Ukraine’s leaders have sought to reassure the nation that a feared invasion from neighbouring Russia was not imminent, even as they acknowledged the threat of invasion is real.
Ukraine’s President has said the situation was “under control”
The country’s Defence Minister said Russia’s armed forces had not formed “battle groups”
He said future “risky scenarios” were “possible and probable” but currently “such a threat doesn’t exist”
Moscow has denied planning an assault, but massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine, leading the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies to rush to prepare for a possible war.
Several rounds of high stakes diplomacy have failed to yield any breakthroughs and this week tensions escalated further.
NATO said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region and the US ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert to potentially deploy to Europe as part of an alliance “response force”, if necessary.
On Tuesday, the Russian Defence Ministry released a video showing Iskander missile systems used during drills conducted in the western military district bordering Europe.
The scheduled exercises were aimed to check the troops’ battle readiness, and would continue until January 29, the ministry said.
Russia had also started making combat readiness inspections in its southern military district, which borders Ukraine, involving more than 6,000 troops, the RIA news agency cited Russia’s military as saying on Tuesday.
The US State Department has ordered the families of all American personnel at the US Embassy in Kyiv to leave the country, and it said that non-essential embassy staff could leave. Britain and Australia have also said they were withdrawing some diplomats and dependents, with Canberra urging Australians to leave.
In Ukraine, however, authorities have sought to project calm.
Speaking in the Russian parliament on Tuesday, Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that, “as of today, there are no grounds to believe” that Russia is preparing to invade imminently, noting that its troops have not formed what he called a battle group that could force its way through the border.
“Don’t worry, sleep well,” Mr Reznikov said. “No need to have your bags packed.”
Mr Reznikov’s remarks come on the heels of multiple reassurances from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other officials.
On Monday, Mr Zelenskyy told the nation that the situation was “under control” and that there was “no reason to panic”.
In an interview aired late on Monday, the Defence Minister acknowledged that “there are risky scenarios” that “are possible and probable in the future”.
“But ,as of today … such a threat doesn’t exist.”
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, echoed that sentiment, saying that the movement of Russian troops near Ukraine’s border was “not news”.
“As of today, we don’t see any grounds for statements about a full-scale offensive on our country,” Mr Danilov said Monday.
Analysts say the Ukrainian government is caught between trying to calm the nation and ensuring it gets sufficient assistance from the West in case an invasion does happen.
“Ukrainian authorities are trying to prevent destabilisation and panic inside the country, hence the calming statements saying, ‘There is no threat of an imminent Russian invasion’,” political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said.
“The Kremlin’s plans include undermining the situation inside Ukraine, fomenting hysteria and fear among Ukrainians, and the authorities in Kyiv find it increasingly difficult to contain this snowball,” he added.
A Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll found about 48 per cent of Ukrainians believe an invasion in the coming months to be a real threat.
But, with many aware of the possibility that recent moves could also be part of information warfare, 39 per cent said they don’t see it happening.
The nationwide poll of 1,205 people from January 21 to 22 had a margin of error that did not exceed 3.2 percentage points.
Nevertheless, some Ukrainians are watching warily.
“Of course we fear Russia’s aggression and a war, which will lead to the further impoverishment of Ukrainians. But we will be forced to fight and defend ourselves,” Dmytro Ugol, a 46-year-old construction worker in Kyiv, said.
“I am prepared to fight, but my entire family doesn’t want it and lives in tension. Every day, the news scares us more and more.”
US accused of ‘fomenting tensions’
Russia has said Western accusations that it is planning an invasion are merely a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday once again accused the US of “fomenting tensions” around the Ukraine, a former Soviet state that Russia has been locked in a bitter tug-of-war with for almost eight years.
In 2014, following the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Ukraine, Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the country’s industrial heartland in the east.
The fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has since killed over 14,000 people and efforts to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict have stalled.
In the latest stand-off, Russia has demanded guarantees from the West that NATO would never allow Ukraine to join and that the alliance would curtail other actions, such as stationing troops in former Soviet bloc countries.
Some of these, like any pledge to permanently bar Ukraine are non-starters for NATO — creating a seemingly intractable stalemate that many fear can only end in war.
Mr Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin would talk this week to his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, who is also planning to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Russia is awaiting a written US response this week to its list of security demands it has presented.
Mr Peskov said the US troop alert did not affect negotiations because the current phase of talks had been completed.
As part of a new $US200 million ($280 million) in security assistance directed to Ukraine from the US, a shipment including equipment and munitions arrived on Tuesday in Ukraine.
The US has committed more than $US650 million of security assistance to Ukraine in the past year and more than $US2.7 billion in total since 2014.
Its moves are being done in tandem with actions by other NATO member governments to bolster a defensive presence in Eastern Europe.
Denmark, for example, is sending a frigate and F-16 warplanes to Lithuania.
Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces and France stands ready to send troops to Romania.