The world is holding its breath today, waiting for Vladimir Putin to respond after he was sent two letters dismissing his top security demands around Ukraine – as Russian troops continue to mass on the border.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Thursday that Putin is still mulling over the letters from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO chief Jens Stoltenburg – which are thought to have ruled out the possibility of Ukraine being banned from the alliance and the removal of troops from ex-Soviet states that Moscow wanted.
Peskov said there is ‘little room for optimism’ after an initial reading and that Moscow’s main concerns are being ignored, but left the option of further talks open – at least for now. ‘We won’t rush with our assessments,’ he said.
Separately, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added that fundamental issues are not being addressed but said it will ultimately be up to Putin how to respond. He spoke a day after warning that Russia is ready to take rapid ‘retaliatory measures’ if their demands are ignored – prompting the US to urge it citizens to leave Ukraine.
With any hope of a breakthrough seemingly dashed, Russia’s troop build-up on Ukraine’s border continued today. Western security sources said that there are now between 112,000 and 120,000 combat-ready soldiers at the front with more on their way – and it ‘could be a lot more’, one source told NBC.
Videos also revealed columns of armoured vehicles and fighter jets being moved to Belarus, ostensibly for military exercises next month though the fear is they could be used for a lightning-fast offensive on Kiev which sits just a few dozen miles away.
Satellite images reveal new units of Russian tanks parked near the Pogonovo training area, around 100 miles from the Ukraine border, as the world waits to find out how Putin will respond to letters dismissing his security demands
Russian tanks are seen parked near Pogonovo, around 100 miles from the Ukraine border, amid fears they are massing for an invasion if Putin’s security demands are not met
A Russian T-72B tank takes part in combat readiness drills near Rostov-on-Don, around 70 miles from the Ukraine border and close to areas where rebel groups are fighting the Ukrainian army
Russian tanks and armoured vehicles take part in training exercises in southern Russia, close to the frontlines in Ukraine
Russian armoured personnel carriers are pictured taking part in training exercises in Rostov-on-Don, close to Ukraine
Russian artillery crews conduct live-fire drills at the Kuzminsky range in Rostov-on-Don, amid tensions with nearby Ukraine
President Vladimir Putin attends a flower-laying ceremony at the Motherland monument at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery to mark the 78th anniversary of the end of Leningrad Siege today
Ukrainian soldier kills five after opening fire at a military factory
A Ukrainian National Guard soldier has shot dead five people and injured five more at a military factory in the country’s east.
Artem Ryabchuk gunned down four servicemen and one civilian woman at the Pivdenmash missile factory in Dinpro in the early hours of this morning, less than 200 miles from the Russian border where 100,000 troops are stationed.
The killing spree occurred on the outskirts of the war-torn Donbas region which has been gripped by conflict between pro-Russian separatist rebels and government troops since 2014.
The soldier, 21, started the attack during the issuance of weapons before going on the run armed with a Kalashnikov.
The gunman was later detained after hitchhiking away from the scene of the massacre as the authorities staged an hour-long manhunt.
Investigators, who are yet to establish a motive, are now probing how he passed a medical commission allowing him access to the Kalashnikov rifle and 200 cartridges.
They will also investigate whether he faced any psychological pressures in his team.
Doctors are still fighting to save the lives of the five people injured in the killing spree, police said.
The dead were named as Senior Lieutenant Oleksandr Buganov, 34, Senior soldier Artyom Levkivskyi, 21, Junior Sergeant Oleksandr Dragan, 24, Senior Soldier Leonid Chernik, 19, and senior soldier, and civilian guard Vera Lebydinets, 35.
The wounded were named as Denis Namestnik, 19, Vladislav Gulida, 22,Igor Semenchenko, 24, Zhanna Sharova, 22, and Yevgen Machula, 20.
Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky said: ‘Following my order, a commission will be set up to study the circumstances that led to these actions being taken by a 21-year-old soldier, who had been called to defend his country and be responsible for security – and not to shoot his colleagues.’
