Defiant Ukrainians stage 'day of unity' after Russian invasion failed to materialise

Defiant Ukrainians stage ‘day of unity’ after Russian invasion failed to materialise

Ukrainians defied pressure from Moscow with a national show of flag-waving unity on Wednesday, even as the West warned it has seen no sign of a promised pullback of Russian troops from the country’s borders.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, who declared the ‘unity day’ to coincide with the rumoured date of Putin’s invasion, addressed the nation after the attack failed to materialise – telling his countrymen that ‘we can defend our home only if we stay united.’

‘We are united by a desire to happily live in peace,’ he added, before flying via helicopter to a training range in Ukraine’s west where live-fire tank and aircraft drills were underway.

Across the country, people of all ages waved flags in the streets and from apartment windows as a two-fingered salute in the face of Putin’s threat to attack with some 150,000 troops massed on the borders.

Hundreds unfolded a 650ft flag at Kyiv’s Olimpiyskiy Stadium, while another was draped in a shopping centre in the capital. In the government-controlled part of Ukraine’s eastern region of Luhansk, where a war with Russian-backed separatists has simmered since 2014, residents stretched another huge flag across a street.

As the celebrations took place, a fresh round of ‘negotiating’ got underway between East and West – with NATO warning Putin does not appear to be pulling troops back from the border as promised, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged to ‘retaliate’ to any new British sanctions on his country.  

Elsewhere today… 

  • Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he is ‘positive’ that Joe Biden is ready to enter into talks about European security and Putin wants to engage
  • Russia denied having anything to do with a cyberattack that took down banks and the website of Ukraine’s defence ministry overnight  
  • The EU called on Russia to take ‘concrete steps’ to de-escalate its troop build-up around Ukraine, while hailing ‘signs of hope’
  • Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s right-wing leader, arrived in Moscow for trade talks today – brushing off pressure from the US to cancel the trip 

Ukrainian fighter-bomb jets take part in training exercises Povursk airfield in the country's west as national 'unity day' protests take place in defiance of Russian threats

Ukrainian fighter-bomb jets take part in training exercises Povursk airfield in the country’s west as national ‘unity day’ protests take place in defiance of Russian threats

Hundreds of Ukrainians unfurled a 650ft flag at Kiev's Olympic Stadium as part of 'unity day' celebrations on Wednesday

Hundreds of Ukrainians unfurled a 650ft flag at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium as part of ‘unity day’ celebrations on Wednesday

Volodymyr Zelensky called for the celebrations to coincide with the rumoured date of a Russian attack, saying that Ukrainians are united by a desire to live in peace

Volodymyr Zelensky called for the celebrations to coincide with the rumoured date of a Russian attack, saying that Ukrainians are united by a desire to live in peace

Ukrainians wave flags in Maidan Square, where the revolution that ousted the country's last pro-Russian government was overthrown, setting it on a path to closer ties with the West

Ukrainians wave flags in Maidan Square, where the revolution that ousted the country’s last pro-Russian government was overthrown, setting it on a path to closer ties with the West

Ukrainians hold banners in Kiev's Maidan Square as they sing the national anthem during a day of unity, timed to coincide with a rumoured day of Russian invasion

Ukrainians hold banners in Kiev’s Maidan Square as they sing the national anthem during a day of unity, timed to coincide with a rumoured day of Russian invasion

Defiant Ukrainians stage 'day of unity' after Russian invasion failed to materialise Defiant Ukrainians stage 'day of unity' after Russian invasion failed to materialise

A fake column of tanks is destroyed by Ukrainian jets during training exercises on Wednesday, amid the threat of invasion

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy examines weapons as he attends tactical military exercises held by the country's armed forces at a training ground in Rivne, in the country's west

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy examines weapons as he attends tactical military exercises held by the country’s armed forces at a training ground in Rivne, in the country’s west

Defiant Ukrainians stage 'day of unity' after Russian invasion failed to materialise

Ukrainian fighter planes take part in live-fire drills at the Povursk airfield in western Ukraine as they prepare for the possibility of an invasion by Russia

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said earlier today videos of tanks being taken away from Crimea are merely routine troop movements instead of a promised drawn-down, and that Russia actually appears to be increasing its forces.

