The time for diplomacy is not yet over, but it is running out, as ITV News' Lewis Warner reports
The warnings comes as tens of thousands of Russian troops position themselves near Ukraine. The Kremlin has kept the UK, the US and other allies guessing about its next moves in the worst security crisis to emerge between Moscow and the West since the Cold War. Amid fears of an imminent attack on Ukraine, Russia has further upped the ante by announcing more military drills in the region. It also has refused to rule out the possibility of military deployments to the Caribbean and Russian president Vladimir Putin has reached out to leaders opposed to the West.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the UK's Commons Defence Committee told BBC Radio 4 that Mr Putin is taking advantage of a "weakened West". “We see these combat-ready troop formations. He has actually boxed himself into a corner because so much effort has been put into this. “He also recognises that he will never again be as strong as this to take advantage of the West’s weakness. I suspect that an invasion is now imminent.”
ITV News Senior International Correspondent John Irvine reports on how sincere Russia's diplomatic strategy seems amid heightened risks of a conflict
Russia's military muscle-flexing reflects a bold attempt by the Kremlin to halt decades of NATO expansion after the end of the Cold War. In talks with the United States, Russia demands legally binding guarantees that the alliance will not embrace Ukraine and other former Soviet nations. It also wants NATO to pull back its forces from countries in Central and Eastern Europe that joined the alliance since the 1990s. Mr Putin has described NATO membership for Ukraine and the others, as well as the alliance’s weapons deployments there, as a red line for Moscow. He has warned that he would order unspecified “military-technical measures” if the demands aren’t met.
To emphasise the urgency of Russia’s security demands, Mr Putin pointed to NATO drills with the Ukrainian military, increasingly frequent visits of the alliance warships in the Black Sea and the flights of US bombers near the peninsula of Crimea. He argued that by creating training centers in Ukraine, Western powers can establish a military foothold there even without it joining NATO. “We have nowhere to retreat,” Mr Putin said. “They have taken it to the point where we simply must tell them: ‘Stop!’”
What are Russia's main demands over Ukraine? Emma Murphy lays them out
Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, has denied it intends to attack its neighbor. Last year, however, Mr Putin issued a stark warning that an attempt by Ukraine to reclaim control of the areas in the east controlled by Russia-backed separatists would have “grave consequences for Ukrainian statehood.” Mr Putin has repeatedly asserted that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” and says large chunks of Ukrainian territory are historic parts of Russia - arbitrarily granted to Ukraine by Communist leaders during Soviet times. Over 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting in Ukraine’s industrial heartland called the Donbas, where the Moscow-supported insurgency erupted shortly after the annexation of Crimea. A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped end large-scale battles, but a political settlement has stalled, and frequent skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact. Military buildup near Ukraine resumed in the fall, with Ukrainian and Western officials warning that the increasing troop concentration could herald a multi-pronged Russian attack.
The chairman of the UK's Foreign Affairs committee said on Saturday that Ukraine's military might needs to be backed by UK money.
Tom Tugendhat told BBC Breakfast: “I’d like to see all of us going further, because one of the things that’s delaying the ability of the Ukrainian people to mobilise their armed forces to meet any such invasion is that has a huge effect on any country’s economy. “We need to be ready to support the Ukrainian people financially...and that may be with loan guarantees and things like that.”
Meanwhile, Russia's defence minister has accepted an invitation to meet with Ben Wallace, his UK counterpart.A senior defence source said: “The defence secretary is glad that Russia has accepted the invitation to talk with his counterpart. “Given the last defence bilateral between our two countries took place in London in 2013, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has offered to meet in Moscow instead. “The Secretary of State has been clear that he will explore all avenues to achieve stability and a resolution to the Ukraine crisis. We are in communication with the Russian government.”
Russia has also worked to strengthen alliances with the countries opposed to the West. Mr Putin hosted Iran’s hard-line president for talks on expanding cooperation and is set to travel to the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing where he will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In recent days, Putin also spoke by phone with the leaders of Nicaragua and Venezuela, and a Russian government plane was recently seen cruising between Cuba and Venezuela in a possible harbinger of the next Kremlin moves.