Police said he had been detained in the town of Pidgorodne outside Dnipro, a city with an estimated population of around one million people.
Amid the tensions, a Ukrainian national guard conscript opened fire on a military factory in the centre of the country – killing five and wounding five more with a rifle he had just been handed.
Artemiy Ryabchuk, 21, opened fire around 1.40am in the city of Dnipro which sits on the Dnieper river around 170 miles from Crimea. He fled the scene and is now being hunted, with Ukrainian security services saying his motive is unclear.
However, it comes after security experts warned Russia may launch covert attacks inside Ukraine, either as a pre-text to an invasion, or simply as a way of destabilising the country and sapping confidence in the prime minister.
President Biden also stepped up his threat of economic sanctions in the wake of the letters being sent, saying that Nord Stream 2 – Russia’s $11billion gas pipe to Germany – would categorically not go ahead if Ukraine is attacked.
However, Germany has not given any such guarantee and it is unclear how exactly Biden plans to stop the pipe if Berlin refuses to play ball. Nord Stream 2 completed construction last year after Biden lifted sanctions on the company building it, and it only needs German approval to begin pumping gas.
Major combat readiness drills are being carried out in eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black seas with the Russian Northern Fleet also drilling in the Arctic.
Footage shows a live-fire exercise against a ‘mock enemy’ by the Aleksin and Kabardino-Balkariya antisubmarine ships in the Baltic. The vessels are part of a 20-ship naval task force currently at sea, with a similar operation underway in the Black Sea.
‘The combat exercise was carried out at varying distances using shipborne artillery weapons, AK-176M and AK-630M,’ said a statement from the Russian Baltic Fleet.
Separately Su-24M front-line bombers and Su-30SM multirole fighters practiced bombing targets at a training range in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave wedged between NATO countries Lithuania and Poland.
And drills were held in the same location with Mi-24 and Mi-8 attack helicopters.
A massive Russian military buildup in Belarus deepened as a video showed the the completion of the transfer of dozens of Sukhoi Su-35S fighter jets from the extreme east of Russia.
The footage shows the warplanes arriving in autocratic Belarus which borders Ukraine, ostensibly for military exercises, but the West fears the massing of troops and military equipment is an invasion force.
Separately, a another video shows a drill to move Su-35S and Su-30SM fighters and Su-34 bombers from their permanent airfields due to an enemy missile strike.
Elsewhere it was revealed that thousands of Russian communications troops in the military district bordering Ukraine are involved in ‘large scale radio training’ as part of a combat readiness exercise.
‘More than 1,500 military personnel are taking part in the planned combat training event,’ said commander of the Western Military District Col-Gen Alexander Zhuravlev.
Some 300 units of military and hi-tech equipment is involved, including the modern P-260 Redut, Andromeda and Belozer complexes, he said.
Blinken said he would speak again in the coming days to Lavrov, as a separate initiative by France brought a promise by Moscow at least to keep talking to Ukraine’s government.
One month after Russia put forward sweeping security proposals, having sent tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine’s border, the United States delivered a reply in co-ordination with NATO allies and said it was ready for any eventuality.
‘It sets out a serious diplomatic path forward should Russia choose it,’ Blinken told reporters of the US response, which he said would remain confidential.
He renewed an offer on ‘reciprocal’ measures to address mutual security concerns, including reductions of missiles in Europe and transparency on military drills and Western aid to Ukraine.
But he made clear that the United States would not budge on Russia’s core demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO, the US-backed military alliance.
‘From our perspective, I can’t be more clear – NATO’s door is open, remains open, and that is our commitment,’ Blinken said.
