BRUSSELS/MOSCOW, Feb 10 (Reuters) – Britain said on Thursday the West could face the “most dangerous moment” in its standoff with Moscow in the next few days, as Russia held military exercises in Belarus and the Black Sea following its troop buildup near Ukraine.
Tensions remained high, with Ukraine also staging war games, but leaders on all sides signalled they hoped diplomacy could still prevail in what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Europe’s biggest security crisis for decades.
In a new round of diplomacy, Britain’s foreign minister held talks in Russia, Johnson visited NATO headquarters in Brussels and officials from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France were due to meet in Berlin to discuss fighting between government forces and pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Russia, which has more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, denies Western accusations that it may be planning to invade its former Soviet neighbour though it says it could take unspecified “military-technical” action unless demands are met.
“I honestly don’t think a decision has yet been taken (by Moscow on an attack). But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible that something absolutely disastrous could happen very soon indeed,” Johnson told a news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels.
“This is probably the most dangerous moment, I would say, in the course of the next few days, in what is the biggest security crisis that Europe has faced for decades, and we’ve got to get it right. And I think that the combination of sanctions and military resolve, plus diplomacy is what is in order.”Report ad
Stoltenberg also said it was a dangerous moment for European security, adding: “The number of Russian forces is going up. The warning time for a possible attack is going down.”
In a new point of friction, Ukraine criticised Russian naval exercises that it said made navigation in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov “virtually impossible”.
Visiting Moscow, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of tough Western sanctions if Ukraine was attacked.
Lavrov said Moscow was in favour of diplomacy to resolve the crisis but that he could not understand British concerns over the drills in Belarus and denied Russia was coercing anyone.
He said the West was using Ukraine against Moscow and also accused Kyiv of attempting to rewrite agreements intended to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“I’m honestly disappointed that what we have is a conversation between a dumb and a deaf person. It’s as if we listen but we don’t hear,” Lavrov said