Ukraine plays down invasion fears, but US sounds alarm

KIEV: Ukraine on Sunday pushed back at “apocalyptic predictions” over a potential Russian invasion after officials in the United States sounded dire warnings that Moscow had stepped up its preparations for a major incursion.

US officials said the Kremlin has assembled 110,000 troops along the border with its pro-Western neighbor but intelligence assessments have not determined if President Vladimir Putin has actually decided to invade.

The Russian force amassed on the frontier is growing at a rate that would give Putin the firepower he needs for a full-scale invasion — some 150,000 soldiers — by mid-February, US officials have said.

They assess Putin wants all possible options at his disposal: from a limited campaign in the pro-Russian Donbas region of Ukraine to a full-scale invasion. Russia denies that it is planning an incursion into Ukraine.

“Do not believe the apocalyptic predictions. Different capitals have different scenarios, but Ukraine is ready for any development,” Ukra­ine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

“Today, Ukraine has a strong army, unprecedented international support, and the faith of Ukrainians in their country. It is the enemy who should fear us.” Presidency advisor Mykhailo Podolyak insisted that the chances of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis remained “substantially higher than the threat of further escalation”.

Kiev — backed up by some European allies — has consistently sought to play down fears of an imminent attack as it tries to avoid inflicting further harm on its struggling economy.

Podolak said the latest Russian moves were “no surprise” as Mos­cow has sought to keep up pressure on Kiev by conducting large-scale troop rotations, maneuvers, and weapon deployments on a regular basis since massing forces at the border last spring.

“How long will such Russian activity last and for what purpose is it maintained? Only the Kremlin can know the exact answer to this question,” he said.

The stark warnings from the US — part of a deliberate attempt from Washington to pre-empt any Russian actions — come as Europe pushes to defuse the crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron heads to Moscow Monday and Kiev on Tuesday seeking to de-escalate the crisis and push forward a stalled peace plan for the festering conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will also visit the region for talks with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky the following week in a bid to further the diplomatic efforts.

US officials said if Moscow does opt for a full-scale attack, the invading force could take the capital Kiev and topple Zelensky in a matter of 48 hours.