Russia’s ambassador to the EU has said Moscow would be within its rights to launch a “counterattack” if it felt it needed to protect Russian citizens living in eastern Ukraine.
The comments in an interview with the Guardian will do little to calm fears of a major Russian assault on Ukraine, given one of the key scenarios suggested by western intelligence was Russia launching a “false-flag” operation to provide a pretext for invasion.
“We will not invade Ukraine unless we are provoked to do that,” said Vladimir Chizhov, who has represented Russia in Brussels since 2005. “If the Ukrainians launch an attack against Russia, you shouldn’t be surprised if we counterattack. Or, if they start blatantly killing Russian citizens anywhere – Donbas or wherever.”
Donbas is the region of eastern Ukraine where the Kremlin has armed and funded an insurgency since 2014. It has also, in recent years, handed out hundreds of thousands of Russian passports to residents of two so-called “people’s republics”, which are no longer controlled by Kyiv.
More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2014.
Russia has always denied being a party to the conflict despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Chizhov described claims Russian troops were already in the Donbas region as a “lie” but warned that a sudden escalation of the conflict there, or a Ukrainian “provocation”, could precipitate action by the Kremlin.
“What I mean by provocation is that they may stage an incident against the self-proclaimed Donbas republics, provoking them, and then hitting them with all their might, thus provoking Russia to react in order to avoid humanitarian catastrophe on its borders.”
The US government has claimed to have evidence that Moscow is planning just the kind of provocation Chizhov said Kyiv could launch. US officials went public last month with claims they had evidence of a plan to make a “very graphic” fake video of a Ukrainian attack.
With an estimated 145,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, intelligence officials in the US said over the weekend that Russia had accelerated plans for an invasion and could move troops across the border as soon as Wednesday.
Chizhov dismissed western fears of an imminent conflict, saying the numbers of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border were only equivalent to those of the Zapad 21, a large-scale military exercise conducted last September. “And nobody said a word [then],” he said.
Military analysts describe the scale and composition of the buildup as unprecedented.
At a meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Monday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, appeared to leave room for further negotiations.
“You have said, and other Russian representatives have said, that we warn against endless conversations on issues that need to be resolved today. Still, as the foreign minister, I should say that there is always a chance,” the told the Russian president.
“It seems to me that our possibilities are far from being exhausted. They certainly should not continue indefinitely. But at this stage I would suggest that they continue and be intensified,” he added.
Chizhov said he believed the diplomatic blitz of recent weeks could still end in a solution that worked for all sides. The Kremlin is seeking to block Ukraine from future membership of Nato, a demand rejected by the west, as well as to begin a discussion on a new security architecture for Europe.
Chizhov said the west had a “selective type of memory” about previous commitments on Nato enlargement. He added that Lavrov had written to EU and Nato countries on 1 February citing the OSCE summit in Istanbul in November 1999 where it was agreed that all were obliged “not to strengthen its security at the expense of the security of other states”.
The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, has responded in a letter seen by the Guardian, in which he said: “We in the European Union are prepared to continue dialogue with Russia on ways to strengthen the security of all.”
Chizhov said he was not able to make Borrell’s letter public but that his general assessment was that it was “unsatisfactory”. He added that it was also surprising, given that Borrell had not been a recipient of Lavrov’s communication. “We wanted to sound out each and every country,” Chizhov said. “Well, they were too timid to reply in their national capacity”.