‘I think there will be a war’: Ukrainians wait for worst as eleventh-hour talks start

As diplomats meet in a desperate attempt to prevent conflict, people in Kiev tell world affairs editor Kim Sengupta how they fear it is too late, and that war is inevitable

Friday 21 January 2022 12:36
<p>A member of the Ukrainian armed forces near the line of separation from Russian-backed rebels near Horlivka in the Donetsk region</p>

A member of the Ukrainian armed forces near the line of separation from Russian-backed rebels near Horlivka in the Donetsk region

The last throws of the diplomatic dice are taking place in an increasingly desperate attempt to avoid a war in Europe amid grim warnings that Vladimir Putin will order an attack on Ukraine.

After days of talks with allies this week, Antony Blinken met Sergei Lavrov today in Geneva with flickering hopes of scaling back the confrontation, and avoiding a conflict that both sides accept will have devastating consequences.

The last meeting between the US secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister, in December, ended after just 40 minutes with exchanges of accusations and recriminations with demands that the Kremlin start pulling back the more than 100,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s borders.

As they met, ordinary people in Ukraine continued to fear the worst, claiming that conflict was all but inevitable.

The threat of violent strife has grown significantly worse since December with more Russian forces moving into strategic positions needed for an offensive, and claims by the Americans that the Russians are planning “false flag” operations as pretext for attacks.

They have also claimed that former Ukrainian government figures are being organised by the Kremlin to form a provisional government after invasion and occupation. On Thursday the US Treasury has imposed sanctions on two Ukrainian MPs and two former officials who are allegedly part of the plot.

The new talks take place in the wake of Joe Biden publicly declaring, to the surprise of those involved in the negotiations, that military action appeared to be inevitable. Vladimir Putin, he said, “has to do something… My guess is he will move in”.

The US President went on to say that Nato was divided as it faces the crisis. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do etc”. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, reposted “there are no minor incursions. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”

Following meetings with British, French and German officials on Thursday, Mr Blinken said in Berlin that allowing an incursion into Ukraine by Russia would “drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time, when this continent, and this city, were divided in two… with the threat of all-out war hanging over everyone’s heads”.

Speaking alongside Mr Blinken, Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, pledged immediate action against any Russian invasion and imposing measures that “could have economic consequences for ourselves”. The country’s new chancellor, Olaf Schulz, had stated earlier this week that Nord Stream 2, the pipeline project for Russian gas, may be halted if there is an attack on Ukraine.

Speaking in Australia, Liz Truss asked Vladimir Putin to “desist and step back from Ukraine before he makes a massive strategic mistake”. Moscow, said the British foreign secretary, “has not learned the lessons of history” and an “invasion will only lead to a terrible quagmire and loss of life, as we know from the Soviet-Afghan war…”

It is, however, the Biden-led humiliating retreat by the west from Afghanistan that is seen by adversaries as well as some allies as heralding an era of “western defeatism”.

A senior Ukrainian diplomat said : “We saw what happened, and it is worrying. The Americans had invested 20 years in Afghanistan, they had quite a small force [about 2,400] and pulled out. Of course Afghanistan is far away, and what’s happening here will affect Europe. We know the Russian plan is to try and do a deal directly with the Americans, cutting us out, and maybe the Europeans as well. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Ukrainian officials publicly insist that western support for their country has not wavered, and they point to the rise in military support from allies as proof of this.

Britain has become one of the most prominent suppliers, sending about 1,600 short-range NLAW (Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon) missiles in a shuttle of RAF aircraft. There is also joint agreement for production of naval weaponry, including missile boats and minehunters, buttressed by a loan agreement of £1.7bn from London.

The US has provided, in recent times, about $60m (£45m) worth of equipment, including additional Javelin anti-tank guided missiles to the ones already supplied. Washington has also signed a strategic defence framework with Kiev.

