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Russia plans to target Ukrainian capital in ‘lightning war’, UK warns

Nato members began sending additional ships and fighter jets to allied countries in eastern Europe yesterday as Boris Johnson said that Russia had massed enough troops close to Ukraine for a “lightning war” in which it would try to seize Kyiv.

The UK prime minister’s comments came in response to fears of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nato said its members were putting military forces on standby for a potential attack.

The White House also announced that US president Joe Biden would hold a video call to discuss Ukraine later on Monday with European leaders, including Johnson, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Johnson said there were 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine, which he described as evidence of a “plan for a lightning war that could take out Kyiv”.

“That would be a disastrous step,” he said. For Moscow, any invasion is “going to be a painful, violent and bloody business. I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya”.

Russia has deployed more than 106,000 troops close to its border with Ukraine in recent months.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s strongman leader, said he would deploy “an entire contingent” of his army at the Ukrainian border in response to Nato force deployments in the Baltics and troop build-ups in Ukraine.

“This has nothing to do with any occupation. We just want to defend our southern border,” he added.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers and US secretary of state Antony Blinken, the bloc reiterated its warning that it would impose “severe costs” on Russia in the event of any attack and said it had “accelerated” work on those sanctions.

The EU also reaffirmed its “commitment to further support Ukraine’s resilience”, including in the areas of “professional military education”.

Over the weekend, the UK said it had evidence that Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was seeking to install a puppet regime in Kyiv.

A senior French official said: “The UK is developing positions that are very explicit, very alarmist . . . We have to be careful not to create self-fulfilling prophecies.”

While western powers have released intelligence on Russia’s alleged intentions, Moscow has repeatedly denied that it plans to invade. But the Kremlin has said the risk of conflict is “very high” in the eastern Donbas border region, where more than 14,000 have died since 2014 in a slow-burning war with Russia-backed separatists.

On the Nato moves, Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary-general, said: “I welcome allies contributing additional forces . . . Nato will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance.

“We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defence.”

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that the west was to blame for escalating tensions by deploying more forces and publishing “fake” claims of two Russian regime change plots in Ukraine.

“This isn’t happening because of what we, Russia, are doing. This is all happening because of what Nato and the US are doing and the information they are distributing,” Peskov said.

Peskov added that Putin wanted to “avoid [a] similar tense situation in the future” by focusing on security talks with the US and Nato.

The US is expected to send Russia a written response this week to its draft proposals to end Nato’s eastward expansion, roll back its deployments in eastern European countries and pledge never to admit Ukraine — a step that would essentially rewrite the entire post-cold war security order in Europe.

“Unfortunately, we all live in these aggressive surroundings . . . This is the reality in which we live. Our head of state, as the commander-in-chief and the person who defines our foreign policy, is taking the essential measures so that our security and interests are ensured at the appropriate level,” Peskov said.

Alexander Grushko, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, accused Nato of “demonising” Moscow to justify the “pointless” deployments, according to Interfax.

Grushko said the spectre of a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine “existed only in inflamed minds in the west” and was “being used to demonstrate that the alliance is in demand and ready to come to the defence of its helpless allies in the face of the Russian threat”.

“The more Nato pumps into pointlessly strengthening its eastern flank, the louder the cries about Russian aggressiveness are,” Grushko said.

Nato’s statement on Monday came as several western countries said they had taken steps to evacuate families of diplomats based in Kyiv out of the country.

Britain on Monday ordered a number of its embassy staff and their family members to leave Ukraine. The move came after the US on Sunday told family members of its embassy staff to leave Kyiv because of the risk of “significant military action” by Russia. The US and UK said their embassies would remain open.

Moscow’s Moex stock index fell more than 7.5 per cent and yields on Russia’s government debt hit their highest level in six years, as the potential for western-imposed sanctions prompted investors to dump Russian assets. The central bank stepped in as the rouble closed in on a record low against the dollar by limiting foreign currency purchases.

Gas futures linked to TTF, Europe’s wholesale gas price, jumped more than 11 per cent to €88.40 a megawatt hour. Russia supplies about a third of Europe’s gas. The rouble lost 1.5 per cent to trade at 78.9 to the US dollar, a 14-month low.

Ukraine is not a member of Nato, but western officials have warned that any conflict could affect neighbours to the west.

Nato said examples of the alliance strengthening include an already announced move by Denmark to send a frigate to the Baltic Sea and France’s readiness to send troops to Romania.

Spain has sent the frigate Blas de Lezo from Ferrol on its Atlantic coast to the Black Sea several weeks ahead of schedule, for which Stoltenberg thanked prime minister Pedro Sánchez at the weekend.

José Manuel Albares, Spain’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times that such deployments “showed Spain’s commitment to the security of Europe, whether the eastern or southern flank”.

Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Madrid

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