US reaffirms dire Russian invasion warning as Scholz heads to Kyiv

Dmitry Zaks - Agence France-Presse
US reaffirms dire Russian invasion warning as Scholz heads to Kyiv
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses a joint press conference with Lithuania's President, Estonia's Prime Minister and Latvia's Prime Minister before talks in Berlin on February 10, 2022.
Christophe Gateau / POOL / AFP

KYIV, Ukraine — Washington reaffirmed its warning Sunday that Russia could invade Ukraine at any moment and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz prepared to visit both countries in a bid to head off a crisis that Berlin said had reached a "critical" point.

Kyiv also scrambled to keep its airspace open after KLM became the first major airline to suspend its operation because of the threats posed by Russian troops conducting military drills across Ukraine's frontiers.

Western countries are winding down their diplomatic missions and urging their citizens to leave immediately after a frantic week of diplomacy failed to calm one of the most explosive standoffs since the Cold War.

US President Joe Biden briefed Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky about an hour-long conversation with Russia's Vladimir Putin he had on Saturday that brought made no breakthrough.

Zelensky's office said the Ukrainian leader had invited Biden to visit Kyiv "in the coming days" to show his moral support and deliver "a powerful signal" to Russia.

Washington made no mention of an invitation in its readout of the 50-minute call.

But US national security advisor Jake Sullivan issued a grim assessment that an invasion that could begin "any day now" would likely start with "a significant barrage of missiles and bomb attacks".

Western leaders are pushing back against Putin's demands that the US-led NATO alliance withdraw from eastern Europe and never expand into Ukraine.

But Putin is dismissing calls by Biden and others to pull back Russian forces from Ukraine's frontiers.

Washington has warned that the Russian deployments — estimated at 130,000 soldiers backed by various missiles and tanks — was sufficient to launch a major attack "any day".

Germany's Scholz said on the eve of his crunch trip to Kyiv Monday and Moscow Tuesday that Western allies would "immediately" sanction Russia if it invaded.

"In the event of a military aggression against Ukraine that threatens its territorial integrity and sovereignty, that will lead to tough sanctions that we have carefully prepared," he said.

"We assess the situation as very critical, very dangerous," a German government source added.

Memories of MH17

The Dutch carrier KLM on Saturday became the first major airline to indefinitely suspend flights to the former Soviet republic because of the rising risks.

Ukraine's budget airline SkyUp said on Sunday that its flight from Portugal to Kyiv was forced to land in Moldova because the plane's Irish leasing company had revoked permission for it to cross into Ukraine.

SkyUp added that European leasing companies were demanding that Ukrainian airlines return their planes to EU airspace within 48 hours.

Ukraine's infrastructure ministry responded by holding an emergency meeting aimed at maintaining foreign travel and keeping the country from becoming more isolated in the heat of the crisis.

"The airspace over Ukraine remains open and the state is working on preempting risks for airlines," the ministry said after the meeting.

Industry analysts believe other international airlines may soon also ban flights into Ukraine because of the growing cost to insurers.

The travel industry is still haunted by the memory of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 being shot down while flying near eastern Ukraine's conflict zone in July 2014.

All 298 passengers aboard the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight died.

Ukraine's infrastructure ministry acknowledged that "some carriers are facing difficulties linked to fluctuations on the insurance market".

"The state is prepared to support airlines and provide them with additional financial guarantees in order to support the market," it said.

Foreigners fleeing

The worries about air travel come with a growing number of Western governments winding down their missions and advising citizens to get out.

The US State Department on Saturday ordered all non-emergency embassy staff out of Ukraine.

Russia cited fears of "possible provocations from the Kyiv regime" as it also began pulling out some embassy staff.

"I am leaving because of the situation, because I value my life," Moroccan native Aimrane Bouziane said before boarding his flight home.

"I think the soundest choice to make is to leave Ukraine now," the 23-year-old entrepreneur said.

The diplomatic drawdown has touched the staff of the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) monitoring mission in Ukraine.

