Ukraine is under growing pressure after Russia and Belarus began major war games near its northern border and Moscow announced missile and artillery drills that are likely to severely disrupt shipping around its southern ports on the Black and Azov seas.
Moscow has sent about 100,000 troops and heavy weaponry towards Ukraine in recent weeks, and on Thursday launched exercises with its ally Belarus involving fighter jets, tanks, advanced missile systems and what Nato estimates to be 30,000 Russian soldiers.
The manoeuvres are scheduled to run until February 20th, and Russia now also plans to hold week-long firing drills starting on Sunday that may make it too dangerous for ships to use the main approach routes to Ukraine’s major ports, such as Odessa and Mariupol.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry said the range of the planned exercises was “unprecedented” and would make navigation of affected areas “virtually impossible.”
“Such aggressive actions of the Russian Federation, which fit into the concept of its hybrid war against Ukraine, are unacceptable,” and “can cause complex economic and social consequences, especially for the ports of Ukraine”, the ministry added.
Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov said the drills were part of a Russian tactic “of creeping occupation of the sea”.
“If there is no joint reaction from the world to these attempts to apply pressure, then the Kremlin – and not only the Kremlin – could use a similar tactic all over the world.”
Mr Reznikov praised the way several of Ukraine’s allies had sharply increased weapons deliveries to Kyiv during the current security crisis with Russia, and said Moscow’s move in the Black Sea now required “a no less powerful response”.
“When Russian ships cannot easily enter civilised ports [around the world], then they will understand the cost of their brazenness.”
Several powerful Russian naval ships have entered the Black Sea in recent days, stoking concerns in Ukraine over a region where Moscow’s forces occupied Crimea in 2014, and in 2018 fired upon and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crew.
The Kremlin insists it is not planning a new attack on Ukraine, but has threatened to take “military-technical” steps unless the West addresses its security concerns.
The US and other major western powers have rejected Russia’s key requests – which include barring Ukraine and other eastern European states from ever joining Nato – but they have offered to discuss possible restrictions on missile deployments and military exercises.
‘We want peace’
“What is at stake at the moment is nothing less than preventing a war in Europe. We want peace,” German chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Thursday after talks with the leaders of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
“Further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine would have very serious political, economic and strategic consequences for Russia,” he added. “At the same time, we are ready for serious talks with Russia, for a dialogue on European security issues.”
Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas said the West should not make “any concessions, even small ones, at gunpoint . . . Russia is trying to take us back to a time when spheres of influence were a guiding principle of government.”
After talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, British foreign secretary Liz Truss said: “No one is undermining Russia’s security – that is simply not true.”
In an apparent effort to catch out his guest during what seemed to be tense talks, Mr Lavrov reportedly asked Ms Truss whether Britain accepted his country’s sovereignty over Rostov and Voronezh – two Russian regions – and she said it did not and never would.
“It seemed to me that minister Lavrov was talking about a part of Ukraine,” she explained later to Russian media.