‘If they really start to withdraw, that’s something we will welcome. But that remains to be seen,’ he added while sitting down for a NATO summit in Brussels on next moves. ‘Just seeing the movement of battle tanks doesn’t confirm a real withdrawal.’

Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, sounded a similar note of caution as he arrived for the summit – saying that Russia’s forces remain at a high level of readiness that can be maintained for ‘weeks’ as talks resume at the barrel of a gun. 

‘It’s pretty clear that [Russia’s] intentions towards Ukraine are to change their behaviour, and indeed change NATO’s relationship with Ukraine, and they’re doing so at the threat of invasion,’ he added. 

Meanwhile Lavrov, who has been leading negotiations with NATO and the US, said in Moscow today that ‘hysteria’ over an invasion is ‘puzzling’ to Russia while accusing the allies of trying to dictate where Putin can position troops on his own territory. 

Underlining concerns about the Russian ‘withdrawal’, analysts from Conflict Intelligence Team – a respected group which tracks Russian military movements – said forces being withdrawn from Crimea will actually be moved closer to Ukraine. 

Moscow says the units are being moved to their ‘home bases’, but the homes of at least three of the four units leaving Crimea are as close or closer than their current position relative to Ukraine.

Izvestia newspaper reported that units of the 3rd, 42nd and 150th Motorised Rifle Divisions are being sent back to their permanent bases.

Yet the 3rd is based at Valuyki and Boguchar, respectively 15 and 42 miles from the Ukrainian border in Belgorod and Voronezh regions respectively.

The 150th is based in Novocherkassk, Rostov region, some 31 miles from the border.

The troops will be as close – or closer – to the border at their permanent barracks.

Of the three named divisions being pulled out of Crimea, only the 42nd – in Chechnya – is a substantial distance from Ukraine, some 700 miles away.

It comes a day after Putin said he is willing to engage in negotiations with the West over security guarantees designed to ease sky-high tensions. 

Both Mr Stoltenburg and Mr Wallace did welcome the change in tone from Moscow, while pointing out that the crisis is far from over.

‘There’s over 100 battalion tactical groups of the Russian ground forces, that’s 60 per cent of the entire Russian land combat power on the borders of Ukraine,’ Mr Wallace said.

A Ukrainian tank takes part in live-fire drills near the city of Rivne, in the country's west, on Thursday as thousands of Russian troops mass in the east

A Ukrainian tank takes part in live-fire drills near the city of Rivne, in the country’s west, on Thursday as thousands of Russian troops mass in the east

A Ukrainian tank takes part in live-fire exercises near the city of Rivne, in the country's west, amid continued fears that Russia is positioning itself to attack

A Ukrainian tank takes part in live-fire exercises near the city of Rivne, in the country’s west, amid continued fears that Russia is positioning itself to attack

One Ukrainian tank appears to run over the nose of another vehicle during drills to mark a national 'day of unity'

One Ukrainian tank appears to run over the nose of another vehicle during drills to mark a national ‘day of unity’

Ukrainians in Maidan square, Kiev, cautious but hopeful with banners calling for "peace and togetherness"

Ukrainians in Maidan square, Kiev, cautious but hopeful with banners calling for ‘peace and togetherness’

Defiant Ukrainians stage 'day of unity' after Russian invasion failed to materialise A Ukrainian fighter jet is pictured on the runway at Povursk airfield as it takes part in live-fire drills on Wednesday

A Ukrainian fighter jet is pictured on the runway at Povursk airfield as it takes part in live-fire drills on Wednesday

The view from a cockpit of a Ukrainian fighter shows other jets flying in formation during drills in the country's west today

The view from a cockpit of a Ukrainian fighter shows other jets flying in formation during drills in the country’s west today

‘130,000-plus troops, both in Belarus and indeed Ukraine, but also out at sea there’s effectively a significant flotilla of Russian and amphibious landing ships, and indeed war ships and missile ships.

‘From a Ukrainian point of view they’re fairly surrounded by a very large force of ready troops. That continues, they haven’t taken the foot of the gas.’

