Russian troops amass on Ukraine’s eastern border, but can Zelenskiy secure NATO membership?

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The increased military activity on Russia’s western borders have caused concerns in Ukraine as well as internationally, raising fears of a repeat of the 2014 military conflict in which large strategic swathes of Ukrainian territory were de facto annexed by Russia. Ukrainian government representatives have held emergency talks with world leaders regarding the situation on their borders, fearing that this might not be a mere show of force or provocation, but a preparation for invasion.

The forces amassed in Crimea and on Ukraine’s eastern borders are reportedly numbering around 25,000 troops, consisting of 28 battalions. They are equipped with tanks, armored vehicles and heavy artillery. In response, Ukraine reinforced its units stationed in the region and has gone on a diplomatic offensive aiming to gain support and reassurances from Western European allies as well as the United States.

The situation escalated after an incident on March 26, in which four Ukrainian servicemen were killed after Russian-backed separatists shelled their positions near the settlement of Shuma in the Donetsk region. According to a statement released by the separatists though, the soldiers were killed during an explosion on a minefield.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has spoken to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urging the alliance to put his country on a pathway to membership in the organization, which it sees as the only guarantor of its security in view of the threat from Russia. The spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin has, on the other hand, warned that if NATO troops were to reinforce Ukrainian forces in the region, Russia would in turn build up its own presence near Ukraine’s eastern flanks.

While Russia’s real intentions with the military build-up in the region are still unclear, it is questionable whether NATO or the US alone would be willing to play an active and direct role in a possible armed conflict. Ties between the Kremlin and the White House have worsened in recent weeks, especially after US President Joe Biden labeled Vladimir Putin a “killer” during a TV interview. The Ukrainian government itself has also lost a considerable amount of goodwill from leaders of neighboring countries, who could possibly mediate between those involved in the recent escalation.

There are currently several serious obstacles blocking Ukraine’s path to a NATO membership.  As Remix News reported earlier, the current Hungarian government has declared its intention to block any accession talks for Ukraine as long as grievances against the Hungarian minority in the country are resolved. Ukraine has in recent years introduced laws that seriously restrict the use of minority languages in the country, hindering the cultural life and education of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles, Russians and Hungarians. The government of Zelenskiy has given the green-light to provocations by the country’s secret services and attacks by ultra-nationalist groups, including arson and death threat against minority leaders.

Recently, Polish and Israeli leaders have also protested against the naming of a new Ukrainian stadium by Nazi-linked wartime leader Stepan Bandera, who has been implicated in mass-atrocities against Poles and Jews.

Although leaders from across the world, such as the UK’s Boris Johnson and Canada’s Justin Trudeau have reassured Zelenskiy of their solidarity and concern for the territorial integrity of the country, NATO officials have reminded him of the need for deep political and military reforms before a membership action plan could be activated, calling for a “focus on domestic reforms” and for a need to “develop its defense capabilities in accordance with NATO standards”.

Since 2014, over 13,000 people have been killed in the ongoing conflict. With Russia continuing to posture on their eastern borders, it remains to be seen whether the gravity of the situation will force Ukraine’s leaders to change course and seek a better relationship with their neighbors, or if they will continue antagonizing their former regional partners with oppressive policies against their minorities. For now, it appears that one of the greatest obstacles to Ukraine’s security is their leaders’ inability to build effective alliances abroad, as well as their lack of success in uniting the country’s diverse population under one vision.

Title image:  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy shakes hands with a soldier as he visits the war-hit Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, April 8, 2021. Ukraine’s president is visiting the area of conflict in his country’s east amid an escalation of tensions that has raised fears of a resumption of large-scale hostilities. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

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