EU and UK pledge backing to Ukraine after Russian military buildup

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Boris Johnson and European envoy say Kyiv has their ‘unwavering support’, while Moscow denies threatening behaviour

Ukrainian servicemen earlier this year on the frontline with Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk.
Ukrainian servicemen earlier this year on the frontline with Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk. Photograph: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images
Ukrainian servicemen earlier this year on the frontline with Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk. Photograph: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images
in Moscow and agencies

First published on Sun 4 Apr 2021 21.26 EDT

The European Union and UK have pledged “unwavering” support for Ukraine’s government amid concerns of a military escalation in the east of the country or a possible new offensive against the Nato ally after recent Russian troop movements.

Ukraine has accused Russia of massing thousands of military personnel on its northern and eastern borders as well as on the Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014. Online researchers have identified troops being transferred to Ukraine’s borders from western and central Russia, including artillery from as far away as Siberia.

Late on Monday, Boris Johnson’s office said the prime minister had “significant concerns” about Russian activity in the Crimea and on the Ukrainian border, and “reaffirmed his unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In a tweet after the call, Zelensky thanked Johnson for his support against a “serious challenge to the security of Nato members” and said the Ukraine was “not alone” and was “supported by the G7 nations”.

Earlier, the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he was “following with severe concern the Russian military activity surrounding Ukraine”. After a phone call with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, he also pledged “unwavering EU support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The Russian government has denied it is planning a military attack but has not denied the troop movements. The country’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, on Monday said Russia was doing “what it considers necessary” and would “ignore signals” of concern from the United States and other western countries.

Moscow’s aims are unclear. While it regularly holds military exercises in the region, the Russian military deployments “appear out of cycle for such exercises, and are not regular troop rotations”, Michael Kofman, director of the Russia studies program at the CNA corporation, noted late last week. He wrote that Moscow’s goal may be to intimidate Ukraine and put pressure on its western allies to back political concessions in order for Russia to freeze the conflict in the country’s south-east.

Moscow may also have been putting the Biden administration on notice that it remains a formidable power willing to project its power abroad. That signal appears to have been received. US European command raised its threat level from possible crisis to potential imminent crisis, the highest level, last week.

On Monday, Ryabkov hinted at what Moscow’s aims may be, saying that the United States should apply greater effort to enforce the Minsk agreements, a 2015 roadmap out of the conflict that many in Kyiv believe is disadvantageous and was forced to sign during a Russian-backed offensive.

Borrell said he would hold further talks on the issue with Kyiv’s top diplomat and foreign ministers from the EU’s 27 nations at a meeting later this month.

Online researchers have collected video and pictures, some of it uploaded to the service TikTok, showing Russian troops and armour being transferred across Russia to the Ukrainian border and into Crimea. They included pictures of train carriages carrying tanks, rocket artillery launches, and trains carrying contract troops to the border region.

Reports of a buildup have swirled amid an escalation of armed clashes along the front line between Ukraine’s forces and Russian-backed separatists.

The long-simmering conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014, according to the UN.

Western leaders including Joe Biden have said they are standing by Ukraine.

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