Ukraine has called for Russian ships to be shut out of international ports after Moscow announced week-long naval exercises in the Black and Azov seas that Kyiv says amount to a de facto blockade.
The tension off Ukraine’s southern coasts came as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned during a visit Thursday to NATO headquarters that the coming days represent “the most dangerous moment” in the months-long crisis created by Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the latest Western diplomatic effort to resolve the standoff as “a conversation between a mute person and a deaf person.” Moscow is seeking guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – a demand that has already been rejected by the Western military bloc.
Ukraine said Russia’s live-fire naval exercises, which are scheduled to begin Sunday, will make shipping in and out of ports such as Odessa, Mykolaiv and Mariupol – which handle 70 per cent of Ukraine’s imports and exports – “virtually impossible.” Russia has declared large swaths of both the Black and Azov seas unsafe to sail between Feb. 13 and 19 and has also issued warnings for air traffic to avoid the region during that period.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov called the moves a “creeping occupation of the sea” and said his country’s allies need to push back against it.
“If there is no joint reaction from the world to these attempts of pressure, the Kremlin, and not just the Kremlin, could use such tactics around the globe,” he said in a statement posted to the Ministry of Defence website Thursday. “We expect a strong response from [Ukraine’s] partners: when the Russian Federation’s vessels will be not able to entry easily civilized ports, they will see the price for their impudence.”
Russia said the drills will involve some 140 warships and support vessels, as well as 60 warplanes and 10,000 troops. Among the ships taking part are six heavy landing craft that recently arrived in the Black Sea after a highly unusual journey that saw them circumnavigate much of Europe after leaving their bases in the Baltic and North seas in mid-January.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the naval exercises were the beginning of an undeclared naval blockade of Ukraine. “All military manoeuvres and deployments by Russian ships in the Black Sea are conducted in strict compliance with international maritime law,” he told reporters in Moscow.
Russia and Belarus have also formally begun joint military drills along Ukraine’s northern border involving 30,000 Russian troops, as well as large numbers of tanks, artillery and rocket launchers. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said that in the event of a war between Russia and Ukraine, his country’s army would fight alongside Russia. Upwards of 100,000 more Russian troops are positioned along Ukraine’s eastern frontier.
Ukraine, meanwhile, began its own nationwide military exercises Thursday. Much like the joint Russian-Belarusian exercises, the Ukrainian war games are due to last until Feb. 20, at which point both sides will be at full combat readiness after months of tension.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country could take “military-technical” steps if its demands – which also include a withdrawal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe – are not met.
“This is probably the most dangerous moment, I would say, in the course of the next few days, in what is the biggest security crisis that Europe has faced for decades, and we’ve got to get it right,” Mr. Johnson said at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “And I think that the combination of sanctions and military resolve plus diplomacy is what is in order.”
Canada, the U.S., Britain and the European Union have vowed to respond to any new Russian aggression against Ukraine with harsher sanctions than those imposed in 2014, when Mr. Putin ordered his troops to seize the strategic Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine after a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv.
Mr. Johnson said he didn’t think Mr. Putin had yet made a decision about whether to invade Ukraine, “but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible that something absolutely disastrous could happen very soon indeed.”
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg echoed Mr. Johnson’s grim assessment. “The number of Russian forces is going up. The warning time for a possible attack is going down.”
The U.S. and Britain and several Eastern European countries have rushed weapons such as anti-tank and anti-ship missiles to Ukraine’s outgunned military. The U.S. and Britain have also deployed additional troops to Poland, a NATO ally that shares borders with Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
Canada has announced an expansion of Operation Unifier, a seven-year-old mission to train the Ukrainian military, from 200 soldiers to 260. However, the government has thus far refrained from supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, despite repeated requests from Kyiv.
Canada, the U.S., and other countries have ordered non-essential diplomatic staff out of the country and have advised that their citizens in Ukraine should leave while commercial flights are still available.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff are continuing. But a Thursday visit to Moscow by British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss dissolved into sniping between her and Mr. Lavrov.
“I’m honestly disappointed that what we have is a conversation between a mute person and a deaf person … Our most detailed explanations fell on unprepared soil,” Mr. Lavrov said at a joint news conference that ended with him walking off while Ms. Truss was still collecting her papers off her podium.
Mr. Lavrov appeared to be angry that Ms. Truss stuck to Western talking points during her visit, insisting that it was up to Moscow to de-escalate the situation. “I can’t see any other reason for having 100,000 troops stationed on the border, apart from to threaten Ukraine. And if Russia is serious about diplomacy, they need to remove those troops and desist from the threats,” she said.
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