Russia will carry out wide-ranging missile drills tomorrow including around Crimea and the Black Sea that will involve launching ballistic and cruise missiles and involve its nuclear forces, the Kremlin has announced.
The exercise, which will be overseen by Vladimir Putin himself, will involve Russia’s aerospace forces, its strategic missile command, Northern and Black Sea fleets and the Southern Military District – which covers Crimea and part of the border close to rebel-held areas in Ukraine.
It is designed to test the ‘readiness’ of commanders and troops as well as ‘the reliability of weapons of strategic nuclear and non-nuclear forces’ and will involve the launch of ‘ballistic and cruise missiles’, Moscow’s defence ministry said today.
Officials claim the drill is pre-planned, but the timing will spark fears that it is designed to provide cover for an invasion of Ukraine. Experts predict the first phase of a Russian assault will be ballistic missile attacks on border areas, military bases, infrastructure and major cities.
It comes as defence ministers meet in Munich for a security conference that will begin today and continue over the weekend aimed at averting war in Ukraine. Russia will not send a delegation to the summit, marking the first time in years that it has not attended.
The historical parallel with the 1938 Munich Agreement – an attempt at appeasement with Hitler’s Germany that failed to avert the Second World War – could hardly be more poignant or chilling.
The conference comes against the backdrop of Russian claims of ‘genocide’ in Ukraine’s Donbass region that the West warns will likely be used as a pre-text to attack. Last night, at the UN, Russia presented papers alleging 9,000 civilians including 126 children have been killed by Ukrainian forces there. The claims have not been verified.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence last night outlined how it believes a Russian invasion will play out, noting that over half of Moscow’s forces near Ukraine have now been moved to within 30 miles of the border. Ukraine warned today that the total number of troops now stands at 149,000.
Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s northern border in a way that ‘directly threatens Kiev, the capital’, said the MoD report, which showed a series of possible routes Russian soldiers could take in an invasion that could see them take much of the east of the country.
The report said Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s northern border in a way that ‘directly threatens Kiev, the capital’ and showed a series of possible routes Russian soldiers could take in an invasion that could see them take much of the east of the country
A map showing where Putin’s forces have assembled on Ukraine’s borders, the military options Putin might be considering, and key targets he would likely go after in the event he chooses to invade – something the US continues to war could be just weeks away from happening
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin removes documents from his bag at the UN security council, during which he presented papers containing unsubstantiated allegations of ‘genocide’ in Ukraine that could serve as a pre-text to invade
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the UN in New York (pictured fist bumping the UK’s Minister of State for Europe James Cleverly) on Thursday warned that Vladimir Putin might launch a chemical weapons attack before invading Ukraine after Russia demanded America pull all of its troops out of Central and Eastern Europe
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited soldiers stationed not far Donetsk, a city controlled by pro-Russian militants, on Thursday as the US warned that Russia’s President Putin might launch a chemical weapons attack before invading Ukraine
A member of the Russian-backed rebel forces in eastern Ukraine patrols through a damaged building during an uptick in clashes along the frontline that each side blames on the other
Russian-backed rebel troops inspect damaged buildings near the frontlines with Ukrainian troops, as conflict monitors say there has been a dramatic uptick in clashes in the last 24 hours
From pretext to ground troops: The four steps in a Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to Antony Blinken at the UN
Blinken said he was outlining Russia’s plans during a meeting of the UN Security Council ‘not to start a war but to prevent one’
Secretary of State Antony Blinken used a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to outline how the US believes a Russian invasion of Ukraine would unfold
1) Manufactured pretext – Russia would accuse Ukraine of a violent outrage such as a fabricated terrorist bombing inside Russia, a faked mass grave, a drone strike against civilians or a fake – or even a real – chemical weapons attack.
2) Emergency meetings in Moscow – Blinken said the highest levels of government may ‘theatrically’ convene emergency meetings to address the so-called crisis, before issuing a proclamation that they must defend Russians in Ukraine.
3) Attack – the next stage will come with Russian missiles and bombs dropping on Ukraine, jammed communications, and cyberattacks designed to shut down ‘key Ukrainian institutions.’
4) Ground invasion – Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. Blinken said that would include Ukraine’s capital Kiev.
Blinken offered another chilling line.
