With more than 106,000 Russian troops stationed near the Ukrainian border, fears that Vladimir Putin intends to invade his western neighbor continue to linger.
The standoff comes eight years after Russia annexed Crimea and sparked fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where a low-level conflict that has since killed more than 14,000 people is still rumbling on between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists.
Although the West hopes to alleviate tensions and avert the prospect of bloody war in Eastern Europe, diplomatic talks between the Kremlin and the Nato allies have made no ground so far and, as things stand, it is far from clear what will happen next.
The North Atlantic military alliance has said it is sending additional ships and fighter jets to deployments in neighboring eastern states like Poland and Lithuania while the US and UK have withdrawn diplomats’ families from Ukraine as a precaution in the event that war should erupt.
Moscow has meanwhile moved around 30,000 troops and materiel into neighboring Belarus for military drills while positioning its warships in the Black Sea, potentially enabling it to attack from the north, east and south all at once.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, has flown to Europe in recent weeks in a bid to defuse the situation, urging Russia to avoid a return to Cold War-era hostilities as he held talks with his Russian counterparts, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and other European leaders.
UK foreign secretary Liz Truss and French president Emmanuel Macron have since visited Moscow on the same mission.
Meanwhile in Washington, DC, US president Joe Biden has met with German chancellor Olaf Scholz to talk strategy, with the pair threatening Russia that its Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline running to Germany under the Baltic Sea will be shut down in the event of incursions intoUkraine.
Should President Putin go ahead and make that “gigantic mistake”, the western allies will be expected to take other measures, from backing Ukraine with further military resources to impose a raft of tough economic sanctions.
But analysts believe that such threats are unlikely to stop the Kremlin, which has worked in recent years to “sanction-proof” the Russian economy.
President Putin is believed to view the current standoff as the first step towards correcting what he regards as Nato’s encroachment into countries like Ukraine that were previously ruled by the Soviet Union prior to its collapse in 1989.
With polls showing that a large majority of Ukrainians would like their country to become a member of the military alliance, Moscow wants the west to promise that Ukraine will never join Nato, something the defensive alliance has categorically ruled out.
President Putin laid out his own thoughts on Ukraine and its relationship with Russia in a 5,000-word essay published last summer.
Entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, the treatise was “one short step of a declaration of war”, in the opinion of Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum.
The Russian president reiterated his claim that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, suggesting that his homeland was “robbed” when Ukraine won its independence from the USSR.
Elsewhere in the essay, he offered more overt threats towards Kyiv, declaring: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
A matter of months later, he dispatched his tens of thousands of troops to the border.
All told, there are currently an estimated 127,000 Russian personnel in position – 21,000 of whom are part of sea and air divisions – according to the Ukrainian defense ministry, not counting the additional 30,000 in Belarus.
The UK and the US have recently given Ukraine military support, with the former flying anti-tank weapons to the country and stationing 350 soldiers in Poland, with another 1,000 on standby.
However, such gestures are likely to provide cold comfort to Kyiv if it is to be faced with the threat of a Russian invasion, given the significant gulf in military strength between the two would-be combatants.
While Ukraine has under 250,000 troops and is looking to add a further 130,000 to its ranks, Russia has almost a million soldiers at its disposal. It also much more sophisticated and abundant military hardware.
Speaking of the disparity between the two armies, Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, said it is unfortunate that his country is not part of Nato.
“We are not part of this family and we are facing the biggest army in Europe by ourselves,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly denied that Russia intends to invade and has countered that it is Western weapons being delivered to Ukraine, the country’s own military manoeuvres and Nato aircraft flights overhead that are really to blame for the rising tensions.
But, perhaps as a prelude to invasion, more than a dozen Ukrainian government websites were hacked in January. The country’s foreign ministry said it was too early to say who was to blame but added pointedly that “there is a long record of Russian cyberassaults against Ukraine”.
The hackers left an ominous message on the websites they had disabled. “Ukrainian! All your personal data was uploaded to the public network. All data on the computer is destroyed, it is impossible to restore it,” it read.
“All information about you has become public, be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future,” the message added.