Ukraine has declared a state of emergency, mobilised reserves and told nearly 3 million of its citizens to leave Russia, as the US warned that Vladimir Putin had assembled almost 100% of the forces needed to launch a large-scale invasion of the country.
As Russian diplomats evacuated their embassy in the capital, the Ukrainian government said a massive cyber-attack had targeted ministries and banks on Wednesday. Officials have warned that Russia could use elements of hybrid warfare to sow confusion before launching an all-out military assault.
According to several media reports, confirmed by the Guardian, the White House has warned the pro-western government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy to expect a large-scale offensive in the next 48 hours. The north-eastern city of Kharkiv, 40km from the border with Russia, is at particular risk, CNN reported, citing US intelligence.
“They have advanced their readiness where they are literally ready to go now if they get the order to go now,” a senior US defence official told reporters. “We assess today that he is near 100% of all the forces we anticipated he would move in.”
“They have plans to use reserves and their equivalent of the national guard,” the official said. “The implication would be that they have long-term goals here. You don’t call up a reserve or guard force if you’re not planning to be somewhere for a while.”
The Biden administration’s predictions of imminent attack have been wrong before, with a date given of last Wednesday – 16 February. But US, UK and Ukrainian officials all concur that Putin has to move in the next few days, or risk exhausting his troops waiting on the border.
The latest in a series of massive cyber-attacks launched against the country began as Ukraine’s security council convened to call a 30-day state of emergency starting on Thursday that could lead to curfews or other emergency measures in case of an attack. The Ukrainian parliament rubber stamped the move on Wednesday evening.
Zelenskiy had been sceptical over earlier US warnings and had complained about alarmism, but following the Russian advance into the Moscow-run eastern territories his government has taken the threat of an all-out offensive very seriously.
And the government also called up 36,000 military reservists and passed a new law allowing Ukrainians to carry personal firearms, as many queued to purchase AR-15s and sniper rifles at local gun shops. In Kyiv, there were few signs of panic, with shops and cafes open as normal.
The events unfolded as EU countries approved tough new sanctions on Russian officials and “propagandists” , imposing asset freezes and travel bans on Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, and 351 Duma deputies who voted to recognise the Russian-controlled territories in east Ukraine.
But Russia appears unmoved by the diplomatic pressure. In fiery remarks at the United Nations on Wednesday, ambassador Vasily Nebenzya accused Ukraine of genocide and human rights violations against those living in Donbas, a claim widely denounced as being as false.
Russia began evacuating its embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday to “protect the lives and safety [of diplomats]”. Diplomats were filmed walking quickly with their luggage to waiting cars and smoke was observed emerging from the grounds in a possible effort to burn sensitive documents. The Russian flag was lowered.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Ukrainian foreign ministry urged its citizens to refrain from travel to Russia and for those already in the country to leave as soon as possible.
“Due to the increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, which, among other things, may lead to a significant restriction of the ability to provide consular assistance on the territory of the Russian Federation, the ministry of foreign affairs recommends that Ukrainian citizens refrain from any travel to the Russian Federation, and those who are in this country immediately leave its territory,” the ministry statement said.
It also warned that it would have limited resources to help those Ukrainians who remained in Russia in case of a major diplomatic rupture.
“We emphasise that ignoring their recommendations will significantly complicate ensuring proper protection of Ukrainian citizens in the Russian Federation,” the note read.
Ukrainians make up the largest diaspora community in Russia, where many have family members and travel to work. An estimated 3 million Ukrainian citizens live in Russia, according to a speech Putin made in 2019.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defence minister, said Putin would have to decide in the next few days whether to attack Ukraine. “There are two scenarios. One, they engage in some sort of action. The other is they go for a strategic pause. For now, it’s 50-50.”
He said the Russian troops massed in Belarus on Ukraine’s border were sleeping in tent encampments and were “literally tired”. The longer they stayed in a holding position the less effective they became, he said. “Either Moscow starts something or they are rotated out,” he added.
Zagorodnyuk said he was sceptical an attack would begin in the next few hours. He said the Russian tactical battalions were not yet in “battle formation”. But he said Moscow was capable of launching missile strikes on Kyiv at any moment, with the defence ministry and other government buildings prime targets, and special operations also possible.
“Potentially Russian Iskander rockets can hit the capital. But they are not very accurate. There is a danger of civilian casualties and it could be disastrous,” he warned.
Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Russian-controlled territory in Donetsk, said on Wednesday that he would not immediately order an attack on Ukrainian positions on the frontline but would not rule out a “military solution” to expanding his region’s borders, either.
Appearing alongside the head of Russia’s ruling United Russia party, Pushilin said that Russia and its client state were not yet at the stage of a “military solution to [expanding] to the region’s borders”.
There are no indications that Ukraine has prepared any kind of offensive. But it could be a pretext for Russia to formally attack Ukrainian troops, whom Pushilin claimed could “go on the offensive at any moment.”
“We haven’t done anything about this yet,” said Pushilin, referring to the border issue. “We haven’t taken it in hand.”
On Wednesday, Putin delivered a video address in connection with the Defender of the Fatherland Day, a national holiday recognising members of the military and on which most Russian men receive presents.
In the speech, he praised the battle-readiness of Russia’s military, which has 190,000 soldiers on the borders with Ukraine according to western estimates.
“Our country is always open for direct and honest dialogue, for the search for diplomatic solutions to the most complex problems,” Putin said.
But he added: “The interests of Russia, the security of our citizens, are non-negotiable for us.”
The remarks do little to allay concerns that Russia is preparing itself for a strike against Ukraine. On Tuesday evening, Putin received formal authorisation from the Federation Council to deploy his military abroad and said that he would recognise the land claims of the separatist territories in south-east Ukraine, raising the chances of a war in the near future.
He has called for talks between Kyiv and the Russian-controlled territories, negotiations that Ukraine has always called unacceptable because it views them as Russian proxy states.
Russia has continued publishing dubious evidence of Ukrainian “provocations” in a stream of alleged incidents that suggest it is seeking a casus belli. On Wednesday, Russia’s FSB claimed it had detained six members of a terrorist cell planning to blow up an Orthodox church in Crimea. The evidence presented by the FSB included photographs of texts published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pacifist sect considered extremist in Russia.