Ukraine celebrates ‘Unity Day’ as US warns Russia could still attack

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Kyiv (AFP) – A defiant Ukrainian leader urged citizens to mark a “Day of Unity” on Wednesday, as Washington warned yet again that Russia remains poised to launch a devastating assault.

President Volodymyr Zelensky picked the date for what he hoped would be a patriotic outpouring after US reports suggested Russian forces could attack as early as February 16.

An intense diplomatic campaign is underway to avert the crisis triggered when Russia deployed more than 100,000 troops to Ukraine’s borders, backed by fleet reinforcements and powerful artillery and missile systems.

On Tuesday there were hopes for a breakthrough as President Vladimir Putin met German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to explore a path to a negotiated solution and Moscow said it had started to withdraw some forces.

Russia increases its military deployment on the borders with Ukraine Patricio ARANAAFP

But US President Joe Biden – who ordered the closure of Washington’s embassy in Kiev and urged Americans to leave Ukraine – demanded that Russia prove its good intentions with a verifiable withdrawal.

“Analysts indicate they remain in a very threatening position,” Biden said, in a speech on the crisis. “The United States is ready no matter what. We are ready with diplomacy,” he said.

“And we are ready to respond decisively to a Russian attack on Ukraine, which is still very possible,” he said, warning of “powerful sanctions”.

“Cautious Optimism”

Earlier, in the first announced withdrawal among Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said some soldiers were returning to their bases at the end of planned drills.

Western leaders have accused Moscow of positioning troops ahead of a possible invasion of pro-Western Ukraine, warning that any attack would be met with stiff economic sanctions.

After meeting Scholz in Moscow, Putin said Russia “of course” does not want war and is willing to seek solutions with the West.

US President Joe Biden has demanded that Russia prove its good intentions with a verifiable troop withdrawal near the Ukrainian border
US President Joe Biden has demanded that Russia prove its good intentions with a verifiable troop withdrawal near the Ukrainian border Brendan SmialowskiAFP

“We are ready to continue working together. We are ready to embark on the path of negotiations,” Putin said at a joint press conference with Scholz.

In response, Scholz said: “The fact that we are now hearing that some troops are withdrawing is in any case a good sign.”

“For Europeans it is clear that lasting security cannot be achieved against Russia but only with Russia.”

Moscow released few details of the troop withdrawal.

In Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that while there was still “no sign of de-escalation on the ground”, there were “grounds for cautious optimism”.

The crisis – the worst between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War – came to a head this week, with US officials warning of a full-scale invasion – possibly on Wednesday.

The United States Embassy has moved its diplomatic activities from Kyiv to Lviv in western Ukraine
The United States Embassy has moved its diplomatic activities from Kyiv to Lviv in western Ukraine Aris MessinisAFP

Zelensky reacted sarcastically to the warning and declared Wednesday a “Day of Unity”.

“Serious external and internal challenges have arisen, which demand responsibility, trust and concrete actions from me and from each of us,” he said.

“But our state today is stronger than ever,” he promised.

“Dirty tricks”?

On Tuesday, Ukraine said the websites of the country’s defense ministry and armed forces as well as two banks were hit by a cyberattack that may have Russian origins.

“It cannot be ruled out that the aggressor resorted to dirty tricks,” Ukraine’s communications watchdog said, referring to Russia.

In another move likely to anger Kiev, Russian lawmakers voted on Tuesday to urge Putin to recognize two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as “sovereign and independent states”.

This would allow Russia to abandon the Minsk Accords peace plan for eastern Ukraine and potentially move Russian troops, giving Putin a strong hand to play in any future negotiations with Kiev.

The European Union “strongly” condemned such a move, saying it would violate the Minsk agreements that Moscow had signed.

Russia has repeatedly blamed the Ukraine crisis on the West, saying the United States and Western Europe are ignoring Russia’s legitimate security concerns.

Russia already controls the Crimean peninsula which it seized from Ukraine in 2014 and backs separatist forces that have taken control of parts of eastern Ukraine, in a conflict that has spanned more than 14 000 dead.

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