Boris Johnson said he feared Europe stood “on the edge of a precipice” as some experts declared that Russia has now assembled a force on the borders of Ukraine that would be capable of invading.
On a day of rushed British diplomacy, the prime minister said he hoped Russian president, Vladimir Putin, would “disengage and de-escalate” while the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, held frosty discussions with her counterpart in Moscow and announced further sanctions legislation.
“I think today, 10 February 2022, we stand on the edge of a precipice and things are as dangerous as I have seen them in Europe for a very, very long time,” Johnson said as he completed a trip to Nato in Brussels and the Polish government in Warsaw.
The prime minister, under pressure at home over whether he should resign if fined for attending lockdown-breaking parties, sought to escalate concerns about Russian intentions as the Ukraine crisis enters a decisive phase.
Earlier, at Nato’s headquarters Johnson said the situation had entered “the most dangerous moment”. His words were echoed by the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who added: “The number of Russian forces is going up. The warning time for a possible attack is going down.”
Military analysts estimate Moscow has massed more than 135,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine, both in Russia and Belarus, where 10 days of joint military exercises between the two authoritarian countries began on Thursday.
Some now believe nearly all the necessary elements are in place if Putin wanted to attack. Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, tweeted on Wednesday night that “the Russian military, as of this week/weekend, has the military capabilities to actually conduct a large-scale invasion”.
NBC News reported that a US intelligence assessment had concluded that Russia had assembled 100 battalion tactical groups plus special forces on the borders with Ukraine, a level once considered by Washington to be a credible invasion force.
Ukraine has been sceptical that Putin would risk a large-scale attack, although Kyiv fears that Moscow may attempt a more limited incursion in its south-eastern Donbas region, where a low intensity war with Russian-backed separatists has been ongoing since 2014.
The country’s leader said he believed Russia’s latest tactics were familiar. Speaking to a group of European business leaders, the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said: “The accumulation of forces at the border is psychological pressure from our neighbours. We see nothing new here.”
Johnson said the UK and Nato would not intervene militarily if Ukraine, a non Nato member, was attacked, but did suggest the UK would be willing to arm any insurgency if Russia attacked or Kyiv fell. “It’s possible, I don’t want to rule this out,” he said.
Britain also unveiled its promised sanctions legislation, designed to target oligarchs who control businesses of economic or strategic significance to Russia if the Kremlin orders an invasion. That followed a day in which Truss met her counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow in two hours of talks marred by an apparent display of Kremlin one-upmanship.
During an icy press conference, Lavrov, a veteran of 18 years as foreign minister, said their discussions amounted to a conversation of “the mute with the deaf” and that the talks contained “nothing secret, no trust, just slogans shouted from the tribunes”. Lavrov also hinted that Russia may remove non-essential diplomatic staff from Ukraine.
Truss, who became foreign secretary in September, stuck closely to her prepared remarks while fielding questions from reporters, repeating warnings that a war would be “disastrous for the Russian and Ukrainian people and for European security”.
The British minister also challenged Lavrov directly over his assertion that Russia is not threatening anyone with its buildup of troops and weaponry. “I can’t see any other reason for having 100,000 troops stationed on the border, apart from to threaten Ukraine,” she said.
In private discussions, Truss allegedly confused the Russian regions of Voronezh and Rostov with Ukrainian territory when Lavrov asked whether she recognised Russia’s sovereignty over them. She repeatedly told Lavrov that the UK would never recognise Moscow’s claim, until the British ambassador was forced to step in to correct her, the Russian business daily Kommersant reported.
Truss partly confirmed the account in an interview with Russian press: “It seemed to me that Minister Lavrov was talking about a part of Ukraine. I have clearly indicated that these regions [Rostov and Voronezh] are part of sovereign Russia,” she said, according to the British embassy in Moscow.
Britain also confirmed it had sent body armour, helmets and combat boots to Ukraine, in a statement from defence secretary Ben Wallace. Last month, Britain gave 2,000 light anti-tank weapons to Ukraine’s military, one of a number of arms shipments from the US and other European nations, intended to boost Kyiv’s ability to defend itself.
Johnson said he had agreed with the Nato chief “a package of support” to boost Britain’s military contribution to eastern European members of the alliance. Britain would be “doubling the presence” of troops in Estonia, Johnson said, where the UK contributes 900 troops to a Nato battlegroup it leads.
Labour leader Keir Starmer visited Nato’s headquarters a few hours after Johnson. Writing in the Guardian, he said Labour “is standing by the UK government’s approach to standing united with our allies in the face of aggression abroad” – but accused ministers of not doing enough to tackle the flow of Russian “dirty money” into the UK.
Diplomatic efforts also continued. Stoltenberg said he had sent a letter earlier on Thursday to Lavrov, offering to discuss more transparency around exercises, as well as nuclear arms control. “We are prepared to listen to Russia’s concerns,” he said, adding that Nato was ready for a “serious conversation on arms control”.
Wallace is scheduled to travel to Moscow for consultations with the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, on Friday. Other European leaders and officials are also shuttling between Moscow and Kyiv. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is expected in Moscow next week.
But expectations for the meetings are limited as Russia has put forward maximalist demands to Nato to remove its troops from member states and to pledge never to accept Ukraine into the alliance.