Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has talked down the threat of an imminent Russian invasion and said the UK and US are wrong to pull out non-essential diplomatic staff from Kyiv, adding: “We don’t have a Titanic here.”
Zelenskiy said on Friday he was acutely aware of the dangers posed by the 100,000 Russian troops gathered on Ukraine’s border. But he appeared to disagree with the Biden administration’s bleak assessment that a Russian attack next month was “distinctly possible”.
In a briefing to foreign media organisations including the Guardian, Zelenskiy shrugged off claims his government was in denial, with an attitude that commentators on social media had compared to the Netflix drama Don’t Look Up.
“We are looking up. We do understand what is happening. But we have been in the situation for eight years. We should not only be looking up but also at the ground,” he said. “The threat is constant.” He added: “We can’t say the war will happen tomorrow or by the end of February. Yes, it may happen, unfortunately. But you have to feel the pulse on a day-to-day basis.”
Asked if Boris Johnson’s government had made a mistake in withdrawing some diplomats, Zelenskiy said: “Yes. In these circumstances everyone is essential.”
He noted that the Greeks had kept open their consulate in the city of Mariupol, next to the frontline with Russian-backed separatists. “You can hear canons firing. The Greeks didn’t pull anyone out. The captains should not leave the ship. I don’t think we have a Titanic here.”
Zelenskiy said the recent buildup of Kremlin forces was “no more intense” than in spring 2021. “If you look at the satellite you will see the increase of troops. You can’t assess if it’s a threat, an attack or simple rotation,” he said, adding that some of the tents for Russian soldiers appeared to be empty.
Moscow moved in additional troops before major diplomatic negotiations, he said. “It’s psychological. They want to make believe they are there. They are trying to build up psychological pressure.”
Zelenskiy denied differences with the US administration, after a phone call on Thursday night with Joe Biden. “We don’t have any misunderstandings with President Biden. I just deeply understand what’s happening in my country, just as he does with the US,” he said.
“Do we have tanks on the streets? No,” he said. Hyped media reports were causing panic in the financial sector, damaging the “purse” of Ukrainians, and depleting Ukraine’s gold reserves and currency, he said.
Zelenskiy was speaking at his official residence in Kyiv, the Mariinski palace, a neo-classical building overlooking the River Dnipro and next to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament.
The US believes the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine next month remains real. The US ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, has said a Kremlin operation could be imminent, citing the extraordinary buildup of Russian troops at the border.
The deployment, which includes joint military exercises with Belarus, was destabilising and threatening to Ukraine, Sullivan said. On Thursday the US national security council spokesperson Emily Horne quoted Biden as saying a February invasion was “distinctly possible”.
Zelenskiy, however, has pushed back against the idea that a Russian attack is inevitable. Instead his government has told Ukrainians to keep calm, saying they should carry on as normal and “take it easy”, in the words of one minister.
Zelenskiy has previously pointed out that Ukraine has been at war for nearly eight years, since Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and started a separatist conflict in the Donbas region in the east.
Despite apparent differences, Zelenskiy has been keen to emphasise unity with the US, his country’s key international partner. He has disavowed an apparent briefing made to CNN that suggested Kyiv wanted Washington to dial down talk of imminent conflict.
During a phone call on Thursday, Biden told Zelenskiy the White House was considering economic support to Ukraine, after $650m (£484m) in military assistance over the past year. Biden “reaffirmed the readiness of the United States along with its allies and partners to respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine”, a White House statement said.
Zelenskiy said he had discussed with Biden international attempts to find a peaceful way out of the crisis. “Discussed recent diplomatic efforts on de-escalation and agreed on joint actions for the future,” Zelenskiy said on Twitter on Thursday evening. He thanked Biden for the ongoing military assistance in the form of weapons.
Russia has denied it will invade but has said the US’s written response, delivered on Wednesday, did not meet its security demands. On Friday Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow did not want war but was prepared to take its own tough measures if necessary.
Had a long phone conversation with @POTUS. Discussed recent diplomatic efforts on de-escalation and agreed on joint actions for the future. Thanked President @JoeBiden for the ongoing military assistance. Possibilities for financial support to Ukraine were also discussed. pic.twitter.com/pAsQLYAuig
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) January 27, 2022
Russia wants the US to veto Ukraine’s future membership of Nato, and for Nato to remove its troops from eastern Europe, including from Romania and Bulgaria. The US has rejected the demand, which in effect seeks to re-establish a cold war-style zone of Russian influence in former Warsaw Pact countries.
Western experts and Ukrainian analysts believe the Kremlin has not yet assembled a sufficient force needed for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. They believe a more likely scenario is a “hybrid” attack, featuring cyber and infrastructure shutdowns, with an intensification of military activity across the “line of contact” between the Ukrainian military and Russian-armed separatists.
On Friday Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said 112,000 Russian servicemen were on the border, with the number increasing to about 130,000, including navy and aviation personnel.
Reznikov said the deployment was no bigger than last April, when Russia dispatched 126,000 troops. The reaction from the international community was “disproportionate”, he told the Rada.