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The Prime Minister spoke as US President Joe Biden issued a fresh warning that a Russian invasion could be launched imminently.
In a joint statement with Poland and Ukraine, the UK pledged to “intensify our joint work to safeguard stability” and strengthen democracy in eastern Europe.
Speaking during a visit to RAF Waddington, Lincs, Mr Johnson admitted the outlook was “very grim”.
But he said: “There is still time to avoid a catastrophe, a catastrophe for Russia, a catastrophe for Ukraine and for the world.
“If Russia were so mad as to invade, I don’t think people should imagine that this would be a brief business. This would be a bloody and protracted conflict in which, I’m afraid, there will be many casualties and including many Russian casualties.
“I just hope that people in Russia can see that.”
Tensions between the two countries have been high since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine said it wanted to join Nato.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants security guarantees, including a pledge Ukraine will never be admitted to the Western military alliance.
Moscow now has 150,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s border.
The three-way statement, issued by the Foreign Office, said: “The UK, Poland and Ukraine enjoy deep historical ties, built on shared values, a shared commitment to peace and security and a shared history of standing together against aggressors who threaten freedom in Europe.
“We reiterate that each European state is free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, and no state can consider any part of Europe as its sphere of influence.”
It said the UK and Poland was “fully committed to stand with [the] Ukrainian nation in its efforts aimed at defending Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders”.
Speaking after Russia expelled America’s deputy Moscow ambassador, Mr Biden said “every indication we have” is that Mr Putin will trigger an attack on Ukraine in days.
He agreed with Nato that shelling in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine yesterday, which hit a kindergarten and a school, may have been staged as a “false flag” excuse for launching an invasion. No one was injured.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council Moscow had 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders in Russia, Belarus and Crimea. He said: “Russia says it’s drawing down those forces. We do not see that happening on the ground.”
Mr Johnson also spoke of the shelling while at RAF Waddington.
He said: “I wish I could give everybody better news… but I have to tell you that the picture is continuing to be very grim.
“A kindergarten was shelled in what we are taking to be, well we know, was a false flag operation designed to discredit the Ukrainians, designed to create a pretext, a spurious provocation for Russian action.
“We fear very much that that is the kind of thing we will see more of over the next few days.”
He added: “What we are doing is making sure that we do everything to strengthen the package of sanctions that will follow immediately, should there be a Russian invasion.
“We are strengthening the eastern frontier of Nato and I’ll be going to the European Security Conference in Munich over the weekend to talk about what we are going to do to unify the West.”
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One sanction highlighted by Mr Johnson was a Home Office visa clampdown on Russian business activities in the UK, following corruption concerns.
The Tier 1 investor visa route – available to those who invest £2million – will be shut to all new applicants from all nationalities with “immediate effect”, the Home Office said.
Mr Johnson added: “We have already some very tough laws on money laundering, on people laundering ill-gotten gains here in the UK. But, clearly, it’s time to bring in some tough sanctions against the Russian regime, against big Russian companies – organisations of strategic importance.”
Mr Johnson also reiterated that Europe and the West had to end its dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, adding: “We can’t be blackmailed this way by Vladimir Putin.
“I just want to say one thing finally – there is still time for the Putin regime to step back.” Nato’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, also warned of Russian false flag operations.
He added: “We know that there are many Russian intelligence officers operating in Ukraine. They are present in Donbas and we have seen attempts to stage a pretext – false flag operations – to provide an excuse for invading Ukraine. Of course this is a concern.”
COMMENT BY MATHIEU BOULÈGUE
DON’T believe the talks around withdrawal or de-escalation. It could very well be the start of a withdrawal but it could also mean these troops will be redeployed somewhere else, potentially even closer to the Ukrainian border.
Conversely, this does not mean that the Kremlin will not use force again against Ukraine.
What we have now is a much shorter fuse if a political decision is taken for potential military action. Armed forces have now reached full combat potential.
They are in extreme stages of readiness and can be mobilised very quickly, within a few hours or days, depending on where they are. The Russian armed forces are preparing for a long siege. They are preparing to stay there, at least for a long while, not least because ground forces are assembled increasingly in attack formations.
We’ve had an influx of ground artillery systems that have been moved closer to the Ukraine border but followed on by air superiority assets, missile systems – very worryingly like the Iskander-M in Crimea, and air defence systems that have a very offensive potential against Ukraine.
It’s also worrying that the forces of Donbas have announced military exercises to test readiness and preparedness. In terms of the timing, such formations cannot sustain a lengthy deployment for months.
A modern army cannot stay in maximal combat readiness for a very long time, not least because of critical pieces of equipment that might have been deployed. There were rumours that blood might have been deployed to forward operating bases. You can’t keep blood very long off the shelf. There were also rumours and open source intelligence showing fuel rods and fuel storages being transported closer to the border. You can’t keep the fuel very long either.
You can’t keep a helicopter from freezing on the ground just as much as you need to build a safe space for them to remain in combat potential.
So all these things need to be moved at some point whether it is back to the home base or whether it is in or through Ukraine. The next few days and week and a half or two weeks will be critical in terms of what will happen next.
– Mathieu Boulègue was speaking at the webinar Situational Assessment of Russia’s Military Deployments Against Ukraine.
- MATHIEU BOULÈGUE – Research Fellow Chatham House
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