Ukraine has warned Russia that it will bear ‘very painful’ consequences if it invades as Vladimir Putin continues to mass his forces in eastern Europe.
Dmytro Kuleba, the country’s foreign minister, added that Moscow is ‘openly’ threatening Ukraine with ‘destruction’ by stationing 80,000 troops along its border – with more arriving every day.
He issued the warning following a meeting with the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – NATO allies in the region – saying ‘the four of us condemn the exacerbation of the situation by Russia.’
‘The world is on the side of Ukraine and international law, and this is one of the elements of restraining Russia from reckless actions,’ he added.
He spoke as Joe Biden prepares to slap sanctions on Russia in response to bounties put on American troops in Afghanistan, attempts to interfere in US elections, and the SolarWinds cyber attack of federal government data which US intelligence services blame on Moscow.
Sanctions are likely to include the expulsion of 10 Russians from the US including diplomats, extending a ban on US banks trading Russian sovereign debt, and targeted measures against 30 Russian entities, US media reported, saying the move could happen as soon as today.
In response, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that Mosow will respond in kind to any ‘illegal’ sanctions, adding that it ‘will not help’ the prospect of talks between Biden and Putin.
He added that it is ‘too early’ to talk about de-escalating tensions along the Ukraine border despite Biden’s calls for restraint earlier in the week.
Ukraine fears more than 100,000 Russian troops will be in place on its borders, ready to invade, by the end of the month
Ukrainian troops man trenches in the eastern Donbas region as the country’s foreign minister warns Moscow it will bear ‘very painful consequences’ if it invades
Ukrainian troops, which have been fighting a years-long conflict with Russian-backed separatists, are now facing the prospect of a Russian army crossing the border as Putin builds his forces
Ukrainian servicemen keep watch at a position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Gorlivka, Donetsk
A Ukrainian soldier has a smoke break inside a trench in the Donetsk region close to the frontlines with Russian-backed separatists, where fighting has been ongoing for years
In fact, leaked Ukrainian intelligence suggests Russia could increase troop numbers even further to 110,000 alongside 7,000 tanks, the largest force massed in the region since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine’s defence minister has also warned a meeting of NATO leaders that Russia could be preparing to move nukes into Crimea, a hugely provocative move that would drag the region closer to all-out war.
Biden has also offered to hold a summit with Putin in an attempt to cool relations, a move which has been hailed in Moscow as evidence that the US had blinked first in the standoff.
‘It was a very important step forward… news on a global scale,’ said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house
‘It was Biden who asked for yesterday’s phone call, Biden called and Biden wanted to talk about a summit,’ pro-Kremlin talk show host Vladimir Solovyov said on his morning radio programme.
Referring to the US readout, he said: ‘200 words! But where are those on human rights? Not a word on gays in Chechnya, not a word on LGBT+ and especially not a single word on Navalny’.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said the Kremlin would see Biden’s invitation now as an about-face.
‘In Russia, the prospect of a meeting will be presented as a major achievement, and in a sense it is, because not long ago Biden said offensive things about Putin and, when asked to talk, said there was no time,’ he said.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said the Russian president is ‘studying’ plans for a summit but added that it is ‘too early’ to discuss specifics. Russia has called neighbouring Finnish leader Sauli Niinisto, where the last summit between Trump and Putin was held, but no details have been announced.
In another sign that Biden is now softening his tone towards Moscow, the deployment of two US destroyers into the Black Sea was cancelled last night.
Turkey had originally confirmed that Washington had asked for permission for two warships – the USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt – to transit through straits which it polices and into the Black Sea in a move that was assumed to be a deterrent to Putin.
But last night Turkey said the U.S. Embassy in Ankara had notified the foreign ministry of the decision, without giving a reason. U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.
Russian BTR 80 armoured personnel carriers daubed with broad white stripes on their way to a railway station on Wednesday
Similar markings were painted on Soviet Army tanks during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (pictured)
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, has previously denied plans to invade Ukraine – saying that Russia is merely carrying out training exercises in response to a NATO troop build-up and drills near its border.
On Thursday, Russian news channels played what appeared to be old military footage of supply drops in Alaska and Bulgaria, claiming they showed NATO forces in Ukraine. NATO denies any build-up in the country.
There are now thought to be some 40,000 Russian troops in the region, massing at a military camp south of the city of Voronezh along with tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers, missile launchers and support vehicles.
Another 30,000 pro-Russian rebel troops are also stationed in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine where they are engaged in a years-long fight with Ukrainian forces that has largely reached a stalemate.
An additional 40,000 Russian troops are also stationed in Crimea, where the Black Sea Fleet is based along with reinforcements being moved across from the Caspian Sea.
