Russia-US rift casts a long shadow

Russia's decision to begin withdrawing troops amassed near its border with Ukraine has taken the edge off the fear of a war breaking out in Europe. Western intelligence assessments had put Moscow's deployment at around 120,000 soldiers, larger than the force marshalled when Russia seized Crimea and sent troops into eastern Ukraine in 2014. Anxieties were high that the build-up, which included a vast array of military hardware, could trigger a full-scale war between Ukrainian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Addressing his nation last week, President Vladimir Putin did not say why Russia had flexed its muscles. But the show of force may have been linked to the flare-up in fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists since the start of the year.

While Mr Putin's intent remains unexpressed, analysts believe Moscow wanted to send a message to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to not risk altering the status quo in the region because of his warming ties with the Biden administration, which has taken a hard line towards Russia. The 2015 peace deal has stalled; Ukraine has not granted autonomy to the pro-Russian enclaves and Moscow has lagged in handing back to Kiev control over its border. Mr Zelensky has also queued up for Nato membership, stirring insecurities in Russia, which regards Ukraine as a buffer state. Mr Putin's speech included a warning that no one should cross the "red line" and that Russia would decide where the red line was.

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