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By Wall Street Journal
MOSCOW—The recent deployment of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border and Moscow’s indication that it could intervene in the event of a full-scale war in eastern Ukraine are dimming hopes for a peaceful resolution of the conflict that has festered for seven years and cost thousands of lives.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that Russia had the right to move its forces across its territory at its discretion and was simply taking precautions given the “dangerous, explosive region at its borders” with eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Peskov warned that the situation on the contact line was extremely unstable and said “the dynamics…create the danger of a resumption of full-scale hostilities.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of resuming “dangerous provocative actions” in its eastern Donbas region, in a call Friday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a readout from the Kremlin.
Tensions have continued to mount between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists following a recent escalation of fighting along the demarcation line inside Ukraine, where Kyiv said several of its soldiers were killed last week.
Dmitry Kozak, deputy chief of staff of Russia’s Presidential Executive Office, warned on Thursday that Moscow would be forced to defend its citizens living in eastern Ukraine in the event of all-out war, and said this would be “the beginning of the end for Ukraine.”
At least 640,000 residents of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region have Russian passports, according to Russian data.
Moscow has been pushing for Ukraine to implement a peace deal brokered by France and Germany in Minsk, Belarus, in 2014 and 2015, which calls for local elections in Donbas, the withdrawal of foreign-armed troops, and returning the border with Russia to Ukrainian control, among other points.
The government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has balked over the granting of more autonomy to separatist-held territory, fearing it would give Moscow the opportunity to gain a stronger foothold in the region.
“A diplomatic solution…requires a radical change in the position of the Kyiv authorities,” said Konstantin Sivkov, a Moscow-based military analyst. “If the Kyiv authorities agree to the recognition of the federal structure of Ukraine, if the authorities agree to the equal status of the Russian language in Ukraine along with the Ukrainian language, then the whole problem in [Donbas] will be removed,” he said.
But the recent escalation of violence, Russia’s troop buildup and the increase in Moscow’s menacing rhetoric has derailed chances for a diplomatic settlement, analysts said.
“The cease-fire is over…and President Zelensky’s strategy of negotiating something with Moscow is generally over,” said Mykola Kapitonenko, an associate professor at the Institute of International Relations in Kyiv and consultant to Ukraine’s parliamentary committee on foreign affairs.
Russia sees “the Minsk process is in a deadlock and there is no hope that there will be any type of compromise that they were hoping for a year ago, so they have to do something to improve their negotiating position and basically the only thing they have left is military power,” Mr. Kapitonenko said.
“Learning from previous experience, Ukraine should get ready for the worst-case scenario.”
It is clear that Ukraine would prefer to find diplomatic solution, but perhaps the Ukrainian president’s biggest mistake was that “he was too naive by thinking that he could reach a good deal with Putin and will do it on Ukrainian terms,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a think tank in Kyiv.
The U.S. and European leaders have raised the alarm over the amassing of Moscow’s forces on the Ukrainian border. Washington expressed concern that “Russia now has more troops on the border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014,” according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula that year and threw its support behind the separatists in the country’s east.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on Mr. Putin to pull his troops back.
“Playing with muscles in the form of military exercises and possible provocations along the border is a traditional Russian affair,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on his Telegram messaging channel last week. “It seeks to create an atmosphere of threat and, at the same time, of pressure during the cease-fire negotiations.”
Mr. Zelensky has argued that accelerating Ukraine’s path to membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would help prevent deeper conflict with Russia.
But Russian officials and pro-Kremlin analysts say NATO’s involvement would raise the ante and diverge from diffusing the tensions.
“If the United States of America and NATO begin to support Ukraine and strike at the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Russia will certainly enter a military conflict,” Mr. Sivkov, the military analyst said.