The OSCE has served as the world's eyes and ears for the eight-year conflict across Ukraine's Russian-backed separatist east that has claimed more than 14,000 lives.

But images on social media showed convoys of its white SUVs leaving various parts of the conflict zone as staff moved to comply with their respective governments' travel advisories.

The OSCE said that "certain participating states" had asked their members of the monitoring missions to "leave Ukraine within the next days".

But is stressed that its mission continued "in 10 cities throughout Ukraine".

The Ukrainian government has been trying to preempt the flood of foreigners leaving the country by calling for calm and criticising US warnings of possibly imminent war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that "all this information is only provoking panic and not helping us".




As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: July 4, 2022 - 7:23am

President Vladimir Putin says he hopes that Moscow and the West could find a solution to the raging security crisis over Ukraine, but also accused Washington of using Kyiv as a "tool" against Russia.

"I hope that in the end we will find a solution, although it will not be simple," Putin says, indicating he was ready for more talks with the West, which has accused Moscow of massing more than 100,000 troops on the border and plotting to invade Ukraine.

"It seems to me that the United States is not so much concerned about the security of Ukraine... but its main task is to contain Russia's development," Putin says. — AFP

July 4, 2022 - 7:23am

The Ukrainian army has retreated from the strategic city of Lysychansk Sunday, as Russia claimed a major victory by seizing control of the entire eastern Lugansk region.

The Ukrainian withdrawal followed weeks of fierce fighting and marked a decisive breakthrough for Moscow's forces more than four months after their invasion and after turning their focus away from the capital Kyiv.

Lysychansk has been the last major city in the Lugansk area of the eastern Donbas region still in Ukrainian hands and this frees up Moscow's forces to advance on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in neighbouring Donetsk.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has earlier denied Russian claims of Lysychansk's fall before the Ukrainian army announced the retreat on Sunday evening. — AFP

June 30, 2022 - 3:01pm

A ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of grain has sailed from Ukraine's port of Berdyansk, currently controlled by Russian forces, the region's Moscow-appointed official said on Thursday.

"After numerous months of delay, the first merchant ship has left the Berdyansk commercial port, 7,000 tonnes of grain are heading toward friendly countries," Evgeny Balitski, the head of the pro-Russia administration, said on Telegram. — AFP

June 30, 2022 - 8:46am

Britain pledges another $1.2 billion in military aid to Ukraine to help it fend off Russia's invasion, including air-defense systems and drones.

The fresh funds will bring Britain's total military support to Kyiv since the start of the war in late February to £2.3 billion, Downing Street says in a statement. — AFP

June 28, 2022 - 8:16am

A Russian missile strike on a crowded mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk killed at least 16 people, the head of emergency services says early Tuesday, sparking international outrage.

"The Russian strike today on the shopping centre in Kremenchuk is one of the most brazen terrorist acts in European history," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening broadcast posted on Telegram.

"As of now, we know of 16 dead and 59 wounded, 25 of them hospitalised. The information is being updated," emergency services chief Sergiy Kruk says. — AFP

June 27, 2022 - 1:20pm

A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine says it would have been a "crime" not to use his skills to help.

Ken Rhee, an ex-special warfare officer, signed up at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul the moment President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv by early March.

To get there, he had to break South Korean law — Seoul banned its citizens from travelling to Ukraine, and Rhee, who was injured in a fall while leading a special operations patrol there, was met at the airport by 15 police officers on his return.

But the celebrity ex-soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 followers and documented much of his Ukraine experience on his popular Instagram account, says he has no regrets.

"You're walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying 'no swimming' — but you see someone drowning. It's a crime not to help. That's how I see it," he told AFP.

Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the United States. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father — a "patriot", he says — convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.

He served for seven years, undergoing both US and Korean SEAL training and doing multiple stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to set up a defence consultancy.

"I have the skillset. I have the experience. I was in two different wars, and going to Ukraine, I knew I could help," he said, adding that he viewed breaking South Korea's passport law to leave as equivalent to a "traffic violation". — AFP

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