Ukraine has accused Moscow of preparing to store nuclear weapons in Crimea amid soaring tensions in the region as the first of two US warships is expected to arrive during live-fire drills from the Russian navy.
Ukraine’s defence minister Andrii Taran warned that Moscow could attack to ensure water supplies for the annexed peninsula and said he could not rule out a possibility that Russian forces in Crimea could ‘undertake substantive military provocations’ this year.
‘Crimea’s infrastructure is being prepared for potentially storing nuclear weapons,’ Taran told the European Parliament’s sub-committee on defence. ‘The very presence of nuclear munitions in the peninsula may spark a whole array of complex political, legal and moral problems.’
Taran provided no evidence for his assertion but said Russia was massing 110,000 troops on Ukraine’s border in 56 battalion-sized tactical groups, citing the latest Ukrainian intelligence.
His comments, ahead of an emergency NATO meeting with allied defence and foreign ministers, came as the Russian navy held snap live-fire drills in the Black Sea.
Two missile ships – the Graivoron and Vyshny Volochek – are taking part in sea-level and aerial target practice alongside the missile hovercraft Samum while accompanied by frigate Admiral Makarov and mine-sweeping ship Ivan Golubets, the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet command said.
Meanwhile the first of two US warships – thought to be destroyers USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt – are expected to arrive in the Black Sea today, despite Russian warnings to keep them away ‘for their own good’.
Ukraine announced it was also holding its own land-based drills with infantry and tank units rehearsing their defence against a tank and troop attack along the border with annexed Ukraine.
Tensions between the two countries remained high today as Moscow showed no sign of abating its military build-up with gunboats, artillery and armoured vehicles filmed heading towards the border – despite Joe Biden calling for Putin to ‘de-escalate’ during a phone call yesterday.
Putin’s spokesman Dimitry Peskov said that Russia is today ‘studying’ a proposal by Biden for the two leaders to hold a summit, but it is ‘too early to talk about this meeting in terms of specifics.’
There are tens of thousands of Russian troops stationed along the Ukrainian border alongside an array of hardware including tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, which Russia claims is being deployed for two weeks of training exercises in response to a NATO build-up – which the alliance says does not exist.
Instead, western observers believe the build-up is designed to test Joe Biden’s response – with German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer saying today that Moscow is trying ‘to provoke a reaction’.
‘Together with Ukraine, we won’t be drawn into this game,’ she said.
Separately, Margarita Simonyan – editor-in-chief of Russian state-run outlets RT and Sputnik and staunchly pro-Kremlin mouthpiece – warned that war between the two nuclear-armed superpowers is ‘inevitable’ and encouraged Moscow to prepare itself.
Three Russian missile ships, a frigate and a mine-sweeping vessel will take part in snap live-fire drills in the Black Sea today amid soaring tensions around the border with Ukraine
Mine-sweeping vessel Ivan Golubets (pictured right during previous live-fire drills) is one of five vessels from Russia’s Black Sea fleet taking part in exercises today, the nbay has confirmed
Russia’s Black Sea fleet, based out of Sevastopol (centre) is holding today’s drills while more ships are being transferred over from the Caspian Sea fleet via the Don River (top right). In response, America has sent two destroyers due to arrive today
Ukrainian tanks take part in military drills near the border with Crimea as tensions continue to rise along the border
Ukraine said armour and infantry units took part in a drill designed to simulate repelling a troop and tank attack
Ukraine has said it will not hesitate to defend its territorial integrity if Russia decides to move its forces into the country
Simonyan theorised that the war would not be a conventional one , but will instead be fought over information networks – with all-out cyberwarfare, nationwide blackouts, and the targeted disruption of internet services deployed as weapons.
‘In conventional war, we could defeat Ukraine in two days,’ Simonyan said, ‘but it will be another kind of war. We’ll do it, and then [the U.S.] will respond by turning off power to [the Russian city] Voronezh.’
Simonyan encouraged Putin to shore up Russia’s ‘vulnerabilities’ to cyber warfare while exploiting the US’s ‘catastrophic’ educational standards in order to achieve victory.
Won by conquest, given away as a ‘gift’, now occupied by force: Russia’s history in Crimea and the Black Sea
Prince Grigory Potemkin, who established the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea in 1783
The Black Sea – and the Crimean peninsula which juts into it – are a strategic crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and Asia which has been contested by Empires and nations for centuries.
The sea itself contains vital trading routes, is bordered by five of Russia’s near-neighbours, and today hosts vital energy pipelines and fibre optic cables.