At a meeting of NATO defence and foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday, Mr Taran voiced his concerns that troops in Crimea would be used to stage ‘substantive military provocations’ – including the potential of nukes being moved into the region.
‘Crimea’s infrastructure is being prepared for potentially storing nuclear weapons,’ Mr Taran told the European Parliament’s defence subcommittee.
‘The very presence of nuclear munitions in the peninsula may spark a whole array of complex political, legal and moral problems.’
He spoke just hours after ships of the Black Sea Fleet staged a snap live-fire drill, firing missiles at both sea-level and aerial targets.
Russian state TV showed two missile ships, the Graivoron and the Vyshny Volochek, taking part in sea-level and aerial target practice alongside a missile hovercraft, a frigate and a mine-sweeping ship.
The drill, described as a ‘combat readiness check’ by Russian officials, was staged shortly before the USS Donald Cook and the USS Roosevelt were expected to arrive and before the missions was called off.
The Graivoron and Vyshny Volochek are Buyan-M class missile corvettes and are armed with 100mm naval guns, anti-ship cruise missile launchers, anti-air cruise missile launchers and anti-submarine hardware.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov had previously warned the American vessels to stay away ‘for their own good’ and said there was a risk of ‘incidents’ between the US and Russian ships.
He added: ‘There is absolutely nothing for American ships to be doing near our shores, this is purely a provocative action. If there is any aggravation we will do everything to ensure our security and safety. But Kiev and its allies in the West will be entirely responsible for the consequences.’
Ukraine staged its own exercise, with troops rehearsing repelling a tank and infantry attack near the border with Crimea.
Tanks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are seen during drills at an unknown location near the border of Russian-annexed Crimea, Ukraine
Ukraine has said it will not hesitate to defend its territorial integrity if Russia decides to move its forces into the country
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the Russian Geographical Society via video link in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 14
The report seen by the Mail, from the Ukrainian defence ministry and entitled ‘RUS troops massing around UKR’, says: ‘By the end of April 2021, Russians are going to deploy up to 26 BTGs (Battalion Tactical Groups), several artillery tactical groups, air defence units, reconnaissance units and 4 Special Operations Forces detachments.
‘The total amount estimated to be 54 BTGs, up to 107,000 troops, up to 1,300 tanks, 3,700 armoured vehicles, up to 1,300 artillery systems and mortars and up to 380 multi-launch rocket systems.’
Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said last night: ‘The gravity of opinion among those closely following developments has shifted noticeably.
‘They are more alarmed, due to the scale of the Russian military presence, the distances the troops and equipment are travelling towards eastern Ukraine and the statements issued by Russian government officials.
‘While this does not mean there will be all-out war, we are much closer to conflict than we have been. We could be looking at both a show of strength by the Kremlin and genuine steps towards military action – it does not have to be one or the other.’
German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer accused Russia of seeking provocation in a bid to justify the advance of so many troops towards Ukraine.
She warned Moscow that the world would not be ‘drawn into Russia’s game’, adding: ‘If it is a manoeuvre like the Russian side says, there are international procedures through which one can create transparency and trust.
‘We are committed to Ukraine, that is very clear. It is clear that Moscow is just waiting for a move, so to speak, from Nato, to have a pretext to continue its actions. But together with Ukraine, we will not be drawn into this game. And so far Ukraine has reacted in a sober manner.’
Giant robots have appeared in the pro-Russian city of Donetsk, believed to be the work of a local artist, their intent is unclear but they do little to quell the foreboding which hangs over the region
One of the transformer robots has a Russian flag on his shoulder as he stands on a street in Donetsk, in the pro-Russian region of eastern Ukraine
The UK and US are impotent – and won’t take on Kremlin
Commentary By Mark Nicol
So how close are we to war? Arguably, only Vladimir Putin knows.
The Kremlin’s agent provocateur is indulging in his characteristic high-stakes games and contempt for international laws. While his frightening show of force may merely be intended to boost his popularity – his approval rating hit a record high after his invasion of Ukraine in 2014 – make no mistake, we are just one step from serious conflict.
Putin is playing ‘a suspense game’, according to Russia expert Dr Maryna Vorotnyuk, of the Royal United Services Institute, and the longer he keeps everyone anxiously waiting, the more political capital he gains.
A full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea seems on hold for now, because the build-up of troops and military hardware is achieving its desired effect of scaring the West. But just one mistake by Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky could dramatically trigger an advance of thousands of Russian troops back into the territory they seized illegally seven years ago.
The response by the UK and US would be heavy on rhetoric rather than military action, thereby providing Putin with another propaganda victory in time for the Russian parliamentary elections later this year. As this game plays out, London and Washington appear impotent, all words and no intervention – because there is simply no desirable course of action for Nato’s leading partners to embark upon to influence Russia’s affairs.
