Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said he wants new security guarantees to fix the “almost broken” global security architecture, as he urged the West to impose sanctions on Moscow amid escalating tensions in the country’s east.
Addressing the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Zelenskyy said he wanted to convene a meeting of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, which includes Russia, along with Germany and Turkey to provide new guarantees for Ukraine.
He condemned “a policy of appeasement” towards Russia, which launched nuclear military exercises on Saturday.
“For eight years, Ukraine has been holding back one of the greatest armies in the world,” Zelenskyy, who travelled to Munich despite shelling in his country’s conflict-torn east that left two Ukrainian soldiers dead.
Zelenskyy called for “clear, feasible timeframes” for Ukraine to join the United States-led NATO military alliance – something Moscow has said would be a red line for its security.
But the Ukrainian leader also said he was willing to meet with Vladimir Putin, to find out “what the Russian president wants”.
The increasingly fraught warnings of an invasion, intense clashes in Ukraine’s east and the evacuation of civilians from Russian-backed rebel regions have further heightened fears of a major conflict in Europe after weeks of tensions.
There was no immediate response from the Kremlin.
Zelenskyy spoke hours after separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilisation while Western leaders made increasingly dire warnings that a Russian invasion of its neighbour appeared imminent.
In new signs of fears that a war could start within days, Germany and Austria told their citizens to leave Ukraine. German air carrier Lufthansa cancelled flights to the capital, Kyiv, and to Odesa, a Black Sea port that could be a key target in an invasion.
NATO’s liaison office in Kyiv said it was relocating staff to Brussels and to the western Ukraine city of Lviv. Meanwhile, top Ukrainian military officials came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front of the nearly eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The officials fled to a bomb shelter before hustling from the area, according to an Associated Press journalist who was on the tour.
Violence in eastern Ukraine has spiked in recent days as Ukraine and the two regions held by the rebels each accused the other of escalation. Russia on Saturday said at least two shells fired from a government-held part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed that claim as “a fake statement.”
Sporadic violence has broken out for years along the line separating Ukrainian forces from the Russia-backed rebels, but the recent shelling and bombing spike could set off a full-scale war.
“There has been reported from the intelligence agency here in Ukraine saying that they have had information that units from the Wagner mercenary group have been brought in to Donetsk,” said Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Kyiv.
“These Wagner units are quite well known, in fact they’re notorious … they have been used in Africa, in Syria and they’re on the ground there allegedly, according to the intelligence agency, working with special forces.”
The US and many European countries have alleged for months that Russia, which has moved about 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, is trying to create pretexts to invade.
“They are uncoiling and are now poised to strike,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday during a visit to Lithuania.
Western officials in Munich continued to raise the alarm about Moscow’s intentions towards Ukraine, after US President Joe Biden said on Friday he was “convinced” Putin planned to invade, including with an attack on the capital Kyiv, within days.
They again warned of enormous sanctions if Russia attacks, with US Vice President Kamala Harris saying this would only see NATO reinforce its “eastern flank”.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, however, warned against jumping to conclusions, toning down the rhetoric after Washington’s fierce warnings of an imminent invasion.
“In crisis situations, the most inappropriate thing to do is to somehow guess or assume,” Baerbock told reporters, after being repeatedly pressed on whether Germany shared Biden’s assessment.
Zelenskyy also pushed back against Washington’s dire predictions in Munich.
“We do not think that we need to panic,” Zelenskyy told the audience of top-level officials and security experts from around the world.
The Kremlin insists it has no plans to attack its neighbour, but Moscow has done little to reduce tensions, with state media accusing Kyiv of plotting an assault on rebel-held pro-Russia enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
Saturday’s exercises of strategic forces saw Russia test-fire its latest hypersonic, cruise and nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
Russia has announced a series of withdrawals of its forces from near Ukraine in recent days, saying they were taking part in regular military exercises. It has dismissed western claims of an invasion plan as “hysteria”.
But Putin has also stepped up his rhetoric, reiterating demands for written guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and for the alliance to roll back deployments in eastern Europe to positions from decades ago.