Russia has made fresh claims of a ‘genocide’ in eastern Ukraine in what world leaders fear is an attempt to justify an invasion of the country, as diplomats head to Munich for last-ditch talks aimed at averting war.
Russian state prosecutors last night sent documents to the UN claiming Ukrainian troops have killed some 9,000 civilians including 126 children in the eastern Donbass region, where government forces have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The papers, which the UN admits it has ‘no way of verifying’, appear an attempt to back up Vladimir Putin’s claim earlier this week of a ‘genocide’ against ethnic Russians in Donbass and provide a pre-text for Moscow to attack on the basis of ‘protecting’ them.
It is against this backdrop – including Russian demands that the US withdraw all troops and weapons from central and eastern Europe – that defence ministers head to Munich today for a weekend summit seen as one of the last opportunities to avert a conflict that many fear could trigger World War 3.
Russia will not be attending the summit – the first time in years that the country has not sent a delegation.
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 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
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
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.’
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.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chairs a video conference meeting on Thursday