For Russia to assert power in the waters, control of Crimea – which contains its main Black Sea port at Sevastopol and controls the Kerch Strait leading to the nearby Sea of Azov – is essential.
Crimea has, at one time or another, come under the control of the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans.
It was not until 1783 that it fell fully under the control of the Russian Empire when Russian generals Alexander Suvorov and Mikhail Kamensky led a force of 8,000 men to victory against an Ottoman army of 40,000 at the the Battle of Kozludzha.
Russia’s Prince Grigory Potemkin quickly established the Russian Black Sea Fleet at the port of Sevastopol, from where he asserted naval power over the Black Sea, it neighbours including Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey, and projected power further into the Mediterranean.
Crimea also turned into a key trading post. On the eve of World War 1 in 1914 – some 50 per cent of all Russia’s exports and a full 90 per cent of its agricultural exports passed through Bosphorus Strait which leads out of the Black Sea.
In 1954 Crimea was given as a ‘gift’ by Nikita Khrushchev to Ukraine, ostensibly to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Tsarist Russia, but more likely to secure Ukraine’s support for Khrushchev’s leadership and to cement Ukraine as part of the Soviet Union.
Because Ukraine was then part of the Union, Moscow maintained control over Crimea and its vital ports – at least until 1991 when the union collapsed and Ukraine became and independent county.
Following Ukraine’s independence, access to the peninsula became a bargaining chip between the two nations, with Ukraine recognising Russia’s right to the port at Sevastopol in return for concessions such as writing off debts and taking control of part of the Black Sea fleet.
But in 2014, the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in a popular uprising that wanted to draw the country closer to Europe.
Fearing the loss of the port at Sevastopol, Putin marched troops into Crimea and seized control of it – later holding a ‘referendum’ which showed majority support for the region to become part of Russia, though the result is viewed as far from credible.
Today, Moscow is in control of the peninsula and refers to it as part of its territory, though most world bodies refer to the region as ‘occupied Crimea’.
The Black Sea Fleet remains one of Russia’s largest and most formidable, thought to comprise a total of 47 ships, seven submarines and 25,000 troops, mostly marines.
Speaking about today’s exercises, the Russian navy said: ‘In the sea, the crews of the ships will conduct single and joint test artillery fires at surface and air targets.
‘The role of a simulated enemy will be played by naval target shields. In addition to ships, airplanes and helicopters of naval aviation and air defense of the fleet will be involved in the check.’
As the two militaries rattled sabres, diplomatic machines also sprung into action with British foreign secretary Dominic Raab due in Brussels today for NATO talks.
He will be among NATO foreign and defence ministers holding a video meeting which will be chaired by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and with U.S. defence and foreign ministers at NATO headquarters.
The office of Ukrainian president Vlodomyr Zelensky also said that he had spoken with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga today who had expressed his support for Kiev amid the standoff.
Meanwhile in Moscow, Biden’s offer of a summit was being hailed as evidence that he blinked first during the standoff – with one politician saying Russia is now ‘getting the respect it deserves’.
‘It was a very important step forward… news on a global scale,’ said Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house.
Separately, Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov invited John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, to talks on Wednesday, the Russian foreign ministry said, according to the RIA and TASS news agencies.
Ushakov told the ambassador that Moscow would act decisively if the United States undertook any new ‘unfriendly steps’ such as imposing sanctions, RIA reported.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow did not immediately respond to a request for comment about those talks.
Russia has been preparing to be hit by new sanctions since Biden said last month that Putin would pay a price for alleged Russian meddling in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. Moscow denies interfering.
Elsewhere, Russian defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer claimed that Putin may have ordered as many as half a million troops to the border, which would mark the largest massing of Russian arms in decades.
‘The exact number of people participating is not officially indicated,’ he said, before adding: ‘Apparently more than half a million.’
It comes after Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, said yesterday that Russian forces massing on the border are merely there to carry out training exercises in response to NATO drills.
‘Over three weeks, two armies and three airborne units were successfully deployed to the western borders of the Russian Federation in areas for performing combat training exercises,’ he said.
He added that the ‘troops have shown full readiness and ability to carry out tasks to ensure the country’s military security’ and that the exercises would be completed ‘within two weeks’.
In a news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, NATO leader Stoltenberg said it was actually Russia which had built up arms in the region, calling its latest military movements ‘unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning.’ ‘NATO stands with Ukraine,’ he added.
