Ukraine war: Belarus poised to declare war as special forces are ‘loaded onto planes in’ 

Belarusian special forces are loading onto airplanes in preparation for an air assault on Kyiv in what would be a widening of the conflict and a declaration of war on Ukraine by dictator Alexander Lukashenko, military sources have claimed.

Ukrainian intelligence has reportedly learned from within Belarus that ‘special ops’ troops have been spotted loading up planes for a major attack.

A widening of the war to potentially include Russian ally Belarus could signal Vladimir Putin’s growing fury and frustration as the Russian campaign appears to get bogged down in fierce fighting around Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city. It could also run the risk of sucking in other states including NATO allies, triggering a pan-European conflict.

A senior source told the Mirror: ‘If this happens it will mean Belarus has openly joined Russia in its invasion of sovereign Ukraine. We believe they are being targeted at Kyiv and Zhytomir.’

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Kyiv’s former defence minister, has claimed that Belarus is about to declare war on Ukraine. The Guardian quoted Zagorodnyuk as saying: ‘Republic of Belarus is highly likely to join the Russian war against Ukraine. On Russian side. There is an information about airborne troopers from Republic of Belarus loaded on the planes to enter Ukraine.

‘This is a terrible development as it involves a country, which until very recently was a great friend of Ukraine; which people always considered Ukraine as a brotherly nation. Ukraine and Belarus has never been to war one with another in their many hundred years of history.

‘We believe that the only reason for that decision was personal demand from President of Russia, which completely depends from Putin in its policy.’

Kremlin forces invaded Ukraine on Thursday from the south, east and from Belarus in the north, having spent weeks building up Russia’s elite Spetsnaz troops on so-called ‘exercises’ with their Belarusian counterparts. 

Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said on the Telegram messaging app on Sunday that Russia and Ukraine would meet at an unspecified location on the Belarusian border and did not give a precise time for the meeting.

Russia had announced that its delegation had flown to Belarus to await talks. Ukrainian officials initially rejected the move, saying any talks should take place elsewhere than Belarus, where Moscow placed a large contingent of troops before it invaded Ukraine starting Thursday.

It is thought that the Kremlin underestimated the level of resistance they would meet from Kyiv’s troops and were overly reliant trying to panic Ukraine into surrender. 

The sluggish Russian effort has sparked Western fears that he could resort to drastic measures to crush the Ukrainian resistance. This could include the use of thermobaric bombs, among the most lethal non-nuclear bombs ever developed.

It comes as Putin ordered Russian nuclear deterrent forces put on high alert on Sunday amid tensions with the West over his invasion of Ukraine. 

Alexander Lukashenko gestures as he speaks during a press conference with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, February 18, 2022

Ukrainian servicemen have a rest on a position near Kiev, Ukraine, February 27, 2022

Ukrainian servicemen have a rest on a position near Kiev, Ukraine, February 27, 2022

A Russian military vehicle is seen ablaze in Kharkiv on Sunday morning after troops entered the eastern Ukrainian city 

Russian forces are pictured entering Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, on Sunday morning. Gun battles are reported to have erupted

Russian forces are pictured entering Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv, on Sunday morning. Gun battles are reported to have erupted

Russian forces are pictured entering Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, on Sunday morning. Gun battles are reported to have erupted. Russian vehicles are said to have been marked with a white Z to distinguish them from Ukrainian combatants

This map shows the strikes Russia is so-far known to have carried out against Ukraine, with more explosions rocking the country in the early hours of Sunday morning

Putin’s regime ‘set for real economic pain’ after West removes Russian banks from Swift

Britain, the US, Canada and the European Union have announced that selected Russian banks would be excluded from the Swift global payments system.

Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky both welcomed the ‘increased willingness’ to take action against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Here, the PA news agency answers key questions about Swift and why the issue is so important. 

What is Swift?

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift) is a secure messaging system used by financial institutions to move money around the world.

Instead of holding or transferring funds, Swift allows banks and companies to alert each other of transactions that are about to take place.

Who uses it?

The platform, founded in the 1970s, connects more than 11,000 banking and securities organisations, market infrastructures and corporate customers in more than 200 countries and territories.

It averaged 42 million messages daily last year to enable payments, with about half of all high-value transactions crossing national borders going through it.

Why is it being mentioned following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

It is the latest announcement following a number of sanctions that have hit Russia.

The Prime Minister told broadcasters during a visit to RAF Brize Norton: ‘It is incredibly important for tightening the economic ligature around the Putin regime.’

The move has been described by Armed forces minister James Heappey as the ‘ultimate economic sanction’.

Why does the UK want Russia to be excluded?

Banning Russian banks from the platform would hit the country’s access to financial markets across the world.

This would cause delays and extra costs for the Russian economy, and would make it harder for other countries to make payments to Russia.

How significant would the blow to Russia’s economy be? 

In an explanatory Twitter threat, investment specialist Sahil Bloom wrote: ‘Cutting off a nation’s banks from SWIFT access restricts flows into and out of that nation. 

