Flags were lowered at the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv on Monday, and Ukraine’s main airline began moving planes out of the country, as the consequences of Russian military pressure on Ukraine escalated even without shots are fired.
On the ground, the feeling was spreading that the West – which many Ukrainians hoped their country might one day fully join – was abandoning Ukraine to its fate as warnings of an impending Russian invasion mounted.
After weeks of telling Ukraine’s allies not to panic, President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered a video address on Monday and explicitly raised the possibility that the country could soon face “a great war.” He said Ukraine was already grappling with information and economic attacks, as well as the presence of an “alien army” on the country’s borders.
“We are threatened with a great war and the date for the invasion has been set,” he said, referring to reports that US President Joe Biden had told his allies that a Russian invasion of the Ukraine could start on Wednesday. “We are told that February 16 will be the day of the attack, but we will make it the day of unity. I have already signed the corresponding decree. On this day, we will raise national flags everywhere and wear blue and yellow ribbons to show the world our unity.
The decree on “emergency measures to consolidate Ukrainian society” was immediately published on the official website of the presidency. He increased the salaries of soldiers by 30% and those of the police and border guards by 20%. A “united information platform” was also created “to inform people about the real security situation”.
Mr. Zelensky’s outspokenness matched the actions of Western governments. The Canadian Embassy has now entirely moved to the city of Lviv, near the border between Ukraine and Poland. The United States, Australia and the Netherlands have done the same, while Britain is maintaining minimal staff in Kyiv, where it is suspending consular services. On Monday, Reuters reported that the World Bank was withdrawing international staff from Ukraine.
“It’s a feeling of abandonment,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a nongovernmental organization that receives most of its funding from Western governments. “What kind of message does this send to the world? Foreigners, foreign companies are getting the message that Ukraine is dangerous.
On Monday, Moscow hinted at a possible de-escalation of the months-long crisis. In a televised briefing, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told President Vladimir Putin that diplomatic options were “far from exhausted”, although he also warned of “endless negotiations”. In a separate briefing, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Mr Putin that some Russian military exercises near Ukraine were “coming to an end”.
However, around 130,000 Russian troops remain massed on three sides of Ukraine, and videos posted on social media suggest tanks and other equipment were brought closer to the border on Monday. The Kremlin demanded assurances that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and also called on NATO to withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe. The United States and NATO have declared that Moscow could never have a veto over their policies.
Vadym Prystaiko, a former Ukrainian foreign minister who is now the country’s ambassador to Britain, told the BBC on Monday that his country was ready to make “many concessions” in order to avoid a war. However, he said Ukraine could not give up its goal of NATO membership since it was a goal enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Western governments continued to prepare as if a crushing Russian assault was imminent. Over the weekend, Canada withdrew the 260-soldier Operation Unifier, which had been training the Ukrainian military since 2014. All Canadian citizens in Ukraine were advised to leave, and the 38 Canadians attached to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in eastern Ukraine have been ordered.
Ottawa says these measures were necessary to ensure “the safety and security of all Canadians on the ground.” The White House has warned that a Russian assault on Ukraine – possibly beginning with rocket fire and an aerial bombardment campaign – could begin as early as this week. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Monday that “the latest information suggests that Russia could invade at any time”.
Such warnings weigh increasingly heavily on Ukraine’s already struggling economy. Ukraine International Airlines said Monday it was forced to move seven of its 25 planes (all of which are leased) out of the country after insurers withdrew coverage from Ukraine-based carriers. The company said the move was made “at the request of the lessors”.
Aviation lawyer Andriy Guck said the insurers’ refusal to provide cover – at a time when Ukrainian airspace remains open – was “highly unexpected”. Even stranger, he said, was the decision by donors to demand the planes be removed from the country despite the Ukrainian government’s announcement on Sunday that it had created a $592 million fund to support the aviation industry during the crisis.
Mr Guck, who is part of the Ukrainian government’s aviation task force, said statements from the White House about an impending Russian attack were causing panic that hurt Ukraine. “From the perspective of the American president, I understand that very well. If this happens, it warned about it. If it doesn’t happen, he stops it. I understand this game, but it’s not very pleasant to play.
Mr Guck said two smaller Ukrainian carriers – SkyUp and Bees Airlines – were in the same situation as UIA and could be forced to move their leased aircraft fleets out of the country as early as Tuesday. “We expected some support, especially for the air force, but instead they are killing it,” Mr Guck said.
Dutch airline KLM also announced that it was canceling all flights to Ukraine and avoiding the country’s airspace. Flight-tracking software suggested other international carriers were also avoiding overflights over Ukraine on Monday, although Czech Airlines and Latvian company airBaltic both said they were sending additional planes to Kyiv this week to respond to growing demand.
Meanwhile, online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda reported on Monday that 23 MPs – many of them members of a pro-Russian political bloc – had left the country in recent days, as had some of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen. ‘Ukraine. In his speech, Mr Zelensky said those who had left should “return to your people and to your country which gave you your fortune and your factories”. He said MPs should return “within 24 hours”.
The drama over the future of the country’s aviation industry was unfolding at the same time as massive Russian naval exercises in the Black Sea disrupted shipping routes. Data compiled by shipping tracker VesselsValue shows Ukraine’s maritime exports of grain and other dry goods are down more than 40% this month compared to the first half of January.
Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, has lost about 9% of its value since Russia’s military buildup began in November. Inflation was 10% in January. Russia’s currency, the ruble, and the country’s main stock market also fell on Monday after the latest US warnings of an invasion.
Canada, the United States, Britain and the European Union have pledged to respond with heavy economic sanctions if Russia – which already occupies the Crimean peninsula and funds a separatist militia in the Donbass region – launches a deeper invasion of Ukraine.
Ms Kaleniuk said it was maddening that Ukraine was feeling the economic pain as the West waited to see what Mr Putin would do next before making a decision on sanctions. She said Russia’s naval exercises in the Black Sea amounted to a de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports – an act of war that should have already triggered sanctions against Moscow and Kremlin-friendly oligarchs with assets in the West. “I don’t understand why Ukraine and Ukrainians are paying for Russian aggression, which continues, while Russia is not being punished,” she said. “Putin is testing step by step, and the West is taking no action.”
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