Stationed alongside the Russian troops are tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers, anti-aircraft missile systems, landing craft and artillery boats.
In response, the Pentagon on Tuesday confirmed that troop withdrawals from Germany approved under Trump will be cancelled and an additional 500 soldiers will be sent to the country.
The build-up has been matched by an uptick in violence between Ukrainian government forces fighting Russian-backed rebel groups in the country’s east, with another Ukrainian soldier killed on Tuesday.
Alexey Mamchiy, 40, was killed by shrapnel from an enemy grenade which was dropped on him by a drone, according to Ukrainian media. It brings the total number of Ukrainian troops killed in the region this year to 29.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, warned the US to keep its distance from Russian forces in the Black Sea, saying the risk of unspecified ‘incidents’ is very high.
Black Sea standoff: How Russian and American naval forces compare
Black Sea fleet
The Black Sea Fleet is one of Russia’s largest and most formidable, thought to comprise a total of 47 ships, seven submarines and some 25,000 troops – mostly Marines.
Today, five of those vessels are taking part in live-fire drills in the Black Sea, as Moscow warns Washington to stay away ‘for your own good’.
The Vyshny Volochek is a 900-tonne, 240ft corvette with a state-of-the-art missile system. It performs anti-surface warfare combat missions with secondary air defense capability thanks to its surface-to-air missiles. The ship protects Russia’s offshore economic zones and engages enemy warships. It has 52 crew and was launched in 2017.
The Graivoron is the fourth ‘small missile ship’ of the Black Sea Fleet and was launched in 2020. It is armed with the land attack cruise missile ‘Kalibr-NK’ and has 52 crew members on board. It has four surface-to-air missiles and is also armed with 14.5mm and 7.62mm machine guns.
The Admiral Makarov is a third frigate of the Admiral Grigorovich class of the navy in the Black Sea Fleet. Launched in 2015, the vessel is 409ft long, weighing 4,035 tonnes and has 200 crew on board. It is armed with a 100mm naval cannon, Kalibur anti-cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and a rocket launcher.
The Samum is a guided missile corvette used for coast defense operations. The hovercraft carries out missile attacks on ships and claims to be the largest military hovercraft in the world. It has a displacement of 1,000 tonnes and a top speed of 100kmh. The vessel is armed with eight Mosquito missiles and 20 anti-aircraft missiles, an artillery complex, a machine-gun and an interference creating device. The 210ft Samum has 68 people on board and was launched in 1992.
The Ivan Golubets is a minesweeper that was launched in 1973 that was originally built for the Soviet navy. With 68 crew on board, the 200ft vessel has 32 depth charges and underwater mine-detector radar systems.
Washington is thought to have deployed two destroyers to the Black Sea as a warning to Moscow that it is watching events on the Ukraine border and stands ready to respond.
Turkey’s foreign ministry says the US Navy requested permission for two destroyers to pass through the straits which enter the ocean.
The Donald Cook is an Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer which was launched in 1997. The 505ft vessel has 281 crew members and claims to be equipped with one of the most advanced naval weapons systems in the world. It possesses a quick reaction air and ballistic missile defense system that automatically detects and tracks virtually everything in the air. The USS Donald Cook also has an advanced underwater surveillance system and a helicopter landing pad. Its vertical launching system can launch long-range surface-to-surface Tomahawk cruise missiles, surface-to-air Standard missile variants, and anti-ballistic missile Standard missile variants. It is also armed with a five-inch gun mount, 20mm Phalanz mounts and hull mounted crew-served weaons.
The Roosevelt is also an Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyer which was launched in 1999. The 510ft ship has 380 crew members and an integrated radar and missile system that can defend against advanced air, surface, and subsurface threats. It is armed with the same weaponry as the USS Donald Cook.
Meanwhile Russia has continued to build up its forces along the Ukrainian border despite US calls for ‘de-escalation’, with more artillery units filmed arriving
Russian gunboats were filmed sailing towards the Black Sea along the Don River from the Caspian Sea (left) while armoured vehicles continued to arrive at the front by train (right)
‘There is absolutely nothing for American ships to be doing near our shores, this is purely a provocative action,’ he said. ‘Provocative in the direct sense of the word: they are testing our strength… They will not succeed.
‘We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good.’
He added: ‘The United States is our adversary and does everything it can to undermine Russia’s position on the world stage. We do not see any other elements in their approach. Those are our conclusions.’
‘If there is any aggravation, we of course will do everything to ensure our security and the safety of our citizens, wherever they are,’ Ryabkov added.
