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Members of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service at the border with Belarus in Volyn region, Ukraine on Thursday. Photo: Interior Ministry of Ukraine press service via Reuters

US warns Europe that Russia may plan to invade Ukraine

  • Ukraine says Russia has moved about 90,000 troops not far from its border
  • Russia’s deputy UN ambassador says Moscow won’t invade unless provoked
The United States is raising the alarm with European Union allies that Russia may be weighing a potential invasion of Ukraine as tensions flare between Moscow and the bloc over migrants and energy supplies.

With Washington closely monitoring a build-up of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border, US officials have briefed EU counterparts on their concerns over a possible military operation, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

The assessments were believed to be based on information the US has not yet shared with European governments, which would have to happen before any decision is made on a collective response, the people said. They are backed up by publicly available evidence, according to officials familiar with the administration’s thinking. 

On Thursday, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador said that Moscow would never invade Ukraine unless it was first provoked by its neighbour or someone else.

US warns Russia about ‘unusual’ military build-up near Ukraine

Dmitry Polyansky was responding to a question about the buildup of troops, which has led to stepped up US pressure and an assurance Wednesday from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Ukrainian foreign minister that the American commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity is “ironclad” and will not change.

Polyansky cited what he called many threats from Ukraine and provocative actions by US warships in the Black Sea.

“Never planned, never did, and never going to do it unless we’re provoked by Ukraine, or by somebody else” and Russia’s national sovereignty is threatened, he said in response to a question from reporters at UN headquarters.

“There are a lot of threats coming from Ukraine,” Polyansky added. “And don’t forget that the American warships around the Black Sea acting very close.”

A satellite image taken on November 1 shows troop tents on the northern edge of the town of Yelnya, Russia. Image: Maxar Technologies via AFP

Blinken said the US did not know Russia’s intentions but said Moscow’s “playbook” has been in the past to invent provocations along its border to justify military intervention.

Russia has cast its weight behind a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s east that erupted shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and has caused more than 14,000 deaths. Russia has repeatedly denied any presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said last week that about 90,000 Russian troops are stationed not far from the border and in rebel-controlled areas in Ukraine’s east.

The US Army’s Iron Dome could be headed to Ukraine

It said specifically that units of the Russian 41st Army have remained in Yelnya, about 260km (160 miles) north of the Ukrainian border.

“We have the right to concentrate our troops wherever we want,” Polyansky said. “This is not Ukrainian territory. This is Russian territory”

“But if you read the threats that are being pronounced in Ukraine against Russia, against Russian territorial integrity, then you will understand that a certain precaution is a logical step in such a situation,” he said.


Russian troops massing near Ukraine’s eastern border sparks invasion fear

Russian troops massing near Ukraine’s eastern border sparks invasion fear
Similar tensions erupted in the spring when the US and Nato accused Russia of massing as many as 100,000 troops, tanks and warplanes near the border with Ukraine. The crisis eased after US President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin and offered a summit that took place in June.

Russia’s latest movement of troops and tanks toward Ukraine spurred CIA Director Bill Burns to visit Moscow this month, where he spoke by phone with Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also asked Putin in a call on Wednesday to use his influence with Russia’s ally Belarus to defuse a crisis over thousands of Middle East migrants seeking to cross the border with Poland into the EU. Putin declined.

Russia flies bombers as Belarus-Poland border crisis escalates

Merkel and Putin spoke again on Thursday about Ukraine and Belarus, the Kremlin said in a statement. The Russian leader criticised Ukraine’s alleged use of combat drones in violation of a previous agreement and American military activity in the Black Sea, according to the statement. 

The US warning over Ukraine comes on top of the more recent stand-off between Poland and Belarus, a close Russian ally. And it is playing out amid uncertainty over increased Russian gas supplies to Europe despite Putin’s pledge to ramp up deliveries from this week to ease an energy crunch.

He is pushing for European regulators to give swift approval to operate the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a project the US and Ukraine opposed as a security risk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AP

US Vice-President Kamala Harris and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed Ukraine extensively during talks in Paris on Wednesday, a US official said. Belarus is part of the same security context, the official said. 

The information US officials shared on Russia at the recent meetings in Brussels was unsettling, said one of the people familiar. Another person emphasised that there was no way of knowing Moscow’s true intentions, and what its next move might be or when.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who met Blinken on Wednesday in Washington, appeared to suggest the US had shared at least some new information with him. 

“What we heard and saw today in Washington DC corresponds to our own findings and analysis, adds some new elements which allows us to get a better, more comprehensive picture,” Kuleba said at a joint news conference with Blinken. The situation in Belarus is a “potential front line” and shouldn’t be underestimated, he said.

Tensions rise in Black Sea as Russian jets conduct ‘mock attacks’ on Dutch frigate

According to defence intelligence firm Janes, the recent Russian deployment has been covert, often taking place at night and carried out by elite ground units, in contrast to the fairly open build-up in the spring.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was also in Washington on Wednesday, said that she and Biden discussed Ukraine and their full support for its territorial integrity. 

Ukraine has declared its ambition to join the EU and Nato, to Moscow’s fury. While Kremlin officials often boast privately that Russian forces could quickly reach Kyiv, it would be much more difficult to maintain control of a country of 44 million amid international condemnation. 

The British destroyer HMS Defender sailing near Crimea in the Black Sea on June 23. File photo: Russian Defence Ministry

Putin warned rival nations in April that “they will regret it more than they’ve regretted anything in a long time” if they cross Russia’s “red line” on security.

The deputy speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Pyotr Tolstoy, declared that “all of Ukraine will be part of Russia and there won’t be any Ukraine” in a debate broadcast on Russia’s NTV last month. 

“I hope now the whole world clearly sees who really wants peace and who is concentrating almost 100,000 troops on our border,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to the nation late on Wednesday.

“Psychological pressure from Russia doesn’t have an impact on us, our intelligence has all the information, our army is ready to repel anytime and anywhere.”

Bloomberg and Associated Press

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Russia may invade Ukraine, U.S. warns