Massed Russian forces could strike Ukraine ‘on very short notice’, US says

West boosts assistance to Kyiv as Moscow awaits US response to security demands

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and US secretary of state Antony Blinken at the Bankova, in Kyiv, on Wednesday. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP Photo

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and US secretary of state Antony Blinken at the Bankova, in Kyiv, on Wednesday. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP Photo

 

The United States has warned that the Kremlin could rapidly escalate its aggression against Ukraine, as western powers use both persuasion and deterrence to convince Russia not to launch a fresh attack on its neighbour.

Moscow has moved about 100,000 troops and a wide array of armour towards Ukraine in recent weeks, and Russian president Vladimir Putin has threatened to resort to “military-technical” means if Nato refuses to bar any more states in eastern Europe from joining its ranks and does not withdraw forces from the region.

“We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Wednesday during a hastily arranged visit to Kyiv.

Mr Blinken is expected to hold talks in Berlin on Thursday with top German, French and British diplomats, before travelling to Geneva to meet Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday.

Mr Lavrov has said he hopes to receive written responses this week from the US and Nato to a long list of security demands made by Russia during a series of discussions with the West last week.

However, Moscow’s main demands – for limits on who can join Nato and in which member states the alliance can place its forces – were immediately rejected by the US as “non-starters”.

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“I won’t be presenting a paper at that time to foreign minister Lavrov,” Mr Blinken said of Friday’s meeting.

“We need to see where we are and see if there remain opportunities to pursue the diplomacy and pursue the dialogue, which again, as I said, is by far the preferable course.”

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Mr Blinken on Twitter for his “personal involvement in the de-escalation of the situation around Ukraine. Grateful for US political and security support. Count on enhancing economic and financial co-operation. I’m sure there will be no decision about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

Moscow insists it is not planning to launch a bigger attack on Ukraine – having occupied Crimea in 2014 and fomented a war in the eastern Donbas region that has now killed about 14,000 people – but says it will not accept Ukraine joining Nato or hosting western military facilities that could threaten Russian security.

“We see the threat of Ukraine becoming ever more integrated in Nato without even acquiring a formal status of a Nato member state,” said Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov.

“This is something that goes right to the centre of Russia’s national security interests, and we will do our utmost to reverse this situation, to rebalance this situation through diplomatic means.”

Sanctions

Western powers say they are ready for discussions with Russia on potentially limiting missile deployments and military exercises, and will impose tougher sanctions on Russia if it attacks Ukraine again.

At the same time, they are bolstering Ukraine’s military with training and “defensive” arms to help it hold out against any bigger assault from its much more powerful neighbour; Britain this week announced that it is providing anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and Canada has reportedly sent a small special forces team to Kyiv to assess its security needs and prepare evacuation plans for Canadian diplomats.

Russia has made clear that it wants the US to be its main interlocutor, brushing most European capitals aside and ignoring the European Union.

French president Emmanuel Macron called on Wednesday for the EU to “complete a European proposal building a new security and stability order . . . We should build it among Europeans, then share it with our allies in the framework of Nato, and then propose it for negotiation to Russia.”