US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan delivers a letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, as the world waits to see how Putin will respond
Blinken (left) has kept the exact contents of the letter a secret, but said it categorically rules out the possibility that Ukraine is banned from joining NATO. Sergei Lavrov (right), the Russian foreign minister, has said his country is ready to take ‘retaliatory measures’ if its demands are not met
Russian troops carry an ammunition crate through fields in Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, during training exercises
Armoured vehicles drive in front of Russian T-72 tanks during training exercises in the south of the country
A Russian army service member is seen on an armoured personnel carrier BTR-82 during drills at the Kuzminsky range in the southern Rostov region
Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff Dmitry Kozak (left) and Russian Ambassador to France Alexey Meshkov give a press conference after talks in Paris over Ukraine last night, saying they have agreed to further discussions
Russia, which has a fraught historical relationship with Ukraine, has fueled an insurgency in the former Soviet republic’s east that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
Russia that year also seized Crimea after the overthrow of a government in Kyiv that had resisted efforts to move closer to Europe.
The United States has warned of severe and swift consequences if Russia invades, including possible personal sanctions on President Vladimir Putin, and NATO has put 8,500 troops on standby.
‘While we are hoping for and working for a good solution – de-escalation – we are also prepared for the worst,’ NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.
In a phone call with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Blinken on Wednesday sought to impress upon Beijing the ‘global security and economic risks posed by further Russian aggression against Ukraine,’ according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.
China’s foreign ministry said in a statement after the call that Wang told Blinken Russia’s ‘reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously and resolved.’
Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman, who led a previous round of talks with Russia, said Putin seemed ready to invade despite the US warnings.
‘I have no idea whether he’s made the ultimate decision, but we certainly see every indication that he is going to use military force sometime perhaps (between) now and the middle of February,’ Sherman told a forum.
In another bid to defuse tensions, senior Russian and Ukrainian officials met for eight hours in Paris with representatives of France and Germany.
Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin deputy chief of staff, said the talks were ‘not simple’ but that another round would take place in two weeks in Berlin.
France said after the so-called Normandy Format talks that the envoys committed to a fragile July 2020 ceasefire in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Moscow separatists.
Russian armured vehicles are pictured arriving in Belarus (left), amid fears they could be used to assault Kiev, while military transports are seen in Smolensk (right)
A Russian Sukhoi-34 fighter jet is seen on the runway in Belarus after arriving from Russia, amid fears that Putin is massing his forces there for an assault on Kiev
A Russian battleship takes part in live-fire exercises in the Baltic Sea, part of widespread Russian naval drills across five seas that involve 140 ships
‘We need a supplementary pause. We hope that this process will have results in two weeks,’ Kozak said.
An aide to French President Emmanuel Macron stressed that the talks had been about resolving the separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine, not the threat of a Russian invasion.
France and Germany have joined the United States in warning Russia against an invasion but have been less direct about sanctions.
Germany’s new coalition government has sent mixed signals on whether it would sever the soon-to-open Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, which will circumvent Ukraine to provide gas to Europe’s largest economy.
Amid warnings that tensions with the West could push Russia to squeeze supplies, Australian officials said Canberra stood ready to ship natural gas to Europe.
‘We haven’t received a formal request, but we are indicating that, of course, we are ready to support our friends,’ Resources Minister Keith Pitt told media in Sydney.
US President Joe Biden, who spoke with European leaders by video-conference on Tuesday, said any Russian military attack on Ukraine would trigger ‘enormous consequences’ and could even ‘change the world.’
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, while brushing off the impact, warned that attempts to punish Putin personally would be ‘destructive.’
The United States again encouraged its citizens to leave Ukraine, warning an invasion could be imminent.
But Ukraine’s government, hoping to prevent panic, has played down the dangers and sought to offer ways out.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters the Russian troops posed ‘a threat to Ukraine’ but that the numbers deployed were ‘insufficient for a full-scale offensive.’
Andriy Yermak, an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky who took part in the Paris talks, wrote on Twitter that the meeting was ‘a strong signal of readiness for a peaceful settlement.’