- Estonia says Russia will launch ‘limited’ attack
- Russia releases video showing tanks leaving Crimea
- Ukraine’s Defense Ministry hacked worst of its kind, gov’t says
MOSCOW/KIEV, Feb 16 (Reuters) – There is a growing Russian military presence on Ukraine’s borders, Western nations warned on Wednesday, as Estonia said battle groups were advancing towards a likely attack to occupy a “key ground”, contradicting Moscow’s insistence on a rollback.
Other armored vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital were spotted, Britain’s defense intelligence chief said in rare public comments.
Up to 7,000 additional troops have moved to the border in recent days, some of whom arrived on Wednesday, a senior official in US President Joe Biden’s administration said, without providing evidence.
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World powers are embroiled in one of the deepest crises in East-West relations in decades, jostling for influence and post-Cold War energy supplies as Russia seeks to prevent Ukraine to join the NATO military alliance.
Western countries have suggested arms control and confidence-building measures to defuse the standoff, prompting them to urge their citizens to leave Ukraine because an attack could come at any time. Russia denies having invasion plans.
“There’s what Russia says. And then there’s what Russia does. And we haven’t seen any withdrawal of its forces,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview on MSNBC.
“We continue to see critical units moving towards the border, not far from the border.”
Estonian intelligence is aware of about 10 troop battlegroups heading to the Ukrainian border, where they estimate around 170,000 troops are already deployed, said Mikk Marran, director general of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service.
The attack would include missile bombardments and the occupation of “key terrain”, he added.
“If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, that would encourage it to increase pressure on the Baltic countries in the years to come,” he said. “The threat of war has become Putin’s main political tool.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said its forces were withdrawing after exercises in the southern and western military districts near Ukraine, and Moscow’s ambassador to Ireland insisted that the forces of western Russia would be back to their normal positions within three to four weeks.
He posted a video he said showed tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery units leaving the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
But NATO military commanders are drawing up plans for new combat units that diplomats say could be deployed in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia.
Such units – designed to buy extra soldiers time to reach the frontline if needed – already exist in Poland and the Baltic states.
Britain will double the size of its force in Estonia and send tanks and armored fighting vehicles to the tiny Baltic republic bordering Russia as part of the NATO deployment.
Ukraine has also increased the number of border guards on its border with Russia’s ally Belarus, where some 9,000 Russian soldiers are believed to be involved in military exercises.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is touring the country to help boost Ukrainian morale, observed drills by his armed forces that included Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Wednesday has been designated a patriotic holiday in response to reports that Russia may invade on that day. “No one can love our home like we can. And only we, together, can protect our home,” he said. Read more
People hoisted flags and played the national anthem to show their unity against fears of invasion.
The government said a cyberattack that hit the Defense Ministry was the worst of its kind the country has seen, pointing the finger at Russia, which has denied any involvement. Read more
US officials were not yet able to say who was responsible, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“MORE TROOPS IN PROGRESS”
The risk of Russian aggression against Ukraine would remain high for the rest of February and Russia could still attack Ukraine “with little or no warning”, according to a senior Western intelligence official.
NATO said it could prove Russia’s failure to withdraw its troops with satellite images. “Other troops are on the way,” General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said.
Moscow has accused the West of hysterical war propaganda after repeated warnings of a possible attack.
Russia views Ukraine’s NATO membership as a threat to its security and has said it is ready to redirect energy exports to other markets if hit by sanctions, which Washington and her allies threatened if she invaded.
Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said sanctions against Russian banks would be “unpleasant”, but the state would ensure that all bank deposits and transactions were secure. Read more
Despite the war of words, diplomatic efforts continue.
Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stressed “the importance of continued transatlantic coordination” during a call on Wednesday, the White House said.
Ukraine asked the UN Security Council to discuss on Thursday a request from the Russian parliament to recognize the self-proclaimed separatists.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is due to travel to Kyiv this week and Blinken will travel to Germany for the Munich security conference, which begins on Friday, to coordinate with allies.
“The door continues to be open to diplomacy,” Psaki said.
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Reporting by Alexander Marrow and Alexander Vasovic; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Nandita Bose and Susan Heavey in Washington, Phil Stewart and Sabine Siebold in Brussels and Andrius Sytas in Riga; Written by Mark Trevelyan, Philippa Fletcher, Gareth Jones and Costas Pitas; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Grant McCool
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