This lack of options is as obvious to Putin as it is to anyone else. The reality is only he is in a position to call the shots.
Three Russian missile ships, a frigate and a mine-sweeping vessel will take part in snap live-fire drills in the Black Sea today amid soaring tensions around the border with Ukraine
Mine-sweeping vessel Ivan Golubets (pictured right during previous live-fire drills) was one of five vessels from Russia’s Black Sea fleet taking part in exercises Wednesday, nbay confirmed
Comedian-turned-politician Zelensky is equally powerless when it comes to influencing Putin or Nato, the defence alliance he is so desperate to join.
Because while US President Joe Biden and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have been at pains to express their unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and profuse in their condemnation of Russia’s escalation of tensions, the US and UK governments are not going to risk a direct confrontation with Moscow.
Similarly, in spite of Ukraine’s valuable contributions to Nato security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not going to be granted membership of the alliance any time soon, certainly not before the issues in the Donbass breakaway regions and the Crimea are solved.
The consensus of opinion among security experts is that there is definitely more to Putin’s actions than simply ‘sabre-rattling’ – he did not need to move military manpower and hardware from as far away as the Estonian border and Siberia to achieve that.
This is already the bloodiest war in Europe since the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, with at least 14,000 people killed since the Russian invasion in 2014 and more than 1.5 million people forced to leave their homes.
Russia’s proposed solution is for Ukraine to federalise and for the breakaway regions to be granted permanent autonomy. But this is unacceptable to the Ukrainian government and to the UK and US.
For its part, Moscow is equally averse to Zelensky’s plan for further integration with the EU and Nato. So with tragic inevitability, it appears the seven-year conflict, during which time more than 20 officially sanctioned ceasefires have failed, will linger on.
Black Sea standoff: How Russian and American naval forces compare
Black Sea fleet
The Black Sea Fleet is one of Russia’s largest and most formidable, thought to comprise a total of 47 ships, seven submarines and some 25,000 troops – mostly Marines.
Today, five of those vessels are taking part in live-fire drills in the Black Sea, as Moscow warns Washington to stay away ‘for your own good’.
The Vyshny Volochek is a 900-tonne, 240ft corvette with a state-of-the-art missile system. It performs anti-surface warfare combat missions with secondary air defense capability thanks to its surface-to-air missiles. The ship protects Russia’s offshore economic zones and engages enemy warships. It has 52 crew and was launched in 2017.
The Graivoron is the fourth ‘small missile ship’ of the Black Sea Fleet and was launched in 2020. It is armed with the land attack cruise missile ‘Kalibr-NK’ and has 52 crew members on board. It has four surface-to-air missiles and is also armed with 14.5mm and 7.62mm machine guns.
The Admiral Makarov is a third frigate of the Admiral Grigorovich class of the navy in the Black Sea Fleet. Launched in 2015, the vessel is 409ft long, weighing 4,035 tonnes and has 200 crew on board. It is armed with a 100mm naval cannon, Kalibur anti-cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and a rocket launcher.
The Samum is a guided missile corvette used for coast defense operations. The hovercraft carries out missile attacks on ships and claims to be the largest military hovercraft in the world. It has a displacement of 1,000 tonnes and a top speed of 100kmh. The vessel is armed with eight Mosquito missiles and 20 anti-aircraft missiles, an artillery complex, a machine-gun and an interference creating device. The 210ft Samum has 68 people on board and was launched in 1992.
The Ivan Golubets is a minesweeper that was launched in 1973 that was originally built for the Soviet navy. With 68 crew on board, the 200ft vessel has 32 depth charges and underwater mine-detector radar systems.
Washington is thought to have deployed two destroyers to the Black Sea as a warning to Moscow that it is watching events on the Ukraine border and stands ready to respond.
Turkey’s foreign ministry says the US Navy requested permission for two destroyers to pass through the straits which enter the ocean.
The Donald Cook is an Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer which was launched in 1997. The 505ft vessel has 281 crew members and claims to be equipped with one of the most advanced naval weapons systems in the world. It possesses a quick reaction air and ballistic missile defense system that automatically detects and tracks virtually everything in the air. The USS Donald Cook also has an advanced underwater surveillance system and a helicopter landing pad. Its vertical launching system can launch long-range surface-to-surface Tomahawk cruise missiles, surface-to-air Standard missile variants, and anti-ballistic missile Standard missile variants. It is also armed with a five-inch gun mount, 20mm Phalanz mounts and hull mounted crew-served weaons.
The Roosevelt is also an Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer which was launched in 1999. The 510ft ship has 380 crew members and an integrated radar and missile system that can defend against advanced air, surface, and subsurface threats. It is armed with the same weaponry as the USS Donald Cook.