Ukrainian ambassador to UK: ‘We need support to survive’

Washington says there are 190,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's border, despite Kremlin claiming it pulled soldiers back

Ukrainian soldiers take part in tactical drills at a training ground in Ukraine as the country prepares for a possible Russian invasion. Press Service of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces via Reuters
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A Russian invasion of Ukraine would spark a humanitarian crisis incomprehensible in modern Europe, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK has warned, saying “no one can appreciate the scale of it”.

As European leaders grapple with the possibility of a devastating and destabilising conflict spreading beyond Ukraine, Vadym Prystaiko told The National that the continent would not be able to escape the ripple effects of Russian military action in the former Soviet state.

The threat of a Russian invasion hangs over Ukraine while leaders in the West scramble to increase diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis.

Mr Prystaiko said the demand for refuge among Ukrainians fleeing violence would be only one of Europe’s woes if Russia attacks its neighbour.

‘We could not have imagined this’

“Forty million people … bigger than France and Germany … being attacked on the European continent, I believe the spill out and the fallout out of this, no one can appreciate the scale of it,” Mr Prystaiko said.

“I’m not talking about immigration waves, because Ukraine managed to observe those almost two million people who have been displaced from the occupied areas.

“But the whole tragedy of people being killed in Europe, this is something that more or less 70 years after the [Second World War], we can’t even imagine. In Ukraine, we can’t even imagine [it], even though we’ve been living through it.”

He had earlier addressed a crowd of Ukrainians outside Downing Street.

Dozens of people had turned up to protest against Russian aggression and urge UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to step up his pressure on the Kremlin.

Mr Prystaiko welcomed Britain’s threat to cut Russia out of London’s money market if it decides to send troops and tanks into Ukraine, saying it was a “good message” to send to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, he argued the package of sanctions should have been imposed in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and backed rebels to fight against Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region.

“They should have told any aggressor that fighting with the Ukrainian people is so 19th/20th Century,” he said.

“We now can live in a different world.

“That was a good message [Putin] received, that there is somebody willing to stand against him because he’s used to bullying everybody, bullying smaller states like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Moldova, all those places.

“Now he came for the bigger state like [Ukraine] and he is just getting more and more emboldened. He thinks that he can do everything [but] now nations are standing strong, as united nations.

“That’s exactly the purpose of union — Nato is talking as one voice. That’s what Russia does not like. The wedge they want to draw in is not working, nations are standing united.”

Mr Prystaiko also urged the UK, US and other Nato members to share any details they receive about Russia’s intentions, saying Kiev is in need of “more and more intelligence and information”.

He suggested if Russian tanks were to roll across the frontier and into his homeland, he would demand more than sanctions from the UK.

“If anything happens tomorrow, we will ask [for] more, that’s for sure.”

‘We are past the point of trusting in Putin’s words’

On Wednesday — the day US intelligence suggested Russia could invade Ukraine — the Russian defence ministry announced it was pulling back some military personnel from positions close to the Ukrainian border.

Nato responded by saying it had not seen any evidence of troop withdrawals.

The UK and the US on Thursday accused Russia of sending an additional 7,000 soldiers to the Ukrainian border.

The latest estimates from Washington on Friday put the number of Russian troops close to the boundary with Ukraine at 190,000. This figure includes 30,000 personnel taking part in military drills in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north.

Mr Prystaiko echoed western leaders’ suspicion of Russia's claims on Wednesday, saying: “Frankly, we are passed this point where we trust in words. We would like to see real actions on the ground.

“When we see it, when we can prove it, we can tell that they’re actually withdrawing. Some forces are moving back, some forces are coming to replace them.”

‘We are panicking but we are used to it’

The ambassador said much of the outside world is “totally oblivious” to the war that has been ongoing in Ukraine since April 2014.

“People ask, ‘why are you so thick-skinned, why are you not panicking?’” he said.

“We are panicking but we are used to it, to the constant threat. Each and every day now news tells us whether we have someone killed or not.”

He welcomed the moral and military support from Nato members but said it would not be enough to help Ukraine if millions wake up to the reality of Russian soldiers on their streets.

“We also need support to survive,” he said, pointing to airlines cancelling flights which would hit the Ukrainian economy.

“We need financial support to go through this period. We need is military support. We [have] started receiving real stuff from nations like the UK, US and some others but there is still some potential [for more].”

On Friday, Mr Putin accused Ukraine of “systematic” human rights abuses against the country’s Russian-speaking population as Moscow ratcheted up pressure in its stand-off with the West.

The Russian president insisted that large-scale military exercises with Belarusian forces close to the Ukrainian border were “purely defensive” and did not represent a threat to any other country.

But as western leaders began heading to Germany to discuss the crisis at the Munich Security Conference, the Russian defence ministry announced that it would be carrying out more exercises on Saturday involving its strategic nuclear forces.

Mr Putin will observe the drills involving practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in a demonstration showing that Russia remains a nuclear superpower.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 8:28 PM