- “Day of Unity” screenings came as the Kremlin called for “serious negotiations” with Washington.
- NATO chief rejects suggestions that the threat had abated at the border.
- Washington demands more verifiable evidence of de-escalation.
KYIV: Ukraine staged military exercises and defiant displays of flag patriotism on Wednesday, as NATO warned that Russia will continue to massively deploy troops for a potential invasion.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky watched troops train with some of their new West-supplied anti-tank weapons at a site near Rivne, west of the capital.
The demonstration of Ukrainian firepower contrasted with images on Russian state media that would show Moscow’s troops ending a major exercise in occupied Crimea.
In Rivne, a row of vehicles was destroyed by simultaneous test attacks with missiles and armored vehicles maneuvered and fired at the yellowing moors, while in Kiev hundreds of civilians marched in a stadium with a huge national banner.
The “Day of Unity” screenings came as the Kremlin called for “serious negotiations” with Washington, and European leaders pushed hard for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, hosting the alliance’s defense ministers in Brussels, rejected suggestions that the threat at the border had abated.
“It remains to be seen if there is a Russian withdrawal,” he said.
“We are of course keeping a close eye on what Russia is doing in and around Ukraine. What we see is that they have increased the number of troops and more troops are on the way.”
‘Signals give us hope’
Russia’s massive buildup of troops, missiles and warships around Ukraine – which US intelligence says could soon lead to an invasion – has been called Europe’s worst security crisis since the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that Ukraine be banned from pursuing his ambition to join NATO and wants to redraw the security map of Eastern Europe and reverse Western influence.
But, buoyed by the threat of crippling US and EU economic sanctions, Western leaders have begun seeking a negotiated settlement, and Moscow has indicated it will withdraw its troops.
In the latest such move, Russia’s defense ministry said on Wednesday that military exercises in Crimea — a Ukrainian region annexed by Moscow in 2014 — had ended and troops were returning to their garrisons.
Washington has demanded more verifiable evidence of de-escalation, but US President Joe Biden promised Tuesday to push for a diplomatic solution nonetheless.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “It is positive that the US president also notes that he is ready to start serious negotiations.”
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, who arrived at NATO talks, said reports of Russia’s partial withdrawal “are signals that at least give us hope. But it is important to observe carefully whether these words are followed by deeds.”
Zelensky has downplayed the threat of an immediate Russian invasion, but is trying to unite his people with “Day of Unity” celebrations under Ukraine’s blue and gold flag.
On Wednesday, after the Rivne exercises, he was due to visit Mariupol, a frontline port city near a breakaway territory occupied by Russian-backed separatists.
In a video message, the 44-year-old former television actor-turned-leader said the flag would fly over the country and the national anthem “Ukraine Has Not Died Yet” would be sung.
“Great people of great Ukraine! This day is ours,” he declared.
The European Union’s ambassador to Ukraine, Matti Maasikas, along with German, Estonian, Polish and Spanish envoys showed solidarity with the president on his way to Mariupol.
Maasikas also said he had hoisted the Ukrainian flag next to the EU flag at his embassy, adding: “I’m not sure it’s completely legal, but these are extraordinary times.”
In Kiev, the deputy mayor of the capital, Valentyn Mondryivsky, said headteachers have been advised on “emergencies” and that air-raid shelters will be available in all schools.
In another sign that Ukraine’s most powerful figures are coming together, some wealthy business leaders who had been urged to return to the country announced their return.
Ukraine’s richest man, 55-year-old billionaire industrialist Rinat Akmetov, who was born in Donetsk in an area now controlled by separatists, was in Mariupol.
“We keep building, we keep investing. This year, Metinvest will invest $1 billion in new production,” he said, referring to his company and promising to raise salaries and support a local university.
On Tuesday, Ukraine said the websites of the defense ministry and the country’s armed forces, as well as two banks, had been hit by a cyberattack of the kind that US intelligence fears could precede a Russian attack.
“It cannot be ruled out that the aggressor will resort to dirty tricks,” the Ukrainian communications watchdog said, referring to Russia.
Peskov denied that Moscow had played a role in the cyber attack. “We don’t know anything. As expected, Ukraine continues to blame Russia for everything,” he said.