The British government ordered its armed forces to prepare to deploy across Europe as a result of the Ukraine crisis on Saturday, as Ukrainian authorities reported a renewal of cyberattacks and Russia agreed to move a planned naval exercise off Ireland’s coast following an outcry by local fishermen.
“If President Putin chooses a path of bloodshed and destruction, it will be a tragedy for Europe. Ukraine must be free to choose its own future,” Johnson said in a statement. “I have ordered our Armed Forces to prepare to deploy across Europe next week, ensuring we are able to support our NATO allies on land, at sea and in the air.”
The British government said its officials would finalize details about the deployment with NATO this coming week, noting that it’s considering doubling the number of British forces aiding NATO’s eastern flank. The U.K. currently has 900 forces deployed to Estonia, 100 deployed to Ukraine as part of the mission to train Ukrainian soldiers, and 150 deployed to Poland.
The back-and-forth Saturday came on what otherwise was a quiet day on the Ukraine issue. U.S. officials say Russia is clearly making preparations for a possible new invasion of Ukraine, even if Putin hasn’t decided whether to proceed with the operation.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, which has ordered diplomats’ families to leave the country, issued instructions on Saturday for how U.S. citizens could leave Ukraine by land, which would probably be necessary if Russian airstrikes or missile attacks were to close Ukrainian airspace. The embassy said U.S. citizens could exit Ukraine by land through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania or Moldova, but noted that U.S. citizens would need to apply for “permission for humanitarian reasons” to cross over the Polish border.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities reported a renewal of cyberattacks against the country. Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security said in a post on Telegram early Saturday that cyberattacks that left Ukrainian government agencies defaced earlier this month were continuing but in a new form.
The center, which is part of the Ukrainian government, said emails were being sent from official Ukrainian judiciary email accounts including fake court inquiries infected with malware, which allowed backdoor access to the computers of those who opened the infected attachments.
“It is possible that only some of the court email addresses were compromised, but it should not be ruled out that the entire mail server may be compromised,” the center said.
Also on Saturday, Russia relented to pressure by Ireland to move Russian navy exercises that Moscow had intended to hold from Feb. 3 to 8 in waters off the Irish coast. The Russian Embassy in Ireland announced the change of plans after Irish fishermen threatened to intervene in the exercises, which were slated to be held inside Ireland’s exclusive economic zone where the country’s fishing industry regularly operates.
Russia’s defense minister decided to relocate the exercises outside Ireland’s exclusive economic zone as a result of the requests by the Irish government and Irish fishermen organizations, so as not to hinder fishing activity, the Russian Embassy in Ireland said, describing the decision as a “gesture of goodwill.” Ireland is not a member of NATO.
The move came as tension between the United States and Ukraine over the possible imminence of a Russian military invasion spilled out into the open. On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused his Western counterparts of inciting “panic” by suggesting that Russia would be invading his nation any minute. He also publicly assailed decisions by the United States, Britain and Australia to withdraw some embassy staffers and their families.
Zelensky said at a news conference Friday that the evidence of an imminent invasion was insufficient, even as he suggested that the troops were part of a Russian “sadomasochism” threat.
“We’re grateful to the United States for its constant support of our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said. “But I am the Ukrainian president. I’m located here. I know … deeper details than any president.”
Zelensky’s comments came the same day that the Pentagon announced Moscow had clearly put in place the capability to seize important territories from Kyiv.
The United States does not think Putin has reached a decision on whether to attack Ukraine again, but Moscow “clearly now has that capability” to seize important territories from Kyiv, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday.
The Pentagon chief told reporters that Russia has continued to use disinformation channels to manufacture a pretext for a renewed invasion. But he added that Putin can still “do the right thing” by calling off the more than 100,000 troops he has stationed near Ukraine’s borders and by pursuing a diplomatic solution.
Washington “remains committed to helping Ukraine defend itself through security assistance material,” Austin added. “Whatever [Putin] decides, the United States will stand with our allies and partners.” Kyiv is not a NATO member, and one of Moscow’s key demands is that the former Soviet state be permanently barred from joining the Western military alliance.
On Friday, President Biden said he planned to send some U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to bolster NATO allies, describing the number as “not too many.” The U.S. military has issued “prepare to deploy” orders to 8,500 personnel. Biden has ruled out sending forces to Ukraine itself.
U.S. intelligence, relying in part on satellite imagery, has found that Russia is massing forces around Ukraine in support of a potential multi-front incursion. Moscow also is stocking blood supplies for troops near the border, Reuters reported late Friday, citing three unidentified U.S. officials. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar denied that report in a Facebook post on Saturday, calling the information psychological warfare designed to spread panic and fear.
Austin said the number of military personnel the Kremlin has stationed near Ukraine “far and away exceeds what we typically see them do for exercises.”
Russia has denied plans to invade and says recent troop movements are part of a training exercise with Belarus.
In a Facebook post late Friday, the Russian Embassy in Washington accused the United States of “pumping the #Kiev regime” nonstop with new weapons and inciting Ukrainian authorities to “military adventures” against the residents of the Donbas region, where Russia has been backing separatist proxy forces in a war with Ukrainian forces for eight years.
The Russian Embassy said the United States was delivering hundreds of tons of military aid to Ukraine “under the slogans that the Russians are desperate to attack a neighboring state.”
“The crazy ‘horror stories’ have never come true,” the Russian Embassy wrote.
In an interview with Russian radio stations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the written response the United States delivered to the Russian government on Wednesday contained “kernels of rationality on secondary issues.” Lavrov said the United States was proposing to negotiate about issues that Moscow previously expressed interest in talking about but Washington ignored.
“Now, they propose discussing this. That is, the constructive approach in these proposals has, in fact, been borrowed from Russia’s recent initiatives,” Lavrov said. “I think that now, as we say in Russia, ‘We are getting somewhere.’”
Lavrov said Russia hoped to avoid conflict in Ukraine.
“If it’s up to the Russian Federation, there will be no war,” Lavrov said. “I do not rule out the possibility that someone out there would like to provoke hostilities.”