Russia has warned the US to keep its warships away from Crimea ‘for their own good’ as it accused Washington and NATO of turning the region into a ‘powder keg’.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called Washington’s decision to deploy two warships to the Black Sea ‘a provocation’ designed ‘to test our nerves’ as he branded the US ‘an adversary’ of Russia, ramping up a word of words between the two nuclear-armed superpowers.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reponded that America ‘stands firmly behind’ Ukraine as he arrived in Europe today, while NATO chief Jens Stoltenburg gave the alliance’s ‘unwavering support’ to Kiev.
The US Navy has not said which ships it is sending or when they will arrive, but sources at Turkey’s foreign ministry – which grants permission for ships to enter the Black Sea – said the USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, are on their way and due to arrive tomorrow and Thursday.
Upon arrival, the ships will find themselves in the midst of a major Russian military build-up along Ukraine’s border which has seen some 80,000 troops deployed alongside tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft missile systems, landing craft and artillery boats that has massively escalated tensions in the region.
The increased tensions have been matched with an uptick in violence between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed rebel groups in the country’s east, which saw another Ukrainian soldier killed today.
Alexey Mamchiy, 40, was killed by shrapnel from an enemy grenade which was dropped on him by a drone, according to Ukrainian media. It brings the total number of Ukrainian troops killed in the region this year to 28.
A Russian minister warned the US against deploying troops to Crimea and said staying away was ‘for their own good’. Pictured: Ukrainian Armed Forces patrol the border in Donbas
In fighting in eastern Ukraine where government forces have battled Russian-backed troops has picked up – with Russia now thought to have massed more than 80,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border. Pictured: Ukranian Armed Forces patrol the border in Donbas
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba spoke at a conference today (pictured) where NATO expressed their ‘unwavering’ support for Ukraine
There are now more than 80,000 Russian troops along the border, the Ukrainian president’s office has said, with 40,000 in Crimea and 40,000 along the rest of the border
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned US warships in the Black Sea to keep their distance, saying the risk of unspecified incidents was very high.
‘There is absolutely nothing for American ships to be doing near our shores, this is purely a provocative action.
‘Provocative in the direct sense of the word: they are testing our strength, playing on our nerves. They will not succeed.
‘We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good.’
The Pentagon has declined to discuss the ships’ deployment, saying only that the US military routinely sends vessels to the region.
In a news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Stoltenberg said that ‘NATO stands with Ukraine,’ and added that the Russian movements were ‘unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning.’
The comments come amid a surge of cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have been locked in a conflict since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Following an uptick in violence, Russia has built up troops along the border, raising fears of a major escalation in the long-running conflict in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking east.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (pictured) warned Russia not to push its troop buildup along the frontier with Ukraine
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (pictured) said there was no need for American ships ‘on our shores’, claiming it was ‘pure provocation’
Russia has continued to move artillery pieces (left), armoured vehicles (right) and troops to its border with Ukraine amid warnings the build-up could spark war in Europe
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: ‘If there is any aggravation, we of course will do everything to ensure our security and the safety of our citizens, wherever they are,’ Ryabkov said.
‘But Kiev and its allies in the West will be entirely responsible for the consequences of a hypothetical exacerbation.
‘The United States and other NATO countries are deliberately turning Ukraine into a powder keg.’
The latest warnings come as Russian state TV new anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, who has been called a ‘Putin propagandist’ in the past, issued the warning during a primetime broadcast in Russia on Sunday.
He branded Ukraine a ‘Nazi’ state, saying that Russia may be forced to ‘de-Nazify’ it buy force – a process he said would bring about its ‘economic and military collapse’.
Ukrainian presidential spokesman Iuliia Mendel said yesterday that 40,000 troops are now stationed in Crimea with another 40,000 near the Donbass region where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting government forces for years.
Meanwhile Michael McFaul, who was America’s man in Moscow between 2012 and 2014 when Putin annexed Crimea, warned that Putin could invade Ukraine and bring war to Europe in a ‘worst-case scenario’.
Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow, said the build-up – which is being carriedo out in full view of cameras (above ) – is ‘definitely’ designed to test Joe Biden
Videos from Rostov-on-Don, around 100 miles from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, show tanks (left) and support vehicles being moved closer to the border
He said the current posturing in eastern Europe could easily spill over into all-out conflict if Russia decides to attack on the pretext of ‘liberating’ Russian-speakers in the east of the country who it considers citizens.
‘If that happened the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian army would respond, I have no doubt that they would, and then you would have a war in Europe between two very formidable armies,’ he said.
In the meantime, Russia has resorted to attacking Ukrainian President Zelensky over the airwaves with state media painting him as the aggressor.
A news report on Russia’s Channel One likened Zelensky – a former actor – to Napoleon after digging up images of him playing the part in an old TV drama.
