Western leaders have said Russia is following a “manual of deception” to justify an invasion of Ukraine, amid escalating clashes in the east of the country between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Speaking at the Munich security conference, US Vice President Kamala Harris said Moscow was creating false pretenses for an attack while gathering troops and firepower in plain sight.
“We see Russia spreading disinformation, lies and propaganda,” Harris told the annual meeting of politicians, diplomats and military officials, calling it “Russia’s aggression playbook.”
The White House said President Joe Biden would convene a meeting of his National Security Council on Sunday to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine had been the victim of an “information war, a hybrid war” but was “not responding to any provocation”.
“We know they are shooting from civilian areas, to provoke us, to make us react,” he said. “We have to keep our calm.”
The massive reinforcement of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border raises fears of a new war in the heart of Europe.
Western leaders speaking at the conference called for a diplomatic solution, urging Russia to “retreat from the abyss”. But they also warned Moscow of the consequences of an invasion: far-reaching sanctions that they said would cause enormous damage to its economy.
Zelensky called on the West to stand with Ukraine and said Western nations let Kiev down by appeasing Russia.
“Some countries commit crimes while others are indifferent, and this indifference has turned them into accomplices,” he said.
Zelensky referred to a speech that Vladimir Putin gave at the Munich conference in 2007 when he “issued a challenge to the global security system”.
“How did the world react? Appeasement,” he said. “What do we have as a result? The annexation of Crimea and the aggression against my country.
Speaking to CNN on Saturday, Zelensky suggested Kiev had a “different view” than the West on when to apply sanctions. While the United States and its allies want to impose them after an attack as a punitive measure, Zelensky said they should be introduced immediately, especially since an attack seemed close.
“We don’t need your sanctions after the bombing happens and after our country gets shot or after we have no borders, or after we have no economy. . . why would we need these sanctions then? »
In a statement released on Saturday, the G7 foreign ministers said: “While we stand ready to explore diplomatic solutions to address legitimate security concerns, Russia should be in no doubt that any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences, including financial and economic sanctions.” on a wide range of sectoral and individual targets that would impose severe and unprecedented costs on the Russian economy. We will take coordinated restrictive measures in the event of such an event.
Oleksandr Pavlyuk, commander of the Ukrainian Joint Forces, said the situation around Donetsk and Luhansk had deteriorated over the past three days.
“If we take the past three months into consideration, there have been three to five ceasefire violations per day. Compared to this number, on February 17, we had 60 incidents of ceasefire violations by Russian Federation forces and 43 incidents of weapons prohibited by the Minsk agreements,” Pavlyuk said.
Ukraine said two soldiers were killed and four injured on Saturday in a bombardment in the eastern border region of Donbass, where more than 14,000 people have died in a slow-running war that erupted after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
Ukrainian military officials and lawmakers visiting frontline areas were forced to evacuate after coming under artillery fire.
Russia-backed separatist leaders in the Donbass have accused Kiev of carrying out “terrorist attacks” which they say, without providing evidence, left an unknown number of people dead and injured.
Russia said Ukrainian artillery fire landed on the Russian side of the border. Zelensky dismissed the reports as “lies”.
Separatist leaders announced a mass evacuation of civilians to Russia – where Putin promised them a payment of Rbs 100,000 ($1,300) – and called on all men of fighting age to mobilise.
The time codes of the separatists’ video calls were dated Wednesday, before the escalation in bombardment began, bolstering suspicions of a false flag operation as a pretext to invade.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the world must prepare for a “book of Russian deception” and that Moscow was “weaving a web of lies aimed at presenting any Russian attack as a response to a provocation”.
Germany and France have urged their citizens to leave Ukraine. Lufthansa, which owns airlines such as Lufthansa, Austrian and Swiss, said it would halt scheduled flights to Kyiv and Odessa until the end of February. KLM and Norwegian also canceled flights to Ukraine.
Exacerbating tensions, Russia began strategic nuclear exercises on Saturday.
Harris warned that the West would impose “far-reaching financial sanctions and export controls” on Moscow if Putin gave the order to attack Ukraine.
“Make no mistake, the imposition of these drastic and coordinated measures will inflict great damage on those who must be held accountable,” she said.
Johnson said that in the event of an invasion, the West would “sanction Russian individuals and companies of strategic importance to the Russian state.”
“We will make it impossible for them to raise funds in the London capital markets,” he told the conference. “We will open the matryoshka dolls of Russian-owned businesses and entities to find the ultimate beneficiaries inside.”
Other leaders have called on Russia to step back from the abyss.
Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, said Russia’s attempt to turn Kiev’s possible NATO membership into a “casus belli” was a “paradox” because the issue was not on the agenda of the Western day.
Additional reporting by Philip Georgiadis and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London, and James Politi in Washington.