‘But Kiev and its allies in the West will be entirely responsible for the consequences of a hypothetical exacerbation.’
Meanwhile the US State Department confirmed that Blinken had met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kubela in Brussels, saying he ‘affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.’
‘The Secretary expressed concern about Russia’s deliberate actions to escalate tensions with Ukraine, including through its aggressive rhetoric and disinformation, increasing ceasefire violations, and movement of troops in occupied Crimes and near Ukraine’s borders,’ a statement added.
‘Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Kuleba discussed the importance of advancing rule of law and economic reforms to strengthen Ukraine’s institutions, support anti-corruption efforts, and further its Euro-Atlantic integration aspirations.’
Ukraine says Russia has accumulated 41,000 troops at its border with eastern Ukraine and 42,000 more in Crimea. The numbers are likely to grow as the troops keep arriving.
The Kremlin argues that Russia is free to deploy its troops wherever it wants on its territory and has repeatedly accused the Ukrainian military of ‘provocative actions’ along the line of control and of planning to retake control of the rebel regions by force.
Kremlin officials charged that Kyiv’s actions have threatened Russia’s security, warning that Russia may intervene to protect Russian speakers in the east.
A machinegunner of the pro-Russian Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) points a weapon at fighting positions on the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces in Luhansk Region, Ukraine, on Tuesday
Snipers of the Ukrainian armed forces aim their rifles during training at a firing range near the town of Marink, Donetsk region, on Tuesday
A soldier from the pro-Russian Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) is reflected in a mirror at fighting positions on the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces in Luhansk on Tuesday
Ukrainian servicemen hold a position on the frontline with Russia backed separatists near small city of Marinka, Donetsk
Ukrainian soldiers are seen near a region occupied by Russian-backed separatist groups where fighting has increased in recent weeks, with at least 28 of Kiev’s men killed so far this year
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (right) meets with Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba (left) in Brussels Tuesday as Washington threw its full backing behind its eastern European ally
Underlying Tuesday’s meeting is also Ukraine’s wish to become a member of NATO over the vehement objections of Moscow.
Stoltenberg insisted it was up to the alliance’s 30 members to decide who could join the group, ‘and no one else has any right to try to meddle or to interfere in that process.
‘It’s a sovereign right of every nation like Ukraine to apply for membership.
‘This is an important principle, because Russia is now trying to reestablish some kind of sphere of influence where they try to decide what neighbors can do.
‘And that is a world we are really trying to leave behind,’ the NATO chief said.
‘Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,’ Stoltenberg added.
The latest warnings come after Russian state TV new anchor Dmitry Kiselyov warned that Russia is ‘one step away from war’ in Ukraine during a primetime broadcast in Russia on Sunday.
He branded Ukraine a ‘Nazi’ state, saying that Russia may be forced to ‘de-Nazify’ it buy force – a process he said would bring about its ‘economic and military collapse’.
A news report on Russia’s Channel One also likened Zelensky – a former actor – to Napoleon after digging up images of him playing the part in an old TV comedy.
The Ukrainian leader was dreaming of ‘Napoleonic ambitions’ by hoping NATO would come to his aid against Russia, the report said.
But it was clear Zelensky was not evaluating himself ‘sensibly’. Portraying Napoleon on screen ‘is not the same as doing it,’ the report added.
Another report labelled the ex-TV comedian Zelensky a ‘commander-in-chief comic’, a ‘president of war’ who was ‘inciting’ conflict.
Viewers were told that Ukraine with NATO support, rather than Russia, was building up military firepower close to Donetsk and Luhansk, which are controlled by pro-Moscow rebels following a civil war in 2014 that has led to more than 14,000 deaths.
‘Never before has there been so much Nato military hardware in Ukraine,’ claimed the report.
It also highlighted alleged arrivals of US transport planes and Pentagon-leased cargo vessels in strategic Ukrainian port Odessa.
These claims could not be immediately corroborated.
Videos have also shown tanks, mobile artillery, howitzers, armoured personnel carriers and support vehicles being ferried to the front – many of which are being massed at a camp near the city of Voronezh, around 115 miles from the border.
Russia has continued to move artillery pieces (left), armoured vehicles (right) and troops to its border with Ukraine amid warnings the build-up could spark war in Europe
Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow, said the build-up – which is being carriedo out in full view of cameras (above ) – is ‘definitely’ designed to test Joe Biden
Videos from Rostov-on-Don, around 100 miles from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, show tanks (left) and support vehicles being moved closer to the border
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