Downing Street fears Russia could be planning an invasion of Ukraine at any moment.
14 February 2022
Boris Johnson will travel to Europe later this week as part of intensive diplomatic efforts to bring Russian President Vladimir Putin “back from the brink” of war in Ukraine.
The Prime Minister, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are all due to take part in meetings with international counterparts to discuss the crisis, although there were acknowledgements in Whitehall the diplomacy may prove futile if the Kremlin is set on war.
The diplomatic activity came as the UK stepped up warnings for Britons to evacuate from Ukraine, with a defence minister suggesting missiles would start raining down on the country within minutes of Mr Putin deciding to launch an invasion.
Downing Street conceded Moscow could be planning to invade “at any moment” but the Prime Minister will hold talks with world leaders before a trip to Europe during this week’s “window of opportunity” for de-escalation.
Mr Johnson, who is receiving daily intelligence briefings from security chiefs, was understood to be working with allies to provide further defensive and economic support to Kyiv, with an announcement touted for the coming days.
“The Prime Minister will continue to work tirelessly alongside our allies to get Russia to step back from the brink,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
The UK and other Nato allies have urged their citizens to flee Ukraine and some airlines have cancelled flights to Kyiv amid growing concerns that the estimated 130,000 Russian troops amassed on the border could be poised to attack.
Armed Forces Minister James Heappey warned Britons there might not be time for them to flee Ukraine if they wait until fighting starts.
“This is a warning because minutes after Putin gives the order, missiles and bombs could be landing on Ukrainian cities, and that means British citizens should leave now whilst they have the opportunities to do so,” he told Sky News.
Meanwhile Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK backtracked on a suggestion the country could consider dropping its ambition to join Nato to avoid war.
Vadym Prystaiko told BBC Radio 5 on Sunday night that the country, which he said was being threatened and blackmailed, would consider “serious concessions” including removing the goal of joining the Nato alliance from the Ukrainian constitution.
But on Monday he told BBC Breakfast: “We are not a member of Nato right now and to avoid war we are ready for many concessions and that is what we are doing in our conversations with Russia.
“But it has nothing to do with Nato, which is enshrined in the constitution.”
A key juncture in western diplomatic efforts this week is German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Moscow meeting with Mr Putin on Tuesday.
US officials have discussed receiving intelligence that Russia is considering Wednesday as a target date to strike, but just how definitive that material is remains unclear.
No 10 did not set out which world leaders the Prime Minister was hoping to talk to or where he plans to travel before the week is over, but it was understood he is keen to engage with Nordic and Baltic countries.
Ms Truss is also expected to visit the continent while Defence Secretary Ben Wallace will head to Brussels for a meeting of Nato defence ministers on Wednesday to discuss their response to the crisis.
Mr Wallace received some criticism from Ukraine over the weekend after he said in an interview with The Sunday Times that there is a “whiff of Munich in the air from some in the West”, in a reference to the agreement that allowed German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 but failed to prevent the Second World War.
Mr Heappey insisted his ministerial boss was not “seeking to draw parallels, either between Hitler and President Putin, nor between Western allies and their approach” but was commenting on the “futility of the diplomatic effort”.
“This is desperate, you know, when you are in a place like Ben is, where you see and read so much stuff every day that makes clear just how grave the situation is and how awful the loss of life could be, you can imagine why Ben is working so hard to support Ukraine to pull together a diplomatic response, and why he might feel frustrated that it all appears to be so futile,” he told the BBC.
What Downing Street described as a “critical juncture” in trying to cool Russian aggression comes at a difficult time for Mr Johnson domestically, with critics saying he is distracted by the police investigation into the partygate row.
The Prime Minister this week must answer a legal questionnaire sent to him by officers investigating allegations of lockdown-breaching parties, which could ultimately see him being fined if he is found to have broken the law, something that would dramatically increase pressure on his position.
Moscow denies it is planning an invasion and Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Joe Biden’s White House of stoking “hysteria” but US intelligence suggests the Kremlin could fabricate a “false flag” pretext to attack.
Western leaders have threatened Moscow with a damaging package of sanctions in the event of a further incursion into Ukrainian soil.
Ukraine is not a Nato member and allies in the defence alliance have said they would not join fighting in Ukraine but have bolstered forces in neighbouring nations and are threatening widespread sanctions.