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Ukrainian president to call for west’s help at Munich conference

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is set to deliver a rallying call to the west to save his country from a Russian invasion when he plans to address a security conference in Munich on Saturday, despite US warnings that Russia might exploit his absence to topple him before he returns to Kyiv.

His planned trip comes as Russian separatist force have called for a general mobilisation in the Russia-supporting east of the country.

The president’s office said he was going ahead with the trip but would return within a day.

Zelenskiy wants to give world leaders a personal message of the scale of the threat and the extra support still needed to strengthen Ukraine’s defences. He is due to hold a bilateral meeting with the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, and will seek to have input into the G7 foreign ministers meeting also due to be held on Saturday.

The US president, Joe Biden, said on Friday he was convinced an invasion was set to happen, including an attack on Kyiv, but if Zelenskiy makes it to Munich, he is likely to be urged not to respond to Russian provocations in the east by holding back from a military response that will be used as a pretext to mount an invasion.

The White House said it was for Zelenskiy to decide whether to fly to Munich from Kyiv at a such a sensitive time for his country.

Biden said it was for Zelenskiy to decide his itinerary but asked whether it was wise for him to leave. Biden said: “In the pursuit of a diplomatic solution it may not be … It’s his decision.”

Kyiv and Munich are just over 850 miles apart. It’s possible for Zelenskyi to address the conference in the afternoon as scheduled and make the return trip in a day.

The US is concerned Zelenskiy would not be unable to coordinate the military response if he happened to be out of the country the moment an attack was mounted.

The US has also leaked intelligence showing Russia has plans to try to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership with targeted assassinations and arrests.

Ukraine has been consistently trying to project a sense of normality, partly to minimise damage to the Ukrainian economy, but the call for calm is increasingly difficult to project given the escalation of violence in the east of the country and the transparent warnings by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, that a genocide is under way in the Donbas region. Amid a mass of disinformation, the OSCE special monitoring mission in Ukraine warned of an indisputable dramatic escalation of violence in the past 48 hours.

Putin is due to be inspecting a Russian military exercise in Belarus.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is due to speak on the phone with Zelenskiy on Saturday before holding a further call with Putin.

Separately, the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, is trying to organise a bilateral meeting with Putin in Moscow early next week. Italy is highly dependent on Russian gas imports, and is urging the EU to exclude energy from its near-complete sanctions package. It also wants an EU fund to divert resources to countries dependent on Russian energy. Draghi also urged that the sanctions should be gradated according to the severity of any Russian attack. Putin has indicated he is willing to keep gas supplies running in return for Italian support.

The EU needs unanimity for any sanctions package among its 27 members, and is already facing problems persuading the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a close ally of Putin who is facing national election in April.

The US had claimed that as soon as an invasion starts sanctions will kick in, adding they will start at the top of the ladder. That forecast looks increasingly implausible as EU leaders positions start to differ on what constitutes an invasion worthy of imposing huge sanctions.

Some EU leaders fear that once sanctions are imposed, it will be an admission that diplomacy has failed and there is no route back to saving Ukraine.

Nato has made it clear it will not use force to protect Ukraine since it is not a Nato member and so not subject the Nato article 5 clause committing all member states to collective self-defence.

Ukraine wants more weapons, and claims that under an agreement signed as part of ridding post Soviet Ukraine of nuclear weapons, the west undertook to protect Ukraine from external attack. The Budapest memorandum was signed by three nuclear powers – Russia, the US and the UK – in December 1994, but it is claimed that the assurances imposed no legal obligation on the signatories.

In a statement from the president’s office, Zelensky said he hoped to emerge from the conference with concrete additional financial and security pledges, adding he would meet with Harris, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and other friends of Ukraine.

He added: “The situation on the line of contact in Donbas, in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and near the borders of Ukraine is being analysed by special services of our state. There is a constant analysis of intelligence and exchange of information with partners. Ukraine regularly receives additional up-to-date intelligence on the activity of Russian forces.”

The situation in the east of the country is completely controlled by the Ukrainian security and defence forces.

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