If Russia decides to invade Ukraine, as is feared by Western officials and experts, it could happen very quickly, according to Ukraine’s foreign minister.
“Putin has not decided yet whether to do a military operation,” Dmytro Kuleba told CNBC on Thursday. “But if he decides to do so, things will happen in the blink of an eye.”
Concerns have increased over the last couple of months that Russia is planning on launching some form of military action against Ukraine. It follows Russian military troop movements on the border and increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward Kyiv from Moscow.
Putin, however, has pointed the finger the other way, saying at the end of November that Russia was concerned about military exercises in Ukraine being carried out near the border, saying these posed a threat to Moscow.
He has insisted Russia is free to move troops around its own territory and has denied claims the country could be preparing to invade Ukraine, calling such notions “alarmist.”
Ukraine and its allies in the U.S. and Europe, as well as the military alliance NATO, beg to differ. All have warned Russia against any aggressive action toward Ukraine, but there have been few signs of tensions easing.
“We [still] have Russian troops along our border. We have them in our occupied territories of Crimea and Donbass, and according to our estimates and estimates of our partners, and they concur, Russia already has the capacity to conduct offensive operations in the region … and we see that they continue to build up their forces,” Kuleba told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble.
Ukrainian servicemen attend a rehearsal of an official ceremony to hand over tanks, armoured personnel carriers and military vehicles to the Ukrainian Armed Forces as the country celebrates Army Day in Kyiv, Ukraine December 6, 2021.
Gleb Garanich | Reuters
He added that Ukraine was “attacked by Russia in 2014 at the lowest point of our strength,” referencing Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, a move that provoked international condemnation and wide-reaching sanctions on the Russian economy and state officials. Russia has also been accused of supporting pro-Russian uprisings in the Donbass region of east Ukraine. It denies having a role there, however.
Experts have said time is running out for the U.S. to prevent further hostilities between the neighboring countries but how far the West will go to defend Ukraine is uncertain: Ukraine is not a member of NATO and is not a member of the EU, although it aspires to join both.
Russia, meanwhile, vehemently opposes any possible future membership of NATO for Ukraine, seeing it as an expansion of the military alliance right up to its doorstep.
Going in to his meeting with Biden, Putin was expected to seek reassurances from the U.S. president that NATO — which has expanded greatly in the last 25 years to include many countries in Europe, including former Soviet states in the Baltics — would never expand to include Ukraine. No such assurances were given.
Kuleba said that if Ukraine had been a member of NATO back in 2014 then “Putin would be minding his business” and there would have been “no war, no destruction” in the Donbass region of east Ukraine and thousands of people who have died in the conflict could have been spared.
Asked whether Ukraine’s allies were doing enough to help, Kuleba said “as long as Russian troops stay in Crimea and in Donbass, none of us is doing enough really. We can only judge by the final outcome. and that final outcome should be the withdrawal of Russia from Ukraine. However, things would’ve been much worse if we did not have these relations with our partners and if our partners did not evolve their attitude towards Russia,” he said.
The EU is also worried about what it sees as Russia’s “aggressive” stance toward Ukraine, and has warned Moscow that it will pay a “high price” if it invades.
On Wednesday, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told CNBC that “the military buildup around Ukraine is going on. So big question is, what are they really up to?”
“Is it something that they are trying to, or planning attacking Ukraine? Or is it just the bluff to, you know, negotiate some kind of deal out of this situation? And this is something that we have to look very carefully into,” she said.