After months of military buildup and tension on the Ukrainian border, Russia is increasing pressure on its former Soviet neighbor, threatening to destabilize Europe and draw in the United States.

Russia has tightened its military grip on Ukraine since last year, mustering tens of thousands of troops, equipment and artillery on the country’s doorstep. The assault triggered warnings from US intelligence officials that a Russian invasion could be imminent.

In recent weeks, whirlwind diplomatic efforts to ease tensions have come to nothing.

Moscow has repeatedly denied it was planning an assault, insisting instead that NATO support for Ukraine posed a growing threat to Russia’s western flank. An escalation in shelling in eastern Ukraine and the explosion of a vehicle in separatist-held Donbass have raised fears that Moscow could stir up violence to justify an invasion.

The escalation of the years-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine has sparked the biggest security crisis on the continent since the Cold War, raising the specter of a dangerous confrontation between Western powers and Moscow.

So how did we get here? The picture on the pitch is changing rapidly, but here’s a breakdown of what we know.

What set the stage for the conflict?

Ukraine was a cornerstone of the Soviet Union until it voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, a step that proved to be the 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 of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Four years later, he declared his intention to offer membership to Ukraine some day in the distant future, crossing a red line for Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he views NATO expansion as an existential threat and the prospect of Ukraine joining the Western military alliance as a “hostile act”. In interviews and speeches, he emphasized his view that Ukraine is part of Russia, culturally, linguistically and politically. While part of the majority Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine feels the same way, a more nationalistic and Ukrainian-speaking population in the west has always supported greater integration with Europe. In an article written in July 2021, Putin highlighted their shared history, describing Russians and Ukrainians as “one people”.

Ukrainians, who over the past three decades have sought to align themselves more closely with Western institutions, such as the European Union and NATO, have pushed back against that idea. In early 2014, mass protests in the capital Kyiv ousted a pro-Russian president after he refused to sign an association agreement with the EU.

Russia responded by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and fomenting a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, which took control of part of the Donbass region. Despite a ceasefire agreement in 2015, the two sides have not enjoyed 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 internally displaced people in Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian government.

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