Ukraine’s security chief said that about 120,000 Russian troops are concentrated near Ukraine and Moscow may stage provocations “at any moment,” but argued that launching a full-fledged invasion would require massive preparations that would be easily spotted.
“The preparatory period that will be noticed by the entire world could take from three to seven days,” Oleksiy Danilov said. “We aren’t seeing it yet. We clearly understand what’s going on and we are calmly preparing for it.”
He deplored the decision by the U.S., Britain, Australia, Germany and Canada to withdraw some of their diplomats and dependents from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, saying the move “wasn’t pleasant for us” and emphasizing that “we don’t think that there is a threat right now.”
U.S. President Joe Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a call Thursday that there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia could invade the country in February. But the Ukrainian leader played down the war fears, arguing Friday that the Russian troop buildup could be part of Moscow’s attempts to exert “psychological pressure” and sow panic.
“We can’t allow panic in the country,” Danilov told the AP. “It’s very difficult for us to maintain control over the economic situation when all the media keep saying that the war will start tomorrow. Panic is a sister of defeat.”
Danilov said that Ukraine has the potential to quickly and dramatically beef up its 250,000-strong military in case of a Russian offensive.
“They will face a response from our society, our citizens, our military,” Danilov told the AP. “We can put 2 (million) to 2.5 million people under arms.”
He noted that up to 420,000 Ukrainians have gained combat experience in fighting with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and up to 1 million in the nation of 41 million people have hunting licenses.
Danilov pointed at the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s announcement Monday that it had thwarted a plot to stage riots in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to achieve his goal of destroying Ukraine through internal destabilization even without an invasion.
“Regrettably, we have many agents of influence of the Russian Federation here, who are behind the plans of destabilizing our country from within,” he said pointing at a pro-Russian party that has a sizeable presence in Ukraine’s parliament.
After the 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed an insurgency in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement there have stalled.
Since the start of the separatist conflict in Ukraine, Russia has been accused of sending troops and weapons to the separatists, something it has denied. It has given out over 700,000 Russian passports to people living in rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine.
Harsh exchange at the U.N. Security Council
Russia accused the West on Monday of “whipping up tensions” over Ukraine and said the U.S. had brought “pure Nazis” to power in Kyiv as the U.N. Security Council held a stormy and bellicose debate on Moscow’s troop buildup near its southern neighbor.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield shot back that Russia’s growing military force of more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders was “the largest mobilization” in Europe in decades, adding there has been a spike in cyberattacks and Russian disinformation.
“And they are attempting, without any factual basis, to paint Ukraine and Western countries as the aggressors to fabricate a pretext for attack,” she said.
The harsh exchanges in the Security Council came as Moscow lost an attempt to block the meeting and reflected the gulf between the two nuclear powers. It was the first open session where all protagonists in the Ukraine crisis spoke publicly, even though the U.N.’s most powerful body took no action..
Although more high-level diplomacy is expected this week, talks between the U.S. and Russia have so far failed to ease tensions in the crisis, with the West saying Moscow is preparing for an invasion. Russia denies it has demanded that NATO promise never to allow Ukraine to join the alliance, halt the deployment of NATO weapons near Russian borders, and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe. NATO and the U.S. call those nonstarters.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the Biden administration of “whipping up tensions and rhetoric and provoking escalation.”
“You are almost pulling for this,” he said, looking at Thomas-Greenfield. “You want it to happen. You’re waiting for it to happen, as if you want to make your words become a reality.”
He blamed the U.S. for the 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, saying it brought to power “nationalists, radicals, Russophobes and pure Nazis,” and created the antagonism that exists between Ukraine and Russia.
“If they hadn’t done this, then we to date would be living in a spirit of good neighborly relations and mutual cooperation,” Nebenzia said. “However, some in the West just don’t clearly like this positive scenario. What’s happening today is yet another attempt to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine.”
Nebenzia pointedly left the council chamber as the Ukrainian ambassador started to speak, giving his seat to his deputy.
The vote on holding an open meeting passed 10-2, with Russia and China opposed, and India, Gabon and Kenya abstaining. The vote needed nine votes to be approved.
U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement that the meeting was “a critical step in rallying the world to speak out in one voice” to reject the use of force, seek military de-escalation, support diplomacy and demand accountability from every member “to refrain from military aggression against its neighbors.”
Warning to the west
Danilov, meanwhile, warned the West on Monday against forcing the country to fulfill a peace deal for eastern Ukraine brokered by France and Germany, charging that an attempt to implement it could trigger internal unrest that would benefit Moscow.
He argued that Ukraine needs to revise the 2015 peace deal signed in Minsk that requires Ukraine to provide a broad autonomy to the rebel-held east and a sweeping amnesty to the rebels.
“The fulfillment of the Minsk agreement means the country’s destruction,” Danilov said. “When they were signed under the Russian gun barrel — and the German and the French watched — it was already clear for all rational people that it’s impossible to implement those documents.”
The agreement, which was brokered by France and Germany after a string of Ukrainian military defeats, was widely abhorred by the Ukrainian public as a betrayal of their national interests. Zelenskyy and his officials have made repeated calls for its modification.
Moscow has staunchly refused to amend the Minsk agreement and criticized Ukraine’s Western allies for failing to encourage Ukraine to fulfill its obligations.
Envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met Wednesday for more than eight hours in Paris to discuss ways to implement the Minsk agreement. They made no visible progress but agreed to meet again in two weeks in Berlin.
Danilov warned the West against pressuring Ukraine into fulfilling the Minsk deal, saying it would provoke dangerous instability.
“If they insist on the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements as they are it will be very dangerous for our country,” he said. “If the society doesn’t accept those agreements, it could lead to a very difficult internal situation and Russia counts on that.”
He also argued that if Ukraine honors the deal it, that will allow Russia to demand the lifting of Western sanctions that were contingent on progress in implementing the Minsk agreement.
Danilov called for negotiating a new document that could be realistically implemented, adding that it should force “Putin to simply pull his troops and tanks back.”
He denounced the Russian demands for NATO to bar Ukraine from ever joining the alliance, saying that the country, a former Soviet republic, has made a choice to seek to integrate into NATO and the European Union, which is reflected in its constitution. It is not a member of either bloc at this time.
“No one has the right to dictate to us whether we should or shouldn’t join alliances,” Danilov said. “It’s our people’s sovereign right.”
He also noted that Ukraine needs more Western weapons, saying “it’s our only request to our partners — give us more weapons to defend ourselves.”
He criticized Germany for refusing to provide Ukraine with weapons, charging that Berlin has also failed to properly apologize to Ukrainians for Nazi crimes during World War II when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
“Regrettably, they haven’t apologized for killing millions of our citizens,” he said. “They apologize to the Russians as if we were one country. They shouldn’t talk about democracy then and say that they support authoritarian regimes and partner with them.”