Observers fear that the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine could erupt into open war
Russia has accused Ukraine of deploying half its army – about 125,000 troops – to confront pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, and said it had launched its own regular winter drills in its southern military district bordering Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian army is building up its military strength, bringing in hardware and personnel,” said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry. The Ukrainian military declined to comment on her statement.
Zakharova said that, according to some reports, the number of troops in the conflict zone in Donbass had already reached 125,000 people, “which is half of the entire Ukrainian army”. Ukrainian forces have been battling Russia-backed separatists there since 2014.
The announcements on Wednesday came at a time of high tension between the two countries, with NATO meeting for the second day to discuss a Russian troop build-up that Kiev fears may be the prelude to an invasion.
The Kremlin has consistently denied that this is the case, and has sought to portray Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors.
NATO warned later on Wednesday that any future Russian aggression against Ukraine could result in political and economic consequences for Moscow.
The United States said it was deeply concerned by evidence that Russia was planning to destabilise its neighbour, and threatened unprecedented sanctions unless Moscow pulled back its troops from the Ukrainian border.
Speaking to parliament on Wednesday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kiev needed direct talks with Moscow in order to end the war in Donbass.
Zelenskiy was addressing parliament after Ukraine had urged NATO to prepare economic sanctions against Russia and boost military cooperation with Kiev as a way of deterring the Kremlin from launching a new attack, after Russia began massing troops near to the border.
“We must tell the truth: that we will not be able to stop the war without direct negotiations with Russia, and today this has already been recognised by all, all external partners,” he said.
Zelenskiy’s administration said it had tried to arrange in-person talks between the president and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but that its requests had been ignored.
The Kremlin has said that Putin is not against the idea of talks with Zelenskiy, but that Moscow would want to see a proper agenda prepared for a meeting.
Kiev’s parliament was surrounded by heavy security after Zelenskiy said last week that Ukraine had uncovered a plot to overthrow his government. Russia has denied any involvement in the alleged coup, which was meant to take place this week.
On Wednesday, Moscow’s defence ministry said that the Russian winter drills would involve 10,000 troops across more than 30 training grounds.
The ministry said that exercises would take place in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and in a Russian region bordering the separatist-controlled Donbass area of eastern Ukraine.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow was alarmed by Kiev’s bolstering of its forces in the Donbass region, and that he would discuss the situation with US secretary of state Antony Blinken at a meeting in Stockholm on Thursday.
NATO and the United States have both issued stark warnings to Russia in recent weeks that it would pay a high price for any new military aggression, amid worries that the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine could erupt into open war between the two neighbours.
“We have a wide range of options to make sure that Russia will be confronted with serious consequences if they once again use force against an independent sovereign nation, Ukraine,” NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Riga, Latvia.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said it was unknown whether President Putin had made a decision to invade Ukraine, but that he was putting in place the capacity to do so at short notice.
“Should Russia follow the path of confrontation, when it comes to Ukraine, we’ve made clear that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high-impact economic measures that we have refrained from pursuing in the past,” he said in Riga after meeting with ministers from Nato and Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a member of NaTO, but the US-led alliance has said it is committed to preserving the sovereignty of the former Soviet republic, which has tilted towards the west since 2014 and aspires to join both NATO and the European Union.
That has enraged Moscow, drawing a warning from Putin on Tuesday that Russia was ready with a newly tested hypersonic weapon in case NATO crossed its “red lines” and deployed missiles in Ukraine.
Putin said on Wednesday that Moscow wanted serious negotiations with the US and its allies to extract legal guarantees that would rule out “any further NATO moves to the east and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close proximity to Russian territory”.