‘Conventional attacks are not all that Russia plans to inflict upon the people of Ukraine,’ he said.
‘We have information that indicates Russia will target specific groups of Ukrainians.’
The US has faced repeated questions about the validity of its intelligence. And those seated around the table from Blinken will remember the false claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction presented there almost 20 years ago.
‘Let me be clear, I am here today not to start a war but to prevent one,’ said Blinken.
‘Information presented here is validated by what we’ve seen unfolding in plain sight before our eyes for months.’
It warned there would be ‘considerable’ civilian casualties in the event of war and that Putin ‘would be willing’ to sustain the losses ‘to get what he wants’.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will be among the dignitaries attending the three-day event, known as ‘Davos for defence’, which kicks off on Friday at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich.
No Russian delegation will attend the conference, the Kremlin said last week – the first no-show in years, underscoring how much East-West relations have deteriorated.
Even at the height of the Ukrainian revolution preceding Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the forum had increasingly become biased towards the West, ‘losing its inclusivity, objectivity’.
Daniela Schwarzer, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said: ‘Russia has limited interest in dialogue and in particular an open conversation about security in Europe.
‘The conference is an occasion for the political West to show unity vis-a-vis Russia and vis-a-vis authoritarian regimes more generally,’ said Schwarzer, who is attending the event.
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday there was now every indication Russia was planning to invade Ukraine in the next few days and was preparing a pretext to justify it, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin accused him of stoking tensions and threatened unspecified ‘military-technical measures’.
Schwarzer noted that the conference, while scaled back compared to pre-pandemic ones, would be the first physical meeting of the international security and foreign policy community in two years. In-person conversations were key to ‘building trust’, she said.
The Ukraine standoff is not the only crisis that will keep conference attendees busy. Roundtables on Saturday, the main day of events, will also address the fragile security situation in the Sahel and the revival of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
Both issues have flared up this week with the announced French withdrawal of troops from Mali after almost a decade fighting Islamist insurgents and reports of a new U.S.-Iranian deal taking shape.
Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger told reporters he could not recall a time when there were ‘so many overlapping crises’.
On Friday, the main program kicks off from 1230 GMT with speeches by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Over the weekend there will also be high-profile panels on cryptocurrency, climate change and the pandemic.
But much of the action is likely to take place on the sidelines of the main stage, said Ulrike Franke, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
One of these will be a meeting of the foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations set to address the Ukraine crisis.
‘Important issues are discussed at these meetings behind the scenes,’ said Franke, ‘and it’s only months later when something is announced that you realise what really happened in Munich.’
This will be Ischinger’s last time chairing the conference. After 14 years as chairman, he is set to hand over the reins to Christoph Heusgen, former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s adviser on foreign and security policy.
Meanwhile the Ukrainian military and independent conflict monitors reported a large uptick in fighting along the frontlines between Kiev’s forces and separatist rebels in the country’s east.
Ukraine said there were 60 incidents of shelling along virtually the whole of the frontline Thursday, the most-active day of attacks since 2018.
International monitors tasked with keeping the peace reported more than 300 explosions in 24 hours ending Thursday, around four times as many as an average day over the past month.
Rebel commanders claim they are responding to attacks by Ukrainian forces, but Kiev has rubbished the claim – saying they are the ones under ‘unprovoked’ attack.
Vladimir Putin (pictured during a video conference call on Thursday) will personally oversee drills of Russia’s missile forces that will take place across the country tomorrow
Russian cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet opens fire with its main guns during combat drills around Crimea on Friday
An image released by the Russian Defence Ministry shows cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet taking part in combat drills
Russian attack helicopters take part in combat drills over the Osipovichi training ground in Belarus on Thursday
A military helicopter fires flying over the Osipovichi training ground during joint training exercises with Belarus on Thursday
A burned-out military truck is seen on the Ukrainian side of frontlines with Russia rebel forces in the country’s east, as Kiev says it was hit by artillery fired by separatists
A Ukrainian soldier patrols the border with Russia in Kharkiv, Ukraine, amid fears an attack is now only days away
The village of Stanytsia Luhanska suffered more than its share of explosions on Thursday. One shell crashed into a kindergarten, blasting a hole in the wall that sent soccer balls flying off the classroom shelves just as the school day started. Others blasted craters into the schoolyard and shattered windows of nearby homes.