He added: ‘That’s why we’re all here at Nato today and tomorrow to try and work together to reduce tensions and try and de-escalate.’

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, added his voice to the chorus – saying he hasn’t seen ‘any withdrawal yet’. 

Putin wants Ukraine to be banned from joining NATO and for the alliance to withdraw troops from ex-Soviet states. 

Both of those demands have been dismissed but a range of other compromises have been offered on arms control, transparency around missile deployments, and information-sharing on military drills that Putin has said he is willing to discuss.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister and chief negotiator, has said a 10-page response to NATO’s offers has been prepared though not yet sent. 

Kyiv Mayor Wladimir Klitschko has said that he hopes for a ‘last-minute’ diplomatic solution between Russia and Ukraine.

The former heavyweight champion of the world told LBC that he hoped that Russia would not invade his country on Wednesday.

‘It is the first time in the history of Ukraine that so many Russian soldiers stayed at the border’, he said.

‘The risk (of) aggression towards Ukraine is pretty big. We prepare for any scenario.

‘We do not know how the situation will develop but we hope that the invasion does not happen, and that at the last minute we have a diplomatic solution.’

Meanwhile the former head of MI6 Sir John Sawers said that the threat of a ‘full-blooded’ Russian invasion has now ‘receded’ after Putin made ‘a number of important gains’ in the military standoff.   

Ukrainian soldiers carrying anti-tank weapons take part in a joint drill with an armoured vehicle in western Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers carrying anti-tank weapons take part in a joint drill with an armoured vehicle in western Ukraine

Tank shells explode as they hit fake vehicles during target practice by Ukraine's military near the city of Rivne today

Tank shells explode as they hit fake vehicles during target practice by Ukraine’s military near the city of Rivne today

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy arrives at a military drill for Ukrainian soldiers to show his support

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy arrives at a military drill for Ukrainian soldiers to show his support

Ukrainian soldiers pose for a photo in Odessa, southern Ukraine, during 'unity day' celebrations in defiance of Russia

Ukrainian soldiers pose for a photo in Odessa, southern Ukraine, during ‘unity day’ celebrations in defiance of Russia

Ukraine tests tank-buster missile sent by Britain 

Troops in Ukraine fired anti-tank weapons in exercises yesterday as the country continued to prepare for a possible invasion by Russia.

It comes after the UK last month gave 2,000 NLAW anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. The troops carrying out test-firing in the eastern Donetsk region yesterday were using NLAWs but it was unclear if these were British weapons.

It was part of a series of drills by Ukraine in recent days. Military commanders had issued a statement on Sunday insisting they were ready to see off the Russian threat. They boasted of their Stinger and Javelin missiles, saying: ‘We are ready to meet the enemy – and not with flowers but with Stingers, Javelins and NLAWs.’

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sir John said that invasion was always ‘very risky’ for Putin and the threat of an attack was perhaps not as real as some governments had made out.

‘I don’t think that President Putin ever decided to invade the country and, indeed, I think it would always have been a very risky course for him to have taken,’ he said.

‘But I think Russia has also come out of this with a number of important gains,’ he added, saying it has got Russia’s security concerns back to the top of the international security agenda, the Ukrainians have been intimidated and Europeans have been reminded how dependent they are on Russian gas.

Sir John added: ‘I think in some ways President Putin will think he’s ahead on points on this and he still has various military options which he can use in Ukraine.

‘I think the risk of full-blooded invasion … was never quite as high as was being portrayed by some Western governments, but I think that has receded.’ 

Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly sought to project calm but also strength during the crisis. 

In an apparent show of defiance, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared that Wednesday would be a ‘day of national unity,’ calling on citizens to display the blue-and-yellow flag and sing the national anthem in the face of ‘hybrid threats.’

Even amid the glimmers of hope, Biden said 150,000 Russian forces are now massed near Ukraine and in neighboring Belarus – an increase from an earlier U.S. estimate of 130,000 troops.

Russia’s claim that it pulled back troops ‘would be good, but we have not yet verified that,’ Biden said. ‘Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position.’

Russia has denied having any invasion plans. It wants the West to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet nations out of NATO, halt weapons deployments near Russian borders and roll back forces from Eastern Europe.

