The Ukrainian military is far stronger than it was during the war between the Kiev government and Kremlin-backed separatists in 2014 and would be “capable of exacting a bloody toll” if there is a Russian invasion and occupation, said the counsellor to the US State Department, Derek Chollet.
Mr Chollet is among the western officials who maintain that the pullout of some forces by Moscow was not a genuine move to defuse the ongoing confrontation. “In fact we are seeing signs of further escalation in terms of positioning of forces that’s going on,” said Mr Chollet, one of the senior figures driving US administration policies in the crisis.
“We are continuing to see evidence that Russia is going to launch a ‘false flag’ or some kind of sabotage operation to provide a pretext for military actions in Ukraine,” he said. “This is a tried and true attempt by Russia we’ve seen over the years to try and fool us, and we’re not going to be fooled by them.”
The Kremlin announced on Tuesday that it was withdrawing some forces from Ukraine’s borders, holding the move up as an example of how it was seeking to reduce tensions while the west was talking up war. The US and its allies, however, insist that a clear and present danger remains. The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced during a meeting of the defence ministers of member states in Brussels that the alliance was considering deploying more battlegroups to eastern Europe to add to the ones in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, led by the UK, Canada, Germany and the US.
Mr Stoltenberg said the French government had offered to lead a battlegroup in Romania. Nato will be taking advice from military commanders before making a final decision on the matter.
The British government also announced that it would double the size of its force in Estonia with additional troops, armoured fighting vehicles and tanks. Apache helicopter gunships will conduct exercises with allies, and an additional four Typhoon aircraft will be sent to Cyprus to patrol skies near the Russian border. HMS Diamond will join Nato ships in the eastern Mediterranean with HMS Trent.
The British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said: “Alongside our Nato allies, we are deploying troops and assets on land, sea and air to bolster European defences in response to the build-up of Russian military forces on the border of Ukraine. Nato and our allies have been clear that an invasion of Ukraine will be met with severe consequences.”
The chief of defence intelligence, Lt Gen Sir Jim Hockenhull, said: “We have not seen evidence that Russia has withdrawn forces from Ukraine’s borders. Contrary to their claims, Russia continues to build up military capabilities near Ukraine.
“This includes sightings of additional armoured vehicles, helicopters and a field hospital moving towards Ukraine’s borders. Russia has the military mass in place to conduct an invasion of Ukraine.”
Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, tweeted that his country was “grateful to the UK for standing foursquare behind Ukraine in the challenging times of the security crisis created by Russia. Greatly appreciated by the people of Ukraine, not only Ukraine’s government.”
Meanwhile, analysis of Russian forces being withdrawn from Crimea showed that some will actually end up in bases closer to the Ukrainian border. Russian media reports said that units of the 3rd, 42nd and 150th Motorised Rifle Divisions were being sent back to their home bases. The Conflict Intelligence Group, which tracks Russian military movements, pointed out that the 3rd is based at Valuyki and Boguchar, respectively 15 miles and 42 miles from Ukraine, in the Belgorod and Voronezh regions. The 150th will be stationed in Novocherkassk, Rostov region, 30 miles from the border.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had recently playing down the prospect of military action – but on Wednesday he took a more combative stance. Speaking at the eastern port city of Mariupol, the possible target of a Russian attack in the event of war, he declared: “We are not afraid of forecasts, we are not afraid of anyone, of any enemies. We will defend ourselves. We have a wonderful, strong armed forces. We have excellent diplomats, volunteer forces and national resistance forces throughout Ukraine.”
Mr Zelensky had declared Wednesday 16 February as “National Unity Day” in response to the date being the possible start of a Russian attack. The public were urged to gather, sing the national anthem and wear patriotic symbols.
Small groups turned up at the Maidan in Kiev, where the protests that overthrew the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych began in 2013, to show their solidarity and loyalty to their country.
There was relief that an attack had not taken place, but the mood was relatively subdued. “So it is another day that we are safe, and for that we should be thankful,” said Valentina Kovalenko, 43, who works in an accountancy firm. “But what will happen in the next weeks and months? We don’t know whether the Russians are leaving, or just waiting for another day to come, or what? This uncertainty is very damaging for everyone.”
Andriy Soroka, however, postponed plans to move out of Kiev – to a smaller town with his family – because he felt that there were now more signs of a conflict being averted.
“Our apartment is in the city centre and we were worried that we may get hit by missiles if the Russians try to hit government buildings,” he said. “But I think with all these talks that Putin is having with the leaders of countries, with so much focus all over the world on our country, he won’t attack. I am not saying that an attack will not happen in the future, but perhaps not for now.”