Mariupol, Ukraine – Ukraine downplayed a possible incursion by Russia on Sunday saying do not to believe “apocalyptic predictions” after US officials said Moscow had assembled 70 percent of the military force needed for a full-scale invasion.
Unnamed American officials were quoted as saying on Saturday in US media reports they were briefed that an operation to quickly capture the capital Kyiv, toppling the democratically elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was among the most aggressive possibilities for Russian intervention against Ukraine.
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In such a scenario, between 25,000 to 50,000 civilian casualties were possible with as many as 25,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed, US officials were cited as saying.
But Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba questioned the risk to Kyiv on Sunday.
“Do not believe the apocalyptic predictions. Different capitals have different scenarios, but Ukraine is ready for any development,” he tweeted in Ukrainian only, suggesting the message was intended for a domestic audience.
“Today, Ukraine has a strong army, unprecedented international support, and Ukrainians’ faith in their country. The enemy should be afraid of us, not us of them.”
The chances of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis remained “substantially higher than the threat of further escalation”, added Ukraine’s presidency adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.
Zelenskyy’s government has in recent weeks played down the Russian threat in what is thought to be an attempt to stabilise markets and prevent panic among the population, even as the US warned an attack could be imminent and NATO forces were on alert.
The US and UK have been accused of exaggerating the risk of a Russian attack, something they have categorically denied.
‘What will Russia gain?’
Russia could also hit Ukraine with acts of sabotage, cyberattacks, and other destabilising moves with the goal of removing the current government in Kyiv, the US news reports said.
Russia challenged the information delivered in the reporting.
“Another masterpiece of US propaganda war,” said Russian diplomat Dmitry Polyanskiy.
“Unnamed officials, undisclosed sources, no evidence. And as we all saw, if you openly question such fakes you won’t get answers and will be labeled Russian apologist,” he said on Twitter on Sunday.
Pavel Luzin, a Russia security analyst, said an estimation of the size of the military buildup can vary depending on how it is counted, and it was hard to assess the veracity of claims from unnamed officials.
He said he still does not believe a full-scale invasion is possible and an operation in eastern Ukraine that would make Russian presence in the two separatist territories – the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic – more visible was more likely.
“There are hundreds of kilometres to travel, urban environments to face, tens of millions of people, relatively capable institutions of state and well-organised and experienced armed forces to deal with, as well as the absence of allies among Ukrainian citizens on the ground and the international community,” he said.
“What will Russia gain from an invasion, even if such invasion promises to be successful? Nothing. And there is no clear political purpose for this action.”
He said an unveiling of Russian forces in Donbas, however, would help Moscow achieve its aims of demoralising the Ukrainian military and forcing Kyiv to accept its vision of the Minsk agreement, a 2014 deal that sought to end war in Donbas.
‘Consider all possibilities’
Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies, said one “frightening” aspect of the news reports was that US intelligence believes Putin may hold nuclear exercises in the region over the next month.
Russia possesses the largest nuclear arsenal in the world with an estimated 4,500 warheads, and any such manoeuvres would send a serious message to NATO, she said.
Fallon also noted Europe has not seen such large troop movements since the Cold War.
“In order to have peace you must prepare for war so you have to consider all possibilities. And if there should be, God forbid, a war there would be high civilian casualty rates among the civilian population,” she told Al Jazeera.
Polyanskiy, a Russian representative to the UN, called the US media reports released over the weekend “madness and scaremongering”.
“What if we would say the US could seize London in a week and cause 300K civilian deaths? All this based on our intelligence sources that we won’t disclose,” said Polyanskiy.
Both sides have accused the other of planning false flag operations in recent days as a pretext for further military escalation.
US intelligence sources claimed Russia is planning an operation involving fake drone attacks on the Donbas region – the colloquial term for eastern Ukraine – or on Russian territory, while Russian state TV claimed Kyiv is to launch a NATO-backed attack on pro-Russian separatists.
European leaders are expected to visit both Moscow and Kyiv next week in a bid to calm the tensions. French President Emmanuel Macron will visit on Monday and Tuesday, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will travel to Kyiv on February 14.