What the heck is going on between Russia and Ukraine? Tensions have ratcheted up since Russia amassed 130 000 troops at the Ukrainian border late last year, sparking alarm over Europe’s bloodiest conflict in decades. The United States warned last week that an “invasion could begin at any time”.

Things seemed to simmer down on Tuesday when Russia said it planned “to partially pull back troops” but the US and UK said they hadn’t seen any such de-escalation. So we’re still on high alert. 

Some background: 

In 2014 Russia annexed (read: stole) Crimea from Ukraine, after Ukraine had ousted its pro-Russian president. The countries have since been at war. Now, Ukraine is moving towards joining key Western institutions such as the EU and NATO, a military alliance of more than 30 Western countries. Although membership is a long way off, if it ever does happen Ukraine’s power would be seriously bolstered, threatening Russia in the process. 

Russia has repeatedly said it has no intention of attacking Ukraine but those troops on the border suggest otherwise. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps the arch-nemesis of the West, has threatened to unleash Russian troops should Ukraine join NATO. Just last week, Putin harrowingly said Ukraine joining NATO may lead to a nuclear war – casually adding that while he knows Russia may not win a world war, there would be major casualties. 😱 

Many Western governments have called on their citizens to leave Ukraine. The US and its NATO allies have 8500 combat-ready troops on alert and are sending 3000 extra soldiers to neighbouring countries such as Germany and Poland. Other plans by the West to avoid war include economic sanctions that would cripple Russia’s economy: the biggest blow would be cutting Russia’s access to the International Swift Payment System, which would bring all transactions to the country to a standstill.

As Vox puts it: “The conflict is about the future of Ukraine. But Ukraine is also a larger stage for Russia to try to reassert its influence in Europe and the world, and for Putin to cement his legacy. These are no small things for Putin, and he may decide that the only way to achieve them is to launch another incursion into Ukraine — an act that, at its most aggressive, could lead to tens of thousands of civilian deaths, a European refugee crisis, and a response from Western allies that includes tough sanctions affecting the global economy.”

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 17 February 2022. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.