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Zelensky visits the troops in Donbas. Photo: Presidency of Ukraine Handout via Getty Images

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 it matters: U.S. European Command went into high alert in light of the Russian movements, which some experts speculated could presage an active Russian military intervention in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, where Ukraine has been fighting pro-Russian separatists for seven years.

The backstory: Kremlin hopes that Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky would cut a peace deal on Russia's terms have faded, leaving a diplomatic deadlock.

  • Direct intervention in the Donbas could give Putin leverage, bolster his standing ahead of parliamentary elections this year, and potentially help secure a much-needed water source for occupied Crimea.
  • But the costs of such a war likely exceed any benefits for Moscow, removing all plausible deniability from Russia's war in Ukraine and risking a strong Western response.

The other side: Zelensky tweeted Thursday that he was heading to the Donbas because a Ukrainian soldier had been killed overnight and he wanted "to be with our soldiers in the tough times."

  • The crisis has sparked a burst of patriot fervor and a strong show of support from Washington, both of which have strengthened the embattled Ukrainian president, notes Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow.
  • President Biden and virtually his entire top 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 (and not Zelensky) during the crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel Thursday "demanded" in a call with Putin that "this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation," her office said.

What to watch: Russian officials and pundits have been warning that Russia's hand might be forced if separatists in Donbas are slaughtered by Ukrainian troops. There's no clear factual basis for such fears, but they could provide a pretext for intervention.

The bottom line: The flare-up is a reminder that the war in Ukraine is far from over and could deepen dramatically, now or some day down the line.

Go deeper

Updated 31 mins ago - World

Ukraine crisis: Blinken to visit Kyiv, then meet Russian foreign minister

Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, following a trip to Kyiv to reinforce U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of a possible Russian invasion, according to a senior U.S. official.

Why it matters: The meeting with Lavrov suggests a diplomatic resolution to the crisis may still be on the table, despite the collapse of security talks between Russia and the West last week.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Transplants rebound from COVID lull — CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer — Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines.
  2. Vaccines: Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — America's vaccination drive runs out of gas.
  3. Politics: Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Mark Milley tests positive for COVID-19 — Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health."
  4. States: America struggles to keep schools open — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers.
  5. World: Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — French parliament passes COVID vaccine passport legislation.
  6. Variant tracker

Mayors feel powerless to reduce homelessness

Expand chart
Recreated from 2021 Menino Survey of Mayors; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

America's mayors know their constituents hold them accountable for homelessness, but many don't feel they have the tools or power to fix things, a brand new survey says.

Why it matters: While homelessness has become more acute during the pandemic, city leaders say they lack the money, staff or political support needed to make a meaningful difference.