KYIV: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that his country was a “shield” against Russia and deserved more support in the 11face of a feared Russian invasion, as Moscow test-fired nuclear-capable missiles in a defiant show of force.
In a speech at the Munich Security Conference, Zelensky condemned “a policy of appeasement” towards Moscow.
“For eight years, Ukraine has been a shield. For eight years, Ukraine has been holding back one of the greatest armies in the world,” said Zelensky, who travelled to Munich despite shelling in his country’s conflict-torn east that left two Ukrainian soldiers dead.
He demanded “clear, feasible timeframes” for Ukraine to join the US-led NATO military alliance — a prospect that Moscow has said would be a red line for its security.
But he said he was willing to meet with Vladimir Putin, to find out “what the Russian president wants”.
Western officials in Munich continued to raise the alarm about Moscow’s intentions towards Ukraine, after US President Joe Biden said Friday that 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” and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging the West to “stand strong together”.
The increasingly fraught warnings of an invasion, intense clashes in Ukraine’s east and the evacuation of civilians from Russian-backed rebel regions have brought fears of a major conflict in Europe to their highest after weeks of tensions.
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.
Russian television showed images of Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko sitting at a round table in the Kremlin situation room, in front of a bank of screens showing military commanders during the test.
“All the missiles hit their targets, confirming their performance objectives,” the Kremlin said, adding that the drills included ground launchers, Tu-95 bombers and submarines.
The United States insists that with some 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders — as many as 190,000, when including the Russian-backed separatist forces in the east — Moscow has already made up its mind to invade.
Some of the Russian forces, around 30,000 troops, are in Belarus for an exercise that is due to end on Sunday. Moscow has said that these forces will return to barracks, but US intelligence is concerned that they could take part in an invasion of Ukraine. 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 and accusing the West of “hysteria” with claims of an invasion plan.
But Putin has also stepped up his rhetoric, reiterating demands for written guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance roll back deployments in eastern Europe to positions from decades ago.
The volatile frontline between Ukraine’s army and separatists in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk has seen a “dramatic increase” in ceasefire violations, international monitors from the OSCE said.
Hundreds of artillery and mortar attacks were reported in recent days, in a conflict that has rumbled on for eight years and claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people.
Ukraine’s army and separatist forces traded accusations of fresh shellfire on Saturday, with Kyiv saying two of its soldiers had died in a shelling attack, the first fatalities in the conflict in more than a month.
A dozen mortar shells fell within a few hundred metres (yards) of Ukraine’s interior minister on Saturday as he met journalists on a tour of the frontline.
The minister, Denys Monastyrskiy, was forced to seek cover as the shells exploded, shortly after he gave on-camera interviews to international media, AFP correspondents saw.
The rebels declared general mobilisations in the two regions, calling up men to fight even as they announced mass evacuations of women and children into Russia.
Moscow and the rebels have accused Kyiv of planning an assault to retake the regions, claims fiercely denied by Ukraine and dismissed by the West as part of Russian efforts to manufacture a pretext for war.
Russian investigators said they had opened a probe into media reports that a shell fired by Ukrainian forces had exploded about a kilometre (0.6 miles) across the border in Russia’s Rostov region, without causing damage or injuries.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced reports of Ukrainian shells falling on Russian territory as “fake”.
Germany and France on Saturday urged their citizens to leave Ukraine.
Both German airline Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines said they would stop flights to Kyiv and Odessa from Monday until the end of February but would maintain flights to western Ukraine.