The U.S. and its allies have roundly rejected those demands, but they offered to engage in talks with Russia on ways to bolster security in Europe.

Speaking after meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said the West agreed to discuss a ban on missile deployment to Europe, restrictions on military drills and other confidence-building measures – issues that Moscow put on the table years ago.

He said Russia is open to discuss ‘some of those elements,’ but added that it would do so only in combination ‘with the main issues that are of primary importance for us.’

While Scholz reiterated that NATO’s eastward expansion ‘is not on the agenda – everyone knows that very well,’ Putin retorted that Moscow will not be assuaged by such assurances.

‘They are telling us it won’t happen tomorrow,’ Putin said. ‘Well, when will it happen? The day after tomorrow? What does it change for us in the historic perspective? Nothing.’

Scholz also said diplomatic options are ‘far from exhausted,’ and he praised the announcement of a troop withdrawal as a ‘good signal,’ adding: ‘We hope that more will follow.’

The Russian Defense Ministry released images of tanks and howitzers rolling onto railway platforms and more tanks rolling across snowy fields. 

It did not disclose where or when the images were taken, or where the vehicles were headed, other than ‘to places of permanent deployment.’ 

Russia has released footage of tanks being 'withdrawn' from Crimea, though NATO says it has seen no sign they are heading away from the front

Russia has released footage of tanks being ‘withdrawn’ from Crimea, though NATO says it has seen no sign they are heading away from the front 

Images released by Russia show tanks being loaded on to train transports as Moscow claims they are heading back to their permanent bases

Images released by Russia show tanks being loaded on to train transports as Moscow claims they are heading back to their permanent bases 

A Russian tanks sits on a train transport as Moscow says forces are being moved away from the front, though doubts have been raised by NATO

A Russian tanks sits on a train transport as Moscow says forces are being moved away from the front, though doubts have been raised by NATO

Ukraine expressed skepticism.

‘We won’t believe when we hear, we’ll believe when we see,’ Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said.

And NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that there have been no signs, so far, of a reduced military presence on Ukraine’s borders.

Meanwhile, a series of cyberattacks knocked out the websites of the Ukrainian army, the defense ministry and major banks. 

There was no indication that the relatively low-level denial-of-service attacks might be a smoke screen for more serious cyber mischief. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. has not yet determined who was behind the attacks.

Despite the worst East-West tensions in decades, few Russians expect a war. In a village in Russia’s Belgorod region, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Ukraine’s border, residents carried on with life as usual, even as more military personnel have been passing through village streets.

‘We are really on the border, we really have relatives here and there, everyone has somebody’ on the Ukrainian side, villager Lyudmila Nechvolod said. ‘No one wants war.’

Russian lawmakers urged Putin to recognize rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine as independent states. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house, voted to submit an appeal to Putin to that effect.

Putin said the request reflects the Russian public’s sympathy for the suffering of people trapped in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed over 14,000 since 2014. 

He noted, however, that Russia continues to believe a 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany should serve as the main vehicle for a settlement of the separatist conflict. 

Russian tanks in Crimea begin returning to their home bases after training exercises, as Putin signals he is ready to start talking with the West

Russian tanks in Crimea begin returning to their home bases after training exercises, as Putin signals he is ready to start talking with the West

Russian military vehicles are seen leaving Crimea across a bridge connecting it with mainland Russia, amid a rumoured drawn-down of forces

Russian military vehicles are seen leaving Crimea across a bridge connecting it with mainland Russia, amid a rumoured drawn-down of forces

Military vehicles leaving Crimea appear to have hit a Lada on a bridge connecting it with the Russian mainland on Wednesday

Military vehicles leaving Crimea appear to have hit a Lada on a bridge connecting it with the Russian mainland on Wednesday

Russian Navy vessel Dmitry Rogachev sails through the Bosphorus Strait via Turkey on its way to the Black Sea amid warnings that Putin continues to build his forces

Russian Navy vessel Dmitry Rogachev sails through the Bosphorus Strait via Turkey on its way to the Black Sea amid warnings that Putin continues to build his forces

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