‘Russia is a massive economy with tentacles that reach all around the world…

‘It is a key energy supplier to Europe and the world. It is an exporter of materials critical to the manufacturing of jet engines, semiconductors, automotives, electronics, and fertilizers. Cutting off Russia from SWIFT would impact the flow of payments for these industries.’ 

Some commentators have suggested the move could increase energy prices if European countries are unable to pay Russian suppliers of fossil fuels.     

Speaking at a meeting with his top officials, the Russian president claimed that leading NATO powers had made ‘aggressive statements’ along with the West imposing hard-hitting financial sanctions against Russia, including the president himself.

He ordered the Russian defence minister and the chief of the military’s General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a ‘special regime of combat duty’. 

‘Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country,’ Putin said in televised comments.

His order raised the threat that the tensions with the West over the invasion in Ukraine could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

The Russian leader this week threatened to retaliate harshly against any nations that intervened directly in the conflict in Ukraine.

Estonia’s former defence chief Riho Terras claimed that Putin’s war is not going to plan because Russia is fast running out of money and weapons, and will have to enter negotiations with Volodymyr Zelensky’s government if Kyiv holds off the Russians for 10 days.

The Russian president allegedly convened a meeting with the oligarchs in a bunker in the Ural Mountains, at which it is claimed that he furiously vented that he thought the war would be ‘easy’ and ‘everything would be done in one to four days’.

Citing Ukrainian intelligence sources, Terras claimed that the war is costing Russia around £15billion-per-day, and that they have rockets for three to four days at most, which they are using sparingly.

Street fighting broke out in Ukraine’s second-largest city and Russian troops squeezed strategic ports in the country’s south Sunday, advances that appeared to mark a new phase of Russia’s invasion following a wave of attacks on airfields and fuel facilities elsewhere in the country.

Kyiv was eerily quiet after huge explosions lit up the morning sky and authorities reported blasts at one of the airports. Only an occasional car appeared on a deserted main boulevard as a strict 39-hour curfew kept people off the streets. Terrified residents instead hunkered down in homes, underground garages and subway stations in anticipation of a full-scale Russian assault.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: ‘The past night was tough – more shelling, more bombing of residential areas and civilian infrastructure.

‘There is not a single facility in the country that the occupiers wouldn’t consider as admissible targets.’

Following its gains to the east in the city of Kharkiv and multiple ports, Russia sent a delegation to Belarus for peace talks with Ukraine, according to the Kremlin. Zelensky suggested other locations, saying his country was unwilling to meet in Belarus because it served as a staging ground for the invasion.

Until Sunday, Russia’s troops had remained on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city of 1.4million about 12.4 miles south of the border with Russia, while other forces rolled past to press the offensive deeper into Ukraine.

Videos posted on Ukrainian media and social networks showed Russian vehicles moving across Kharkiv and Russian troops roaming the city in small groups. One showed Ukrainian troops firing at the Russians and damaged Russian light utility vehicles abandoned nearby.

The images underscored the determined resistance Russian troops face while attempting to enter Ukraine’s bigger cities. Ukrainians have volunteered en masse to help defend the capital, Kyiv, and other cities, taking guns distributed by authorities and preparing firebombs to fight Russian forces.

Ukraine’s government also is releasing prisoners with military experience who want to fight for the country, a prosecutor’s office official, Andriy Sinyuk, told the Hromadske TV channel Sunday. He did not specify whether the move applied to prisoners convicted of all levels of crimes.

Putin hasn’t disclosed his ultimate plans, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own, redrawing the map of Europe and reviving Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.

The pressure on strategic ports in the south of Ukraine appeared aimed at seizing control of the country’s coastline stretching from the border with Romania in the west to the border with Russia in the east. A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said Russian forces had blocked the cities of Kherson on the Black Sea and the port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea.

He said the Russian forces also took control of an airbase near Kherson and the Azov Sea city of Henichesk. Ukrainian authorities also have reported fighting near Odesa, Mykolaiv and other areas.

Cutting Ukraine’s access to its sea ports would deal a major blow to the country’s economy. It also could allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and until now was connected to Russia by a 12 mile bridge, the longest bridge in Europe which opened in 2018. 

Russians attend anti-war protests: A man holds a poster which reads "No war" as people lay flowers near the place where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down, with the Kremlin Wall

Russians attend anti-war protests: A man holds a poster which reads ‘No war’ as people lay flowers near the place where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down, with the Kremlin Wall

A column of Russian military vehicles is seen near the village of Oktyabrsky, Belgorod Region, near the Russian-Ukrainian border, on February 26, 2022

A column of Russian military vehicles is seen near the village of Oktyabrsky, Belgorod Region, near the Russian-Ukrainian border, on February 26, 2022

Burning Russian military equipment on the streets of Kharkiv minutes after Russian army entered the city

Burning Russian military equipment on the streets of Kharkiv minutes after Russian army entered the city

The paranoid ‘old man in the bunker’: Isolated Putin spends time ‘stewing in his own fears’ after ‘withdrawing into himself’ during pandemic and only has contact with his inner circle 

Questions have been raised over whether Covid-19 has fueled Vladimir Putin’s paranoia after claims emerged the isolated president spent time ‘stewing in his own fears’ after ‘withdrawing into himself’ during the pandemic.