Members of the “Democratic Axe” political party take part in a rally to thank Britain for supplying Ukraine with anti-tank weapons in front of the British embassy in Kiev

One of the most potent weapons in the Ukrainian armoury has not, however, come from the US or UK, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has sold TB2 drones to Kiev. The drones, which had been highly effective for Azerbaijan in its war against Moscow’s ally, Armenia, have already been used, it is believed, by the Ukrainians in the Donbas, to destroy artillery of the separatist forces.

What the Ukrainians will not get from their allies are boots on the ground. As the British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said in an interview while the missile deal was being set up: ”It’s a fact it’s not a member of Nato, so it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to send troops into Ukraine to challenge Russia… We shouldn’t kid people on that we would.”

The west has also not sent the Ukrainians long-range offensive weaponry, knowing it will be viewed as highly provocative by Moscow. The Russians have the decisive advantage there with the deployment to the front of systems such as the BM-27 Uragan and the Iskander ballistic missiles which can hit Kiev from their positions. The joint military exercise with Belarus will see airpower augmented with the arrival of a Russian Su-35S fighter squadron.

The anti-tank missiles and the drones will be of use if there is close-quarter combat following a Russian invasion. Such urban fighting will be messy and bloody, but Petro Kravchuk can foresee that happening and also view it as a scenario which gives Ukraine some advantage.

Mr Kravchuk, a mechanical engineer, joined one of the volunteer battalions that fought in the Donbas and Lugansk in the last conflict and is now part of the country’s reserves, and a member of the Civil Defence Force.

“I never thought it was over when I returned to Kiev after the last war and the Russian occupation. They had the Minsk agreement and all that, but there was always fighting, killing going on,” he told The Independent.

“We used anti-tank missiles in the anti-terrorist operation in the Donbas before. They were older models, but if we have newer Javelins and Stingers, yes it will make a difference. Of course they have a lot of firepower, but if they come into the cities it will be costly for them.

“I am not boasting about this. I do not want to see more fighting, more people getting killed. I was injured last time and that or worse may happen again. This should not be happening but it is the fault of the Russians, but also some of our own politicians.”

People in Europe cannot see how serious things are becoming. But it will affect other countries as well

Olena Tkachuk, Kiev resident

Mr Kravchuk, who was shot in the arm during the fight for Donetsk airport in 2014, continued : “I have a wife, three children, I have parents, and brothers and sisters. I don’t want to leave them to go and fight, but it looks like we may not have a choice. At the end we must defend our country.”

People in Ukraine have been living under the shadow of war for years and there had been a feeling among many that the worst predictions will not come to pass. But that appears to be changing, at least among some.

Galyna Nazarenko said that she had begun to feel very nervous for the first time since this the current standoff began. “I think there will be a war, yes, unfortunately I think this will come,” she said. “And I am not even sure that this time it will be just in the east.”

Spreading her hands towards Yaroslav Val Street in central Kiev, with people heading into shops and cafes in the snow, Ms Nazarenko said: “We keep hearing that the Russians are putting more and more soldiers, tanks in that border area. We read that Putin wants to take Kiev and put in another government; there are all kinds of theories.”

Ms Nazarenko, a chemist, said she, her family and friends are being careful now about their travel plans.

“I have a brother working in Warsaw. I was going to visit him with my husband next week. But what happens if the fighting begins? The airport will probably get shut and we’ll be away from our children,” she said. “So we are postponing our trip to see what happens. But we don’t think that things will get better; we think they will get pretty bad.”

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a news conference after his meeting with US secretary of state Antony Blinken about tensions over Ukraine, in Geneva

Olena Tkachuk, a colleague of Ms Nazarenko, joined her for coffee as she was speaking.

“People in Europe cannot see how serious things are becoming. But it will affect other countries as well,” she said.

“But we must consider our own situation here. If the situation gets worse we may move to Lviv [ in western Ukraine]; that may be safer. This is not the kind of conversation one should have in a normal society, but we are not living in normal times.”

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