Ukraine crisis is ‘dangerous moment’ for European security, British ambassador says

Paul Johnston says planned military drills go against Russia’s stated position

A Ukrainian soldier carries what appear to be mortar tail booms collected from an area around a frontline position near Troitske, Ukraine, on Friday. Photograph: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine poses "probably the most dangerous moment for [the] European security order in our lifetime", Britain's ambassador to the Republic Paul Johnston has said.

Mr Johnston told reporters during a briefing that the UK had seen “no significant signs of the much-promised and much-vaunted withdrawal” of Russian troops from Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Instead, the UK and its allies have picked up intelligence showing “signs of false-flag operations and destabilising activity within Ukraine, which would be typical Russian behaviour to attempt to create a crisis, which would justify some sort of intervention”, said the ambassador.

"We are potentially on the brink of a very major and serious European security crisis. The choice ultimately is in Russia's hands," said Mr Johnston, a former UK deputy permanent representative to Nato and former UK ambassador to the EU for political and security affairs.

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He said that the UK was trying to de-escalate the situation with "threats and pressure" but also with "incentives and opportunities", yet it continued to see "many warning signs" that Russia "will take the disastrous step of launching a major intervention in Ukraine".

‘Imminent’ incursion

Western leaders have warned a Russian incursion into Ukraine is imminent as Moscow has amassed more than 150,000 troops at the border with Ukraine. The Kremlin has denied it has plans to invade.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin will oversee military drills involving "strategic forces" on Saturday amid the escalating tensions at the country's border with Ukraine.

Mr Putin said the exercises, which include multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic and cruise missiles, were “purely defensive” and “not a threat to any other country”.

Mr Johnston questioned whether these exercises were aimed at trying to “intimidate the Ukrainians to try and show the rest of the world that the Russians can’t be taken for granted”.

“It [The exercises] would go against what they [Moscow] have said, which is that they don’t plan an escalation, that they don’t plan an invasion,” he said.

“They are trying to keep us all guessing. They maybe haven’t finally decided themselves but we will obviously be watching extremely closely.”

The ambassador acknowledged that it was “legitimate” for countries to exercise troops but that he did not believe that amassing two-thirds of Russia’s land troops on the border of a smaller neighbour, which Moscow has previously invaded, was “normal exercise behaviour”.

“The nature of the exercising that is done over the next few days is going to be something that we watch extremely closely,” said Mr Johnston.

On Friday, the UK foreign office announced that the British embassy in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv will “temporarily” relocate to the west of the country, amid the current tensions. Additional reporting: PA

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times