Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula ignited the tensest standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War. The region has been deadlocked ever since, with years of conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. By mid-November, the U.S. was warning European allies that Russia may be preparing to invade Ukraine, massing troops near its neighbor’s border in a re-run of a crisis that erupted in April.

1. What’s sparked the flare up?

The U.S. began raising the alarm with European Union counterparts about a buildup of Russian forces near the border with Ukraine, later sharing intelligence showing possible plans for a three-pronged invasion from Crimea, Russia and via Belarus involving as many as 100,000 troops. Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency chief told the Military Times that a Russian attack could come by the end of January or early February. The Kremlin denied any intention to attack Ukraine, saying Russian troop movements on its territory were an internal matter. It accused the U.S. and NATO allies of stoking tensions with naval exercises in the Black Sea close to Russia’s border.

2. Haven’t we been here before?

Yes. Russia deployed troops to Crimea and its border with Ukraine in late March and early April amid a spike in fighting between the Ukrainian army and the Moscow-backed insurgents. Tensions subsided after U.S. President Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and offered a summit meeting that took place in Geneva in June. That prompted speculation Putin had used the crisis as a means to gain Biden’s attention amid reports the new U.S. leadership was focused primarily on China. After news of the latest buildup emerged, Putin said in a November speech that the U.S. and its allies were failing to take Russia’s “red lines” seriously and that Moscow needed “long-term security guarantees.” He accused NATO of provoking greater tensions by supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine and said the military alliance was waging a pressure campaign against him. Ukraine’s defense minister said on a November visit to Washington that he’d asked the Pentagon for more help defending its airspace and coast.

3. Why is all of this still a problem?

A 2015 truce accord ended the bloodiest fighting of the seven-year conflict, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives. But the terms have never been fully met and a lasting resolution remains elusive. The major stumbling block cuts to the core of the two former allies’ entire falling out: whether Ukraine leans eastward or westward. Protesters demanded a break from the nation’s Soviet past when they ousted Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Putin justified his subsequent annexation of Crimea and support for the fighters in eastern Ukraine by saying he must defend Russian-speakers, wherever they are. Fearing encroachment into his backyard, he continues to oppose long-term goals now enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution -- including EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership. Putin also points to roots between Ukraine and Russia that date back to the ninth century, when a collection of tribes founded Kievan Rus around modern-day Kyiv.

4. What’s been the sticking point?

Despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy coming to power pledging to bring lasting peace, in reality he has very little room to maneuver. The Kremlin wants its neighbor’s restive regions to gain autonomy that gives them an effective veto over major shifts in Ukraine’s orientation -- namely the Western integration backed by a sizable majority of its 42 million population. But granting the regions such powers would be tantamount to political suicide for Zelenskiy, who’s already struggling to tame the pandemic and meet other promises, such as curbing corruption. Putin, meanwhile, has repeatedly made clear he regards Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO as an existential threat and sees no reason to compromise now after weathering years of pressure from the U.S. and Europe over this issue. That’s why repeated diplomatic efforts by Germany and France to hammer out a resolution have failed.

5. What’s the fear?

If U.S. warnings of an invasion are borne out, it would plunge the West and Russia into the worst confrontation since the Cold War ended. The Kremlin insists the accusations are a “targeted information campaign” against Russia and accuses Ukraine of preparing to use force against the separatist regions. Ukraine’s foreign minister denied that on Twitter, saying it was “devoted to seeking political and diplomatic solutions.” A Russian intervention on this scale to annexe territory or even to overthrow the government in Kyiv would represent the most serious challenge to European security in decades, dwarfing the crisis triggered by Putin’s takeover of Crimea and the kind of unrestrained fighting that characterized the eastern Ukrainian conflict’s earlier days. Russia’s five-day war with Georgia, another former Soviet republic that turned its gaze to the West, began in a similar fashion in 2008 and ended in effective annexation of rebel areas by Moscow. Kremlin officials have been drawing parallels with that conflict in the latest crisis. 

6. What can the West do about it?

France warned of “extremely grave consequences” if Russia did invade. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it would be “a serious mistake” for Russia to repeat the actions of 2014. The West could be expected to impose fresh sanctions, perhaps targeting banks and sales of Russian state debt, and also to step up weapons sales to Ukraine to help its military defend against attack. The U.S., EU and U.K. have in recent years imposed several rounds of sanctions targeting Russian individuals, as well as the country’s energy and banking sectors. While Russia downplays their impact, its economy has stagnated and its officials have pushed to have the punishments revoked. Other potential measures include targeting the billionaires who’ve grown rich under Putin’s rule, or making further efforts to derail the new Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that’s currently awaiting approval by regulators. Militarily, attempts by Ukraine to win Western backing for NATO membership have so far received only a lukewarm response.

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