KYKIV: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that his country was a “shield” against Russia and deserved more support in the face of a feared invasion, when Moscow conducted test flights with nuclear missiles in a show of force.
At the Munich Security Conference, Zelensky condemned “a policy of reconciliation” towards Moscow.
“Ukraine has been a shield for eight years,” said Zelensky, who traveled to Munich despite shelling in the conflict-torn east of his country that killed two Ukrainian soldiers.
“Ukraine has been holding back one of the largest armies in the world for eight years,” he added.
Zelensky called for “clear, achievable deadlines” for Ukraine to join NATO’s US-led military alliance — something Moscow said would be a red line to its security.
But the Ukrainian leader also said he was willing to meet with Vladimir Putin to find out “what the Russian president wants”.
Western officials in Munich continued to sound the alarm over Moscow’s intentions towards Ukraine after US President Joe Biden said on Friday he was “convinced” that Putin planned to invade within days, including an attack on the capital. Kyiv.
They again warned of massive sanctions if Russia attacks, with US Vice President Kamala Harris saying that doing so would only strengthen NATO’s “eastern flank”.
However, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned against jumping to conclusions and softened the rhetoric after Washington’s vehement warnings of an imminent invasion.
“In crisis situations, it is most inappropriate to guess or assume in any way,” Baerbock told reporters, after repeatedly asking whether Germany shared Biden’s assessment.
“We don’t know yet whether an attack has been decided,” Baerbock said on the sidelines of the Munich security conference.
Zelensky also opposed Washington’s bleak predictions in Munich.
“We don’t think we should panic,” Zelensky told the audience of top officials and security experts from around the world.
– Strategic Missile Testing –
Growing warnings of invasion, intense clashes in eastern Ukraine and the evacuation of civilians from Russian-backed rebel regions have further heightened fears of major conflict in Europe after weeks of tensions.
The Kremlin insists it has no plans to attack its neighbor, but Moscow has done little to ease tensions. State media accuse Kiev of plotting an attack on rebel-held pro-Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
During the exercises of the strategic forces on Saturday, Russia tested its latest hypersonic, cruise- and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
The United States maintains that Moscow, with about 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders – as many as 190,000, including the Russian-backed separatist forces in the east – has already made a decision to invade.
Some of the Russian armed forces, some 30,000 men, are in Belarus for an exercise that will end on Sunday. Moscow has said these troops will return to the barracks, but US intelligence is concerned they could participate in an invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has announced a series of withdrawals of its troops away from Ukraine in recent days as they participated in regular military exercises. It has dismissed Western claims of an invasion plan as “hysteria”.
But Putin has also stepped up his rhetoric, reiterating demands for written guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the alliance will roll back its deployment in Eastern Europe to positions it had decades ago.
– ‘Dramatic increase’ in collisions –
The volatile frontline between the Ukrainian army and separatists in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk has seen a “dramatic increase” in ceasefire violations, international observers from the OSCE’s European security agency said.
Hundreds of artillery and mortar attacks have been reported in recent days, in a conflict that has dragged on for eight years and left more than 14,000 dead.
The OSCE said on Saturday there had been 1,500 ceasefire violations in Donetsk and Lugansk in just one day.
The Ukrainian army and separatist forces exchanged accusations of new shellfire on Saturday, with Kiev saying two of its soldiers had been killed in a shelling, the first fatalities in the conflict in more than a month.
A dozen mortar shells fell within a few hundred meters (yards) of Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy on Saturday as he met journalists on a tour of the frontline.
The rebels announced general mobilizations in the two regions and called on men to fight even as they announced mass evacuations of women and children to Russia.
Moscow and the rebels have accused Kiev of planning an attack to retake the regions, claims vehemently denied by Ukraine and rejected by the West as part of Russian efforts to invent a pretext for war.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced reports of Ukrainian grenades dropped on Russian territory as “fake”.
Germany and France on Saturday urged their citizens to leave Ukraine.
Both German airline Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines said they would suspend flights to Kiev and Odessa from Monday until the end of February, but maintain flights to western Ukraine.