The simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine has threatened to boil over the past few days, with Russia massing troops near the border and pro-Kremlin media raising the specter of war.

Why is this important: The US European command has gone on high alert in light of Russian movements, which some experts say could portend active Russian military intervention in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where Ukraine is fighting. pro-Russian separatists for seven years.

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The backstory: The Kremlin hopes that Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky would reach a peace deal on the terms Russia has vanished, leaving a diplomatic deadlock.

  • Direct intervention in the Donbass could give Putin leverage, strengthen his position ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections, and potentially help secure a essential water source for occupied Crimea.

  • But the costs of such a war likely outweigh any benefits to Moscow, removing any plausible deniability of Russia’s war in Ukraine and risking a strong Western response.

The other side: Zelensky tweeted Thursday that he was heading for Donbass because a Ukrainian soldier had been killed overnight and wanted “to be with our soldiers in difficult times”.

  • The crisis sparked an explosion of patriotic fervor and a strong show of support from Washington, both of which strengthened the besieged Ukrainian president, Remarks Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow.

  • President Biden and virtually his entire senior team called their Ukrainian counterparts over the past week, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Zelensky on Tuesday.

  • While Kiev was dismayed when the French and German leaders met with Putin (not Zelensky) during the crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday “demanded” in a call with Putin that “this accumulation be unwound in order to defuse the crisis. situation,” his office said.

What to watch: Russian officials and experts having warned that Russia’s hand could be forced if the Donbass separatists were slaughtered by Ukrainian troops. There is no clear factual basis for such fears, but they could provide a pretext for intervention.

The bottom line: The outbreak is a reminder that the war in Ukraine is far from over and could worsen dramatically now or a day later.

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