass protests in the capital Kyiv known as Euromaidan forced out a Russia-friendly president after he refused to sign an EU association agreement.
Russia responded by annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and fomenting a separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s east, which seized control of part of the Donbas region. Despite a ceasefire agreement in 2015
, the two sides have not seen a stable peace, and the front line has barely moved since. Nearly 14,000 people have died in the conflict, and there are 1.5 million people internally displaced in Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian government.
What does Putin want?
Putin has managed to ratchet up pressure on the West for months without ever firing a shot or rolling a tank across its border with Ukraine.
Moscow has been accused of engaging in hybrid warfare
against Ukraine, using cyberattacks, economic pressure and propaganda to stir up tensions. The State Department claimed in early February that Russia was prepared to fabricate “a pretext for an invasion” through a false-flag video
Still, the Kremlin’s intentions in the country have largely remained a mystery. What Putin has made clear, though, is that he views NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to Russia.
In December, Putin presented the US and NATO with a list of security demands. Chief among them is a guarantee that Ukraine will never enter NATO and that the alliance rolls back its military footprint in Eastern and Central Europe — proposals that the US and its allies have repeatedly said are non-starters.
Putin indicated he was not interested in lengthy negotiations on the topic. “It is you who must give us guarantees, and you must do it immediately, right now,” he said at his annual news conference
late last year. “Are we deploying missiles near the US border? No, we are not. It is the United States that has come to our home with its missiles and is already standing at our doorstep.”
between the West and Russia wrapped in January without any breakthroughs. The standoff left Europe’s leaders to engage in a frenzy of shuttle diplomacy, exploring whether a negotiating channel established between France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to resolve the conflict in Ukraine’s east — known as the Normandy Format talks — could provide an avenue for calming the current crisis.
In a news conference with the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on February 16, Putin repeated unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is carrying out a “genocide” against Russian speakers in the Donbas region and called for the conflict to be resolved through the Minsk peace progress
— echoing similar rhetoric that was used as a pretext for annexing Crimea.
Moscow and Kyiv remain at odds over key elements of the peace deal inked in 2015. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
recently stated that he does not like a single point of the Minsk accords, which require dialogue on local elections in two Russian-backed separatist regions in the country’s east and — although unclear in what sequence — would also restore the Ukrainian government’s control over its eastern borders. Critics say the agreement could give Moscow undue sway over Ukrainian politics.
Putin has responded in blunt terms
by saying that regardless of whether Zelensky likes the plan, it must be implemented. “Like it or don’t like it, it’s your duty, my beauty,” Putin said in a news conference alongside French President Emmanuel Macron. Zelensky, a former comedian and TV star, won a 2019 election in a landslide on promises to end the war in Donbas, but little has changed. Responding to a question about Putin’s stark, undiplomatic language, Zelensky responded in Russian, saying bluntly: “We are not his.”
What is Ukraine’s view?
President Zelensky has repeatedly downplayed the danger of a Russian invasion, noting that the threat has existed for years and has become no greater in recent months. It’s a similar mood in Kyiv, where Ukrainians have continued to go about their daily business, despite international warnings and as foreign governments withdraw their diplomatic staff from the capital.
Ukraine’s government has insisted that Moscow cannot prevent Kyiv from building closer ties with NATO, or otherwise interfere in its domestic or foreign politics. “Russia cannot stop Ukraine from getting closer with NATO and has no right to have any say in relevant discussions,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement to CNN.
Tensions between the two countries have been exacerbated by a deepening Ukrainian energy crisis that Kyiv believes Moscow has purposefully provoked. Ukraine views the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline — connecting Russian gas supplies directly to Germany — as a threat to its own security.
Nord Stream 2
is one of two pipelines that Russia has laid underwater in the Baltic Sea in addition to its traditional land-based pipeline network that runs through eastern Europe, including Ukraine. Kyiv views the pipelines across Ukraine as an element of protection against an invasion by Russia, since any military action could potentially disrupt the vital flow of gas to Europe.
It is just one of myriad challenges facing Zelensky’s government. The former actor, who played a president on Ukrainian television, has had a brutal baptism of fire into real-world politics since assuming office in 2019.
His government’s popularity has stagnated amid multiple domestic political challenges, including a recent third wave of Covid-19 infections and a struggling economy.
Many Ukrainians are unhappy that the government has not delivered on the promises that brought it into power, including cracking down on corruption in the country’s judicial system. But the more pressing concern is Zelensky’s failure so far to bring peace to the country’s east.
Amid warnings from Western leaders of a Russian invasion “any day,” the Ukrainian president declared February 16 a National Day of Unity, insisting that Ukraine was not intimidated by “any enemies” and would be able to “defend itself.”
“We are doing our best to defend our interests and have gained the diplomatic support of nearly all the leaders of the civilized world,” Zelensky said in a video address, adding, “The security of Europe and the whole continent depends on Ukraine and our army.”
CNN’s Matthew Chance and Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report.