Putin ‘preparing for conflict with West’ – and may target dam

Ukrainian soldiers in fierce firefight with Putin's men

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Vladimir Putin is preparing for a showdown with the West, and will try to “eradicate” Ukraine’s population by “making them freeze this winter”, a UK-based defence expert has warned. Sam Cranny-Evans suggested Russia could be preparing to destroy the Kakhovka Dam in southern Ukraine partly to test “Western responses”.

Mr Cranny-Evans, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, was speaking after Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu spoke with counterparts from the UK, US and France – including defence secretary Ben Wallace – yesterday.

A readout of his call with French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu said: “They discussed the situation in Ukraine which is rapidly deteriorating. It is trending towards further uncontrolled escalation.”

Shoigu also claimed, without providing evidence, that Ukraine was planning to detonate a so-called “dirty bomb” packed with radioactive material – prompting Tobias Ellwood, chairman of Parliament’s defence select committee, to tell Express.co.uk Putin was plotting to explode one himself and blame Kyiv in a “false flag” attack.

Shoigu’s remarks appear to offer an insight into Russia’s ongoing belligerence, with a joint statement issued by the Foreign Ministers of the UK, US and France dismissing his remarks as a “pretext for escalation”.

Mr Cranny-Evans told Express.co.uk: “It sounds a bit crazy but they sort of always have been preparing for a possible conflict with the West.

“That is what their military is partly for. At least in the western and southern military districts and the northern fleet command.”

The widespread rumours that Russia was ready to target the dam were likely connected to an increased perception in Moscow that the West was approaching the point at which it might intervene, Mr Cranny-Evans suggested – while stressing that was “because of Russian actions, nothing else”.

He added: ”I think that they might be testing Western responses but they sort of know what they are.

“Blowing the dam would be a big step, but it’s not clear that NATO would view it any differently from what has already happened as far as I’m aware at least.”

With specific reference to Shoigu’s “dirty bomb” remarks, Mr Cranny-Evans said: “So the back story is likely the ‘Syria pattern’ whereby the Russians would report that the white helmets were planning a chemical weapons attack.

“Shortly after, there would often be a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian armed forces.

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“This has given rise to the idea that Russia tries to claim somebody is trying to do something to cover for themselves.”

In the days following Putin’s invasion on February 24, Russia has planted a “fake story” about a Ukrainian bioweapons lab in order to try and “legitimise the war”, Mr Cranny-Evans said.

He continued: “We’ve had the ‘Ukraine is deliberately attacking the nuclear power plants’ story, Ukraine is killing its own people and burying them in mass graves, torture, war crime, and so on.

“Often they are misinformation campaigns that can be linked loosely or tightly to the Kremlin’s organs of power (FSB etc).”

Mr Cranny-Evans said: ”Russia doesn’t really need dirty bombs, it has proper nukes that it would be open to use according to strict interpretations of its doctrine etc.

”But, they probably (hopefully) understand the line they would be crossing if they did so.”

He therefore attributed Shoigu’s remarks to part of an ongoing narrative intended to justify what is happening to friends abroad and at home.

He added: “We often tend to focus on the word nuclear, and are missing the fact that the Russians are trying to wipe Ukraine off the map by eradicating its population and making them freeze this winter.”

Separately, Russia today accused Western countries of having “essentially stolen” its gold and foreign exchange reserves via sanctions.

Asked by reporters about a European Union proposal to transfer frozen Russian assets to Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “In general, a part large of our assets have been essentially stolen by specific Western countries.”

Sanctions have frozen roughly half of Russia’s gold and foreign exchange reserves, which stood near £567billion ($640billion) before Moscow sent troops into Ukraine.

Last week, European Council head Charles Michel said that the bloc should consider transferring frozen Russian reserves to Ukraine.

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