Ukraine warned of “high probability” of Russian military escalation this winter

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Western intelligence suggests a “high probability of destabilization” of Ukraine by Russia this winter after Moscow has massed more than 90,000 troops at its border, according to Kiev’s deputy defense minister.

Hanna Maliar told the FT over the weekend that while interpretations of Western intelligence “require further discussion”, they have underlined “the high likelihood of the situation escalating.”

When asked if the risk of Russian military aggression was higher than in recent years, she replied: “Information from our [military intelligence services] coincides with information from partner countries on the high probability of destabilization of the situation in Ukraine this winter.

Maliar added that the allies’ conclusions were “not only based on information on the number of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border,” suggesting that Washington had additional information on the intentions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The United States informed its allies last week of information indicating that Moscow was preparing for a possible invasion of Ukraine. The Russian president called the fears “alarmist” and accused NATO of fueling tensions in the region with its own unplanned exercises.

The build-up of Russian troops occurred near the breakaway Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where two Moscow-backed enclaves have waged a proxy war with Kiev since 2014, as well as in other areas. from northeastern Ukraine and the annexed Crimean Peninsula. , said Maliar.

Map of Ukraine highlighting Donbass region to the east and Crimea to the south

Kiev estimates that Russia has deployed up to 114,000 forces to the north, east and south of Ukraine, including about 92,000 ground troops and the rest in military air and sea forces, told the FT Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukrainian military intelligence.

Washington has yet to form a picture of Putin’s intentions with the influx of troops, based on different assessments of the Russian threat to Ukraine, people briefed on the talks said. But the United States fears the latest moves will be more serious than similar moves in the spring, when Moscow rallied similar numbers at the border in what it called an unplanned exercise.

Putin said on state television over the weekend that Moscow was concerned about unannounced NATO exercises in the Black Sea involving a “powerful naval group” and planes carrying strategic nuclear weapons, which he said represented a “serious challenge” for Russia.

Putin said he warned his Defense Ministry not to conduct its own unplanned exercises in the region and limited it to accompanying NATO planes and ships because “there is no need to further aggravate the situation “.

“We have the impression that they will not let us let our guard down. Well let them know that we are not letting our guard down, ”he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Friday that the United States feared a resumption of the first phase of the conflict after a pro-Western revolution in Kiev in 2014, when Russia fueled a separatist proxy war in the United States. Donbass region which has since claimed more than 14,000 lives.

“[We] I know we have seen in the past Russian forces en masse on the borders of Ukraine, claiming some sort of provocation from Ukraine, and then invading and implementing something that they were planning from the start ” , said Blinken. “That’s what they did in 2014. And so it raises real concerns about an effort to repeat what was done then,” which, he said, “would be a big mistake” .

Budanov, of Ukrainian military intelligence, said Russian forces “have clearly left their tanks, combat vehicles and jets near our border” after large-scale joint military exercises with Belarus in September.

“It can be seen as preparation for a full-scale invasion and as an attempt at psychological pressure,” he said.

Although Russia has always denied its involvement in the conflict, the Moscow army intervened to support the Ukrainian separatists with troops, logistics and equipment, during the active phase of the war and continues to lead the forces. separatist forces, according to US and EU countries.

Talks on ending the conflict as part of a 2015 peace plan in Minsk, concluded with French and German mediation, have stalled in large part because of Russia’s refusal to hand Ukraine over to Ukraine. control of its border and Kiev’s reluctance to give separatist factions autonomy in its constitution.

France’s foreign ministry said this week that Russia has refused to hold a ministerial-level meeting with Ukraine and Germany to discuss the Donbass peace process.

In the weekend interview, Putin also complained about Ukraine’s use of Turkish-made drones – which played a key role in Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh last year. – during a skirmish in Donbass, which he said violated his obligations under the treaty.

“But no one even reacts to that [ . . .] Europe mumbled something and the United States supported it. And Ukrainian officials are openly saying that they have used them and will use them again. “

Even if Russia does not invade, the movement of border troops is destabilizing, according to a European official. “Constant pressure from Russia makes it as difficult as possible to develop and strengthen Ukraine as a country,” the official said.

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