Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said “intelligence is pretty gloomy” as fears mount that Russia will invade Ukraine — with NATO sending additional ships and jets to its deployment in Eastern Europe.
Mr Johnson spoke hours after it was announced that the UK is withdrawing some embassy staff and their relatives from Ukraine in response to the “growing threat” from Russia.
The US has ordered the relatives of all US embassy personnel to leave Ukraine, while Ireland has told Moscow that planned war games off the Atlantic coast are “unwelcome”.
During a visit to Milton Keynes, Johnson warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that an invasion of Ukraine would be a “disastrous step”.
He added that “from a Russian perspective” an invasion “will be a painful, violent and bloody affair”.
“I think it’s very important that the people of Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya.”
Johnson said he had visited Ukraine and knew the people of the country, adding: “My judgment is that they will fight.”
Asked if he thought an invasion was imminent, the Prime Minister said: “I have to tell you that I think the intelligence is pretty bleak at the moment.
“There is certainly a very, very large number of Russian troops and we have to take the necessary steps.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable now, I think that feeling can still prevail.”
It comes as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has emphasized that the British embassy in Kiev “remains open and will continue to do essential work” despite the withdrawal of some staff and family members.
Sky News understands that the staff being withdrawn will not be essential and that the embassy will remain fully operational.
This was confirmed by Foreign Minister Liz Truss, who said: “We have a full operation in Ukraine. Our embassy is functioning and doing all the work it is supposed to do.
“It’s important to prepare for any eventuality and there are very troubling signs about what could happen.”
She said: “The UK is definitely at the forefront in providing support to Ukraine in terms of defensive weapons, in terms of supporting Ukraine with economy and trade, and we also have a very strong package of sanctions ready if Russia were to invade Ukraine. commit.
“What we are dealing with is a serious global problem of aggressors who want to make progress, challenge freedom and democracy and it is very important that we work with all our allies around the world.”
Read more: What’s happening at the Russia-Ukraine border and where is Moscow hiding its tanks and missiles?
Meanwhile, NATO is putting troops on standby and sending additional ships and fighter jets to its deployment in Eastern Europe.
NATO has said it is “strengthening Allied deterrence and defenses as Russia continues its military build-up in and around Ukraine”.
Denmark is sending a frigate to the Baltic Sea and will send four F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania in support of NATO’s long-standing air police mission in the region.
Spain is sending ships to join NATO naval forces, France has declared its readiness to send troops under NATO command to Romania and the Netherlands is sending two F-35 fighter planes to Bulgaria from April to monitor NATO air police activities in the region. support.
The United States has said it is considering expanding its military presence in Eastern Europe.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “I welcome Allies that provide additional military forces to NATO. NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all Allies, including by strengthening the eastern part of the Alliance.
“We will always respond to any deterioration in our security environment, including by strengthening our collective defenses.”
It comes as Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said planned Russian naval exercises in international waters off the coast of Ireland are “unwelcome”.
Russia said late last week that its navy would organize an extensive series of exercises involving all of its fleets from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
It would be the latest showdown in a wave of military activity at a standoff with the West.
Coveney said on Monday: “We do not have the power to prevent this, but I have certainly made it clear to the Russian ambassador to Ireland that this is not welcome. This is not the time to ramp up military activity and tension.”
Hours before the UK withdrew some embassy staff and dependents from Ukraine, the US ordered the families of all US embassy staff in the country to leave.
The US State Department told the relatives of staff members at the US embassy in Kiev to leave the country and said non-essential workers could also leave at government expense.
US officials also stressed that the Kiev embassy will remain open and that the announcement does not imply an evacuation.
The decision had been pending for some time and does not reflect an easing of US aid to Ukraine, the officials added.
Ukraine’s foreign affairs spokesman Oleg Nikolenko has said the US decision was “premature” and of “excessive prudence”.
Nikolenko posted on Twitter: “We have taken note of @StateDept’s decision to leave family members of @USEmbassyKyiv staff.
“While we respect the right of foreign nations to ensure the safety and security of their diplomatic missions, we believe that such a move is premature and an example of undue prudence.”
Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, Ukraine’s former ambassador to the EU, has said the withdrawal of some embassy staff by the US and UK is “premature” and “sends a bad signal to the people of Ukraine and President Putin”.
We have taken note of @StateDept‘s decision to leave relatives of @USEmbassyKyiv staff. While we respect the right of foreign nations to ensure the safety and security of their diplomatic missions, we believe that such a move is premature and an example of undue prudence.
— Oleg Nikolenko (@OlegNikolenko_) January 24, 2022
Tensions over Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine have not abated on Friday during talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry noted recent reports that Russia is planning major military actions against Ukraine.
However, the Russian foreign ministry has accused NATO countries of heightening tensions over Ukraine with disinformation.
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US citizens have been advised not to travel to Ukraine due to the “heightened threat of Russian military action and COVID-19”.
“Security conditions, especially along Ukraine’s borders, in Russian-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and could deteriorate rapidly,” it added.
“Demonstrations, which have turned violent at times, regularly take place all over Ukraine, including in Kiev.”
The Department has asked all US citizens currently in the country to complete an online form so that it can “better communicate with them” if necessary.
“This is especially important if you plan to stay in Ukraine,” it said.
The State Department has also advised US citizens not to travel to Russia, adding that they are “strongly discouraged from traveling overland from Russia to Ukraine through this region”.