The Ukrainian leader was dreaming of ‘Napoleonic ambitions’ by hoping NATO would come to his aid against Russia, the report said.
But it was clear Zelensky was not evaluating himself ‘sensibly’. Portraying Napoleon on screen ‘is not the same as doing it,’ the report added.
Another report labelled the ex-TV comedian Zelensky a ‘commander-in-chief comic’, a ‘president of war’ who was ‘inciting’ conflict.
Viewers were told that Ukraine with NATO support, rather than Russia, was building up military firepower close to Donetsk and Luhansk, which are controlled by pro-Moscow rebels following a civil war in 2014 that has led to more than 14,000 deaths.
Ukraine has begun pumping out its own images of military preparations, including troops practicing with an anti-tank launcher
Ukrainian troops practice with anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers as the government warns of the risk of Russian invasion
‘Never before has there been so much Nato military hardware in Ukraine,’ claimed the report.
It also highlighted alleged arrivals of US transport planes and Pentagon-leased cargo vessels in strategic Ukrainian port Odessa.
These claims could not be immediately corroborated.
Videos have also shown tanks, mobile artillery, howitzers, armoured personnel carriers and support vehicles being ferried to the front – many of which are being massed at a camp near the city of Voronezh, around 115 miles from the border.
Mendel added that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has requested talks with Putin over the troop buildup, but has not yet received a response.
Zelenskiy will this week travel to Paris to discuss the rising tensions with European allies.
Asked by BBC Radio 4 how concerned world leaders should be by the situation in Ukraine, Mr McFaul responded simply: ‘Very.’
A Russian ‘peacekeeping’ vehicle is seen on the move in Transnistria, in Moldova, along Ukraine’s western flank
While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has threatened ‘consequences and costs’ if Russia moves into Ukraine, Mr McFaul said his threat does not go far enough.
He called on the White House should be explicit in spelling out what its retaliation would be if Russia attacked, in the hopes of changing the calculation Putin makes before giving the order.
‘Sanctions almost never change Putin’s behaviour post-facto, but they might change his calculations before he decides to make a move,’ he said.
He added that the G7 should also put out a statement condemning Russia’s actions instead of forcing America to take its stand alone.
Invited to speculate on why Putin is now making an issue out of a conflict that has been smouldering in eastern Ukraine for the past five years, Mr McFaul pointed to ‘tough’ things that Biden has said about the Russian president since taking office.
Back in March, Biden called Putin ‘a killer’ while threatening to retaliate against Russian attempts to interfere in the 2020 election.
The remark caused fury in Moscow, as Putin’s spokesman called it ‘unprecedented’ and said it is clear that Biden ‘does not want to improve relations with us, and we will continue to proceed from this’.
Observers have also pointed to pressure mounting on Putin from within Russia as a reason for him to ratchet up simmering tensions.
The president is facing slumping popularity in the polls, repeated leaks to the media about his closely-guarded private life, and serious opposition in the form of Alexei Navalny – the now-jailed critic who sparked mass protests back in January.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, of the Center for a New American Security, told Foreign Policy magazine that ‘it feels like Putin is drumming up the besieged Russia narrative’.
Amid the tensions, Russian media warned on Monday that the country is ‘one step away from war’ as anchors branded Ukraine a ‘Nazi’ state and played footage of weapons being moved to the border.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (right) has called for talks with Putin (left) to try and resolve the tensions, but says Moscow has not responded so far
Joe Biden raised tensions with Moscow by branding Putin a ‘killer’, with experts saying the troop movements are designed to ‘test’ the US president
Moscow also unveiled a new video of its latest weaponry marking Day of the Air Defence Forces.
More footage showed the first recent Russian military massing on Ukraine’s western flank, with movements in Transnistria, a no-man’s land controlled by Moscow that borders Moldova.
Some carried ‘peacekeeper’ signs, normal for Moscow forces in the breakaway territory. It was not immediately clear where the forces were heading.
Troops and equipment have also been on the move in annexed Crimea, along with the Russian regions of Pskov, Ryazan, Rostov-on-Don, and elsewhere.
Images also emerged from Ukraine of forces doing drills with the Korsar (Corsar) light portable anti tank missile system.
And reports say US military reconnaissance planes P-8A Poseidon and Lockheed EP-3E Orion have been spotted over the Black Sea close to Crimea during the weekend.
It comes after Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, warned last week of the threat of a ‘second Srebrenica’ against Russian speakers in Ukraine – referencing a massacre of Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war.
Deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitry Kozak warned that, if Russia finds reason to intervene in the conflict, then it would be the ‘beginning of the end’ for Ukraine.
Military action would be ‘not a shot in the leg, but in the face’, he added.
Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist movements in Donbass has already ramped up as tensions increase, Kiev says.
On Sunday, fighting saw one Ukrainian soldier killed and another wounded by artillery fire.
Ukraine says 27 soldiers have now been killed in the region this year, more than half the number who died in all of 2020.