Putin reportedly only had contact with his inner circle during the pandemic, but even they were asked to present faecal samples several times a week to check for infection and, in some cases, asked to isolate for two weeks before face-to-face meeting.

It is the latest in a string of questions being asked about the Russian leader’s state of mind after he announced the invasion of Ukraine in ‘rambling, terrifying, apocalyptic’ fashion.

Rumours surrounding the Russian leader’s health have been swirling for years, with repeated reports suggesting that he is suffering from cancer and Parkinson’s disease, or been affected by long Covid-19 causing ‘brain fog’.

Fears were raised again yesterday after US Senator Marco Rubio appeared to suggest he believes Putin is mentally unwell in a tweet that warned it was ‘pretty obvious’ that ‘something is off’ with the Russian president amid his invasion of Ukraine.

‘I wish I could share more, but for now I can say it’s pretty obvious to many that something is off with #Putin’, the Republican Senator for Florida wrote.

‘He has always been a killer, but his problem now is different & significant It would be a mistake to assume this Putin would react the same way he would have 5 years ago.’

Flames billowed from an oil depot near an airbase in Vasylkiv, a city 23 miles south of Kyiv where there has been intense fighting, according to the mayor. Russian forces blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv, prompting the government to warn people to cover their windows with damp cloth or gauze as protection from smoke, the president’s office said.

The number of casualties so far from Europe’s largest land conflict since World War Two remains unclear amid the fog of combat.

Ukraine’s health minister reported Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded. It was unclear whether those figures included both military and civilian casualties. Russia has not released any casualty information.

Ukraine’s UN ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, tweeted Saturday that Ukraine appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross ‘to facilitate repatriation of thousands of bodies of Russian soldiers’. An accompanying chart claimed 3,500 Russian troops have been killed.

Laetitia Courtois, ICRC’s permanent observer to the UN, told The Associated Press that the situation in Ukraine was ‘a limitation for our teams on the ground’ and ‘we therefore cannot confirm numbers or other details’.

The United Nations’ refugee agency said Sunday that about 368,000 Ukrainians have arrived in neighbouring countries since the invasion started Thursday. The UN has estimated the conflict could produce as many as 4million refugees, depending how long it continues.

Zelensky denounced Russia’s offensive as ‘state terrorism’. He said the attacks on Ukrainian cities should be investigated by an international war crimes tribunal and cost Russia its place as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

‘Russia has taken the path of evil, and the world should come to depriving it of its UN Security Council seat,’ he said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a Russian delegation of military officials and diplomats had arrived Sunday in the Belarusian city of Gomel for talks with Ukraine. Zelensky on Friday offered to negotiate a key Russian demand: abandoning ambitions of joining NATO.

Ukraine’s president said his country was ready for peace talks but not in Belarus.

Peskov claimed Ukraine had proposed holding talks in Gomel. He added that the Russian military action was going forward pending the talks start.

Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak dismissed Moscow’s offer as ‘manipulation’.

As Russia pushes ahead with its offensive, the West is working to equip the outnumbered Ukrainian forces with weapons and ammunition while punishing Russia with far-reaching sanctions intended to further isolate Moscow.

The US pledged an additional $350million in military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armor and small arms. Germany said it would send missiles and anti-tank weapons to the besieged country and that it would close its airspace to Russian planes.

The US, European Union and Britain agreed to block ‘selected’ Russian banks from the SWIFT global financial messaging system, which moves money around more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions worldwide, part of a new round of sanctions aiming to impose a severe cost on Moscow for the invasion. They also agreed to impose ‘restrictive measures’ on Russia’s central bank.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, said Sunday that his country is committing $112.7billion to a special fund for its armed forces, raising its defence spending above 2 per cent of gross domestic product. Scholz told a special session of the Bundestag the investment was needed ‘to protect our freedom and our democracy’.

Putin sent troops into Ukraine after denying for weeks that he intended to do so, all the while building up a force of almost 200,000 troops along the countries’ borders. He claims the West has failed to take seriously Russia’s security concerns about NATO, the Western military alliance that Ukraine aspires to join. But he has also expressed scorn about Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.

Russia claims its assault on Ukraine is aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighbourhoods have been hit.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, said Ukraine was gathering evidence of shelling of residential areas, kindergartens and hospitals to submit to an international war crimes court in The Hague as possible crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has said he is monitoring the conflict closely.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned Sunday that Putin could use ‘the most unsavoury means’, including banned chemical or biological weapons, to defeat Ukraine.

‘I urge the Russians not to escalate this conflict, but we do need to be prepared for Russia to seek to use even worse weapons,’ Truss told Sky News.