Armed Forces minister James Heappey said Russian troops were moving into attack positions towards Ukraine’s borders, despite claims from Moscow of forces being withdrawn. In an 11th-hour bid to avert war, he urged President Vladimir Putin not to send “thousands of young Russian men and women to their death” in what could be a long-lasting bloody conflict, but insisted a diplomatic solution was still possible.
On a visit to Kiev, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also stressed Russia would become a “pariah” state if it invades Ukraine, with the West imposing economic sanctions and other retaliatory measures.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said high-stake talks would continue on all aspects of Moscow’s security proposals, which include that Ukraine not be allowed to join Nato, a demand rejected by the West.
A senior Russian diplomat also dismissed the prospect of a looming invasion as “fantasies” being propagated by the West. But reports of fresh clashes between Ukranian troops and Moscow-backed separatist forces in the east of the country raised fears of a “false flag” operation being staged by Russia to justify a military intervention.
In a post on its Facebook site this morning, the Ukrainian Joint Forces accused Russian-backed separatists of shelling its territory and published pictures apparently showing damage to a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, which they claimed led to two people being injured and forced an evacuation of the area. Meanwhile the Russian-backed separatists accused Ukrainian forces of opening fire on their territory four times in the past 24 hours.
The Defence Ministry in Moscow said about 10 convoys of Russian troops left Crimea today after completing drills, according to RIA news agency, the latest report of troops being withdrawn.
But Mr Heappey insisted that in fact thousands more troops had been moved towards Ukraine, which is now surrounded by a force of some 140,000.
Military formations were now “shaking out into their attack positions”, he added, emphasising that new bridges were being built, field hospitals set up, as well as fuel and ammunition stockpiled ready for an invasion.
“So it could happen today, tomorrow, next Wednesday… in two weeks’ time,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain. “But the fact is that it is very, very imminent if not inevitable. That is why diplomacy needs to continue at top speed.”
Warning of a long insurgency war in Ukraine even if Russia seizes Kiev and other regions swiftly, he added on Talk Radio: “There are other ways to engage with the West if that is what this is really all about without sending thousands of young Russian men and women to their deaths against thousands of young Ukrainian men and women.”
He also rebuffed claims that the warnings of war are just “hype” from the West given the huge scale of Russian military deployment including an estimated 60 per cent of its ground combat forces, half its combat air power and more warships being sent to the Black Sea.
Mr Heappey added: “Make no mistake, I would love that to be the case because the alternative is that this is really meant and that we are on the threshold of a major war in Europe in which tens of thousands of people could die.”
He warned of a possible “new period of acute competition with Russia that could last a generation or more”.
In Kiev, Ms Truss said: “I urge Russia to take the path of diplomacy. We are ready to talk. But we are very clear, if they decide to continue down the path of aggression, there will be massive consequences bringing Russia severe economic costs and pariah status.”
Her comments came as the US accused Russia of adding up to 7,000 troops near the Ukraine border and Britain’s chief of defence intelligence Lieutenant General Sir Jim Hockenhull said there have been sightings of additional armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital in the area.