Vladimir Putin has sent some 94,000 troops to the Ukrainian border sparking fears of an assault that would far surpass the capture of Crimea in 2014.
Russia claimed today that Ukraine had sent half its standing army, or 125,000 troops, to the Donbass region where government forces have been battling Russian-backed separatists for the last eight years.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told counterparts at a NATO summit in Latvia he was ‘confident’ this could be prevented using a ‘three pronged approach’: communications with Moscow, threat of sanctions, and military backing for Kiev.
Fears deepened today as Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko told a Russian propaganda outlet: ‘I will be doing everything for Ukraine to become ours. It is our Ukraine, people there are our people.’
Putin claims that his forces are simply reacting to a buildup of military on the Russian border, and a Kremlin spokesman today claimed that Ukraine had sent half its army, or 125,000 troops, to the frontier.
A tank taking part in NATO exercises in Adazi, Lativa, on Monday
A Ukrainian solider sips a cup of coffee in his dugout on the frontline of the rebel-held territory of Donetsk on Sunday
A map shared with Military Times and replicated above shows how Ukrainian intelligence is bracing for a bloody and ferocious invasion that could see swathes of Ukraine captured in an assault which would dwarf the annexation of the Crimea in 2014
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday called for direct negotiations with Russia to end an eight-year war with pro-Russian separatists in his country’s east.
‘We must tell the truth that we will not be able to end the war without direct talks with Russia,’ Zelensky said during an annual address to lawmakers.
US diplomatic chief Antony Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Stockholm on Thursday to address the crisis.
The US Secretary of State will hold talks with Lavrov on the sidelines of a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) after meeting Ukraine’s foreign minister Kuleba.
Russian battalions have been dispatched around Ukraine on three sides: from the Black Sea in the south, Russia to the east, and along the 700-mile northern border it shares with Belarus.
Lukashenko had already made clear he is ready to station Russian nuclear weapons in his territory – close to three EU and NATO countries, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
But in an interview with Russian TV, he went further, declaring: ‘I will never support the current nationalistic frenzy in Ukraine.
‘I will be doing everything for Ukraine to become ours.
‘Ukraine is ours, the people there are ours.
‘This is not emotions, but my firm belief.
‘Therefore if we, God forbid, will face, should Russia face aggression from Ukraine, we will act in the tightest bond possible – legal, economic, political – on the Russian side.’
Lukashenko, whose economy and power is entirely dependent on Putin, has been accused of ‘weaponising’ migrants by deploying his security forces to assist Iraqi Kurds and others to breakthrough the EU border into Poland in what has been called a ‘hybrid war.’
Lukashenko’s vow to give full military support to Putin came as Russia announced ‘large scale’ exercises involving ‘more than 10,000 troops’ in its Southern Military District, according to defence minister TV channel Zvezda.
Amid high tension, warplanes from Russia and landlocked Belarus were seen on joint patrol in Su-30SM multirole fighters of Belarusian frontiers with NATO.
‘About one-third of the units of all the formations and military units of the district will start winter training in the field,’ said the military press office.
It specified that the exercises would be in Volgograd and Ingushetia, neither close to Ukraine.
Separately, Russian TV and social media went on the attack against UK foreign secretary Liz Truss accusing her of seeking to emulate former Tory premier Margaret Thatcher who in 1976 was christened the ‘Iron Lady’ by Moscow.
Rossiya 1’s prime time news mocking Truss for her tank ride in Estonia ahead of the NATO summit in Latvian capital Riga.
‘For some reason the foreign minister of Britain – which has already left the EU – decided to show up on the European Union’s easternmost border,’ said the report.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko attend a news conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia September 9
Liz Truss visits British troops during a NATO exercise in Estonia
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss visits British troops on deployment to Estonia on Monday
‘Ahead of the summit, Liz Truss visited British troops placed nearby, in Estonia.
‘There the minister took a tank ride.’
The media then ‘rushed to compare Liz Truss with Margaret Thatcher – and yet again talked about the minister possibly replacing Boris Johnson, who’s losing popularity, as Conservative leader.’
Another TV presenter Olga Skabeeva – nicknamed the ‘Iron Doll of Putin TV’ – posted that Truss was ‘warning Russia against being aggressive towards Ukraine.
‘Yet herself she rides a tank in Estonia close to the Russia border.
‘Some kind of freak show.’
TV host Vladimir Solovyov added: ‘Imagine for a second that (Russian Foreign Minister) Sergei Lavrov would ride a tank, say, inf Belarus near the Polish border.
‘What would be the reaction of the entire world community?
‘British Foreign Minister Liz Truss, on the other hand, rode a tank in Estonia during her visit to the Baltics.
‘What is that supposed to mean? Is this the Foreign Office?
‘Is this considered adequate?’
Earlier the Moscow foreign ministry reacted to the Truss warning that ‘any action by Russia to undermine the freedom and democracy that our partners enjoy would be a strategic mistake’.
Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: ‘We do not encroach on strategic mistakes – this is the historical prerogative of Britain.’
A Spanish tank taking part in NATO’s annual ‘Winter Shield’ military exercise in Adazi, Lativa on Monday
An armoured track vehicle taking part in the NATO annual military exercise ‘Winter Shield’ in Adazi, Latvia, on Monday
A Latvian soldier jumps off a military vehicle during the NATO annual military exercise
Putin had issued a blunt warning to the West on Tuesday.
He expressed concern that NATO could use the Ukrainian territory to deploy missiles capable of reaching Russia’s command centresa matter of minutes.
‘The emergence of such threats represents a ‘red line’ for us,’ he said.
‘I hope that common sense and responsibility for their own countries and the global community will eventually prevail.’
Russian UN representative Dmitry Polyansky warned of Russian anger over the West’s line on pro-Putin rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
He said ‘this devastating path’ can lead to ‘some very dangerous developments’.