Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned early Thursday that a “major” European war could be triggered at any moment, as his country went on high alert with Western officials saying a full scale invasion of the country could happen at any moment.
In an emotional appeal delivered largely in Russian, Zelensky rejected Moscow’s claims that his country poses a threat to Russia and warned that a Russian invasion would cost tens of thousands of lives.
“The people of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine want peace,” Zelensky said in a video posted to his Facebook page overnight. “But if we come under attack, if we face an attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives and lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”
Anxiety about an Russian offensive against its neighbor soared Wednesday after Moscow said it had received pleas from rebel chiefs in the breakaway regions of Donbas and Lugansk asking for Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene militarily after Ukrainian shelling caused civilian deaths and crippled vital infrastructure.
Many saw the announcement as opening the door for an expected Russian incursion into Ukraine. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called it a “false-flag” operation that may be used as a pretense for war, after Putin already recognized the separatist regions’ independence on Monday, sanctioned the deployment of troops to the rebel territories to help “maintain peace” and received parliamentary approval to use military force outside the country.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Russian forces arrayed along Ukraine’s borders were in an advanced state of readiness. “They are ready to go right now,” Kirby said.
The latest images released by the Maxar satellite image company show Russian troops, tanks and other military equipment deployed within 10 miles of the Ukrainian border and less than 50 miles from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.
New satellite imagery from today showing updated Russian military deployments around Golovchino.
1)Battle group and artillery deployment
2)Towed artillery in a convoy
3)Military convoy moving south
This is roughly 50 miles from Kharkiv.
— Evan Hill (@evanhill) February 23, 2022
Claiming that nearly 200,000 Russian troops were massed on his country’s border, Zelensky warned that an incursion “could mark the start of a major war on the European continent.”
“Any provocation, any spark could trigger a blaze that will destroy everything,” he said.
Zelensky said he asked to arrange a call with Putin late Wednesday, but there was “no answer, only silence.”
He challenged the Russian propaganda claims, saying that “you are told that this blaze will bring freedom to the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free.”
“Who can stop [the war]? People. These people are among you, I am sure,” he said.
The president, who is Jewish, also pushed back against depictions of Ukrainians as Nazis or enemies of Russia.
“You are being told we are Nazis. How can people who gave 8 million lives to fight Nazism back it? How can I be a Nazi? Tell my grandfather about that,” Zelensky said.
“We are different,” he added. “But that is not a reason to be enemies.”
Earlier in the day, Ukrainian lawmakers approved a decree that imposes a nationwide state of emergency for 30 days starting Thursday. The measure allows authorities to declare curfews and restrictions on movement, block rallies and ban political parties and organizations “in the interests of national security and public order.”
The action reflected increasing concern among Ukrainian authorities after weeks of trying to project calm. The Foreign Ministry advised against travel to Russia and recommended that any Ukrainians who are there leave immediately.
Russia on Wednesday evacuated its embassy in Kyiv as hopes for a diplomatic way out of a new, potentially devastating war in Europe waned.
“For a long time, we refrained from declaring a state of emergency … but today the situation has become more complicated,“ National Security and Defense Council head Oleksiy Danilov told parliament, emphasizing that Moscow’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine represented the main threat.
In response to Russia’s actions, President Joe Biden allowed sanctions to move forward against the company that built the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and against the company’s CEO.
“Today, I have directed my administration to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG and its corporate officers,” Biden said in a statement. “As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate.”
Germany said Tuesday it was indefinitely suspending the project, after Biden charged that Putin had launched “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine” by ordering troops into the separatist regions. The pipeline is complete but has not yet begun operating.
Putin said Tuesday he hadn’t yet sent any Russian troops into the rebel regions contrary to Western claims, and Donetsk rebel leader Denis Pushilin insisted Wednesday there were no Russian troops in the region even though a local council member claimed the previous day they had moved in.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News that the US had seen Russian troops inside Ukraine and that Moscow was readying a full-scale invasion.
“Everything we’ve seen over the last 24 to 48 hours has Russia putting the final touches on having its forces in place across all of Ukraine’s borders – to the north, to the east, to the south – to be ready for a full-on invasion,” he said.
He told CBS that if sanctions and threats failed to deter Putin “there will be a very swift and severe response. This is a price that Vladimir Putin and Russia will pay for a long, long time.”
Ukrainian Minister for Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov said a wave of denial-of-service attacks targeted official websites and some banks Wednesday. The attacked knocked offline the sites of the parliament, cabinet and Foreign Ministry and caused interruptions or delays to the sites of the defense and interior ministry, which controls the police.
Already, the threat of war has shredded Ukraine’s economy and raised the specter of massive casualties, energy shortages across Europe and global economic chaos.
In other developments, Kyiv recalled its ambassador to Russia and considered breaking all diplomatic ties with Moscow; dozens of nations further squeezed Russian oligarchs and banks out of international markets; the U.S. repositioned additional troops to NATO’s eastern flank bordering Russia; and the top U.S. diplomat canceled a meeting with his Russian counterpart.
European Union sanctions against Russia took effect, targeting several companies along with 351 Russian lawmakers, who voted for a motion urging Putin to recognize the rebel regions, and 27 senior government officials, business executives and top military officers.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has shrugged off the sanctions, saying that “Russia has proven that, with all the costs of the sanctions, it is able to minimize the damage.”
In Ukraine’s east, violence spiked again. One Ukrainian soldier was killed and six more were injured after rebel shelling, the Ukrainian military said. Separatist officials reported several explosions on their territory overnight and three civilian deaths.
Facing a barrage of criticism at the 193-member United Nations General Assembly, Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia warned Ukraine that Russia will monitor the cease-fire in the east and emphasized that “no one intends to go softly, softly with any violators.”
“A new military adventure” by Kyiv “might cost the whole of Ukraine very dearly,” he warned ominously.