‘We heard the sound of broken glass. The children were very scared. Some kids started crying immediately, and the explosions continued for the next 20 minutes,’ said Olena Yaryna, the school director.
At Valentyna Melnychenko’s nearby home, the explosions filled her living room and hall with smoke.
‘I switched off the TV, and there were seven more shellings and then it stopped,’ she said as she surveyed the damage outside, her hair covered in a bright pink scarf that contrasted with the gray debris behind her.
Three people were wounded and half the village lost power. Oleksandr Pavliuk, a Ukrainian army commander, said the explosions were intended to provoke a response and ultimately a counter-response, echoing the warnings from the United States.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been in place in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014 to try and maintain the cease-fire. But even they were drawn into the fray this week.
In addition to the explosions, the organization recorded nearly 600 cease-fire violations over the course of a day, more than double the average for the past month. And three of the organization’s small surveillance drones went astray after the GPS signal was jammed; a fourth couldn’t make it off the ground without a signal.
Electronic interference went further overnight, when the cellphone network went down in Luhansk for hours, for the second night in a row, according to an Associated Press journalist working in the area.
The latest warning comes after a day of fraught relations after Moscow’s foreign ministry handed a lengthy document to the US ambassador to Russia demanding that all of Washington’s weapons in central and eastern Europe and the Baltics be removed – along with all weapons already sent to Ukraine – and repeated demands that Ukraine is banned from joining NATO.
In the document, which the US is expected to reject, Moscow accused Washington of failing to respond constructively to the demands it presented in December, including for a halt to the eastern enlargement of NATO.
Russia’s ‘red lines’ were still being ignored, it said in a riposte to US and NATO counter-proposals received last month.
At the same time, the US deputy ambassador to Moscow was expelled – prompting Joe Biden to say he now expects Russia to invade Ukraine in a ‘matter of days’ and that he will not be speaking to Putin in the meantime.
Blinken was in New York on Thursday after pushing back his plans to travel to the Munich Security Conference, which is likely to be the focus of international diplomacy for the next few days.
German police officers stand guard at a perimeter fence set up around the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich where a security conference will take place today
A police officer with a dog patrols the grounds around the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, where a security conference will take place today with Ukraine high on the agenda
Delegates and aides begin making their way into the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich for this weekend’s security conference
He laid out what Washington knew of Kremlin planning, starting with a ‘manufactured provocation and theatrical emergency meetings of the Russian government.
Next would come a promise to protect Russians in Ukraine, before cuber attacks and air strikes would begin. Tanks and soldiers would then move on key targets, including Kiev.
His purpose, he said, in laying out the intelligence findings was to persuade Putin to follow a different course.
Instead he demanded that Moscow issue an unequivocal promise that it will not invade Ukraine.
‘The Russian government can announce today, with no qualification, equivocation or deflection, that Russia will not invade Ukraine,’ he said.
‘State it clearly. State it plainly to the world, and then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, the planes back to their barracks and hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table.’
In response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said Blinken’s scenarios were ‘regrettable.’
‘I would even go so far as to say that they are dangerous because they bring in more tension into the unready tense atmosphere,’ he said, while repeating Moscow’s claims that some troops were already heading home after completing drills.
Earlier he called on the gathered foreign ministers not to turn the meeting into a ‘circus’ or use it to spread ‘baseless accusations.’
Blinken, speaking in front of the UN Security Council on Thursday, said: ‘As we meet today the most immediate threat to peace and security is Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine.
‘The stakes go far beyond Ukraine. This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people.’
‘This crisis directly affects every member of this council and every country in the world because the basic principles that sustain peace and security – principles that were enshrined in the wake of two world wars and the Cold War – are under threat,
‘The principle that one country cannot change the borders of another by force. The principle that one country cannot dictate another’s choices or policies or with whom it will associate. The principal of national sovereignty.’
The Russian document sent to the US ambassador on Thursday listed a series of demands to de-escalate the situation around Ukraine.
These included a halt to Western weapons supplies and removal of those already sent, the withdrawal of Western military advisers and instructors from Ukraine, and a halt to any joint NATO exercises with Ukraine.
‘In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees of our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures,’ the document said.
Russia has suggested in the past that ‘military-technical measures’ could include missile and troop deployments.