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Western leaders put on a united front last night as Nato sent ships and fighter jets to eastern Europe amid growing fears Russia will attack its neighbour. The Prime Minister admitted “gloomy” intelligence suggests the Kremlin is planning a “lightning war that could take out Kiev”.
He said he did not believe the “disastrous” war was inevitable and there was a chance that “sense can still prevail”.
Western leaders will impose “never seen before” sanctions on Russia if the Kremlin orders an invasion.
And the Pentagon has said up to 8,500 US troops are on heightened alert and added that no mission had been assigned yet.
A spokesman said: “This is about getting troops ready.”
Mr Johnson, President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and President Andrzej Duda of Poland held a virtual conference call last night to discuss the crisis.
Severe sanctions will be imposed on Russia if it attacks Ukraine.
Sweeping export controls on key Russian industries are said to be among the options under consideration.
In a dire warning, Mr Johnson said: “We need to get a message that invading Ukraine, from a Russian perspective, is going to be a painful, violent and bloody business.
“I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya.”
The PM said he had visited Ukraine and knew the people of the country, adding: “My judgment is that they will fight.”
Around 60 Russian battle groups, including tanks, heavy artillery and missiles, are massing along Ukraine’s border with Russia.
An estimated 100,000 troops are estimated to be within striking distance.
Twenty Russian navy vessels have also been sent out into the Baltic Sea for drills, Russia’s RIA news agency said.
And the Kremlin is moving forces, armoured personnel carriers and fighter jets into Belarus, prompting fears they could order thousands of troops to attack the Ukrainian capital Kiev from the north.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said the drills will be carried out in the west of the country, near the borders of Nato members Poland and Lithuania.
Downing Street yesterday confirmed British combat troops would not be deployed to defend Ukraine if Putin orders an attack.
Nato allies are putting forces on standby and sending additional ships and fighter jets to eastern Europe.
Around half of the staff at Britain’s embassy in Ukraine are returning to the UK, with around 30 diplomats – including the ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons – remaining in the country.
The Foreign Office confirmed the move after the US ordered the families of all American personnel at the US Embassy to leave the country in response to the risk of an invasion.
Mr Johnson said: “We do think it prudent to make some changes now.
“The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine, the plan for a lightning war that could take out Kiev is one that everybody can see.
“We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin, to Russia, that would be a disastrous step. There is certainly a very large array of Russian forces and we have to take the necessary steps.
“I don’t think it’s by any means inevitable now, I think that sense can still prevail. The UK is in the lead in creating that package of economic sanctions, helping to stiffen the resistance of our Ukrainian friends with defensive weaponry that we are supplying, making it clear that we stand fully with the people of Ukraine and that we support the sovereign integrity of Ukraine.
“Any invasion, any incursion, of any kind, of any dimension, into Ukraine is not going to be a cost-free business. There will be casualties.”
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who held talks with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in Brussels yesterday, suggested additional battle groups could be deployed to eastern Europe.
He said: “We continue to call on Russia to de-escalate and choose the path of diplomacy.”
Nato has responded to the growing threat of an invasion in Ukraine by reinforcing Europe’s eastern flank. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16 war planes to Lithuania.
Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join Nato naval forces, and France stands ready to send troops to Romania.
The Netherlands also plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis spoke out as ministers gathered for talks in Brussels yesterday.
He said: “Knowing Russia’s tactics, I’m sure one of their aims is to splinter the West.
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“This is a victory we cannot afford to give to the Russians.” Danish foreign minister Jeppe Kofod told reporters: “There’s no doubt we are ready to react with comprehensive, never seen before sanctions if Russia were to invade Ukraine.”
Hungary’s foreign minister warned against a “new Cold War”.
Peter Szijjarto said that Hungary supported all diplomatic efforts to resolve the stand-off, adding: “We don’t want a new Cold War. The Cold War period had tragic consequences in Central Eastern Europe, we wasted several decades.”
The EU, along with the US, had imposed economic sanctions on Moscow targeting its energy, banking and defence sectors after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We see statements by the North Atlantic Alliance about reinforcement, pulling forces and resources to the eastern flank.
“All this leads to the fact that tensions are growing. This is not happening because of what we, Russia, are doing.
“This is all happening because of what Nato and the US are doing and due to the information they are spreading.”
He accused the West of “hysteria” and of putting out information “laced with lies”.
COMMENT BY JONATHAN FISHER QC
Politically, sanctions are an instrument of foreign policy that has replaced the gunboat.
To that end, sanctions are particularly expedient and are much better than fighting wars or dropping bombs on people.
But what difference do they really make?
It is true that sanctions are a nuisance. If Russia gets banned from access to the capital markets or banking systems, it will be a serious frustration for Putin and will impede the country’s development.
Sanctions also have knock-on effects for ordinary members of the public, such as their access to services and goods, as well as their general financial wellbeing.
Additionally, sanctions can lead to rampant inflation (as seen recently in Iran), so all of this can be quite damaging.
However, they rarely deliver the desired impact.
Yes, they do damage, but there aren’t many cases where they have effected the change in direction that those imposing the sanctions want to see.
There will always be situations where the world doesn’t act as one and there are a number of alternatives for Russia.
It could, for example, turn to Shanghai and Hong Kong in place of New York and London.
Countries will always look at alternatives – and the larger the country the greater its ability to find those alternatives.
In summary, sanctions will indeed have an effect, but will they achieve the ultimate objective? In this case, that remains to be seen – but they rarely deliver a knock-out blow.
- JONATHAN FISHER QC – Bright Line Law
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