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5th Mar 2024

Russian force too small for 'full' invasion, Ukraine says

  • Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba (l) with EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, at a previous meeting (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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Russia has not built up enough forces for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and travel advice that foreign nationals should leave was "premature", Kyiv has said.

The size of the Russian force was "huge, and it puts a lot of pressure on us, but it's still insufficient for a full-scale invasion," Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told media on Wednesday (2 February).

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Nobody could exclude an invasion at a future stage, he noted, while one immediate risk was a "military operation on smaller scale," he said.

"Or, perhaps, Russia will limit itself to the threat of use of force to destabilise the situation inside Ukraine, without actually resorting to use of force," he added.

"We cannot underestimate the threat, nor will we allow Russia to destabilise Ukraine by sowing panic," Kuleba said.

The US has led the way in recent warnings that a Russian invasion could come at any time. "The threat is very real and imminent," John Sullivan, the US ambassador to Russia, told media in Brussels last Friday.

A handful of countries, including the US and Australia, have advised their nationals not to travel to Ukraine - or to leave if they were already there.

But Kuleba also said these warnings were "premature" and did "not correspond to reality". The vast majority of the 129 countries and international organisations with diplomatic representation in Ukraine had not issued such warnings, he noted.

And answering a question from Indian media on whether Indian students in Ukraine should stay put, he said: "There are many much more dangerous places in the world. They can feel safe, continue their studies, enjoy life, and be comfortable about their future".

Aside from destabilisation of Ukraine, that left the question of what Russia wanted to achieve by its sabre-rattling.

Russia recently demanded that Nato withdrew its forces from eastern Europe and stopped taking in new members, but Kuleba dismissed this as a red herring, calling it "bizarre and illegitimate".

Another long-standing Russian demand was for Ukraine to make Russia's two puppet regimes in occupied east Ukraine - the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics - into parts of a new Ukrainian federation with vetoes on its foreign and security policy.

"This is not going to happen. Never," Kuleba said.

But in any case, the Ukraine crisis, along with Russia's other actions, such as cyberattacks on European institutions and assassinations of Russian exiles in European countries, was part of Russia's wider strategy to dismantle the post-Cold War "security architecture", he said.

And the wider world was watching to see how the West reacted, he noted. Capitulation to Russia would "send the message around the globe that the West was incapable of defending ... its interests," Kuleba said.

He noted the US had already sent Ukraine "the largest military aid provided in [US] history" as a prophylactic against a Russian attack.

'Time for sanctions specifics'

And the US and EU should make public details of sanctions that Russia would suffer if it attacked Ukraine, he indicated.

"Make it [sanctions options] available to Russia, to everyone, so the Russians can see what waits for them ... it's time to go into specifics, otherwise Russia may think this is just bluffing," Kuleba said.

For her part, Anne Neuberger, a senior US official dealing with cyber-defence, is currently touring European capitals to coordinate "internet response capacity to Ukraine, if needed".

And the US is sending 2,000 more soldiers to Germany and Poland and moving 1,000 troops from Germany to Romania to act as a deterrent to wider Russian aggression in Europe.

Russia is said to have built up some 100,000 troops around Ukraine in recent months. It is also sending another 30,000 to Belarus as part of a military drill in February.

A group of 77 MEPs warned the EU in a letter on Tuesday that the Russian move could be an attempt "to subjugate and occupy" Belarus.

Belarus occupation?

But one EU diplomat poured cold water on that analysis.

"What would [Russian president Vladimir] Putin gain? He knows Belarus is not Donbas or Crimea [two Russia-occupied parts of Ukraine] and if those Russian soldiers were to stay in Belarus at the cost of Belarusian independence, then the Belarusian people wouldn't want them, and the last thing Putin needs right now is another enemy front to open," the diplomat told EUobserver.

A more realistic risk was that Russia might leave behind military equipment, such as air-defences, in Belarus in order to start building a permanent military base there, the diplomat added.

Meanwhile, there were still 1,500 to 2,000 migrants in Belarus after it flew them in last year to attempt to break EU borders, in revenge for EU sanctions, the diplomat said.

But this number was getting smaller due to return flights organised by Iraq and the International Organisation for Migration, a UN offshoot, the EU source said.

And Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko was unlikely to create a new border crisis in the short term, the diplomat added, because he needed a quiet spell in order to hold a referendum on constitutional reform planned for 27 February.

EU warns against Ukraine talks without Europe

The German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock warned in Washington that "it is out of the question, and let me make this very clear - there cannot be a decision on the security in Europe without Europe."

EU ministers to condemn Russian 'aggression'

EU foreign ministers are to condemn "Russia's continued aggressive actions and threats against Ukraine", while promising "massive" sanctions at Monday's meeting in Brussels.

EU docks €32m in funding to UN Gaza agency pending audit

The European Commission will release €50m out of €82m in funds for the UN aid agency (UNRWA) operating in Gaza. The remaining €32m will come pending an audit. The commission has received no evidence to support Israeli allegations against UNRWA.

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