Ukrainian leaders were to stage a “Day of Unity” on Wednesday to rally patriotic support and defy fears of a Russian invasion, as Moscow announced an end to military manoeuvres in occupied Crimea.
Russia’s huge build-up of troops, missiles and warships around Ukraine — which US intelligence warns could turn quickly into an invasion — has been called Europe’s worst security crisis since the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded Ukraine be forbidden from pursuing its ambition to join NATO and wants to redraw the security map of eastern Europe, rolling back Western influence.
But, backed by a threat of crippling US and EU economic sanctions, Western leaders have launched a drive to seek a negotiated settlement, and Moscow has signalled it will start to pull forces back.
In the latest such move, on Wednesday the Russian defence ministry said military drills in Crimea — a Ukrainian region Moscow annexed in 2014 — had ended and that troops were returning to their garrisons.
Washington has demanded more verifiable evidence of de-escalation and NATO defence ministers were meeting Wednesday in Brussels to discuss a crisis that US intelligence still warns could see a Russian invasion.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has downplayed threats of an immediate Russian invasion, but is attempting to rally his people with “Day of Unity” celebrations under Ukraine’s blue and gold banner.
On Wednesday, he was to inspect military drills in the west of the country, before travelling southeast to Mariupol, a frontline port city near a breakaway region held by Russian-backed separatists.
In an Instagram video, the 44-year-old former television actor turned crisis leader declared that the flag would fly across the country and that the national anthem “Ukraine has not yet died” would be sung.
“Great people of great Ukraine! This day is ours,” he declared.
“Those who live on the right and left banks of the Dnipro, in cities and villages, near the Carpathians and the slag heaps, on the coasts of the Black and Azov Seas.”
– Richest man –
In another sign of Ukraine’s most powerful figures coming together, some wealthy business leaders who had been urged to come back to the country announced their return.
Ukraine’s richest man, 55-year-old billionaire industrialist Rinat Akmetov, who was born in Donetsk in an area now held by separatists, was to be in Mariupol, his press secretary said.
Southwest of the port across the Azov sea, in Crimea, Russian state television showed images of military units crossing a bridge linking the Russia-controlled peninsula to the mainland.
A defence ministry statement said tanks, infantry vehicles and artillery were leaving Crimea by rail.
It comes a day after Moscow said it was pulling back some of the troops deployed on its neighbour’s borders, and with Belarus saying Wednesday that “not a single” Russian soldier would remain on its territory at the end of joint military drills later this month.
On Tuesday, there were hopes for a breakthrough as Putin met Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz to explore a route to a negotiated solution.
But US President Joe Biden — who has ordered Washington’s embassy in Kyiv closed and urged Americans to leave Ukraine — demanded Russia prove its good intentions with a verifiable withdrawal.
“Analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position,” Biden said, in an address on the crisis. “The United States is prepared no matter what happens. We are ready with diplomacy,” he said.
“And we are ready to respond decisively to Russian attack on Ukraine, which is still very much a possibility,” he said, warning of “powerful sanctions”.
In Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of his meeting with allied ministers that, while there was not yet “any sign of de-escalation on the ground”, there were “grounds for cautious optimism”.
– ‘Dirty tricks’? –
On Tuesday, Ukraine said the websites of the country’s defence ministry and armed forces as well as two banks had been hit by a cyberattack that could have Russian origins.
“It cannot be excluded that the aggressor is resorting to dirty tricks,” Ukraine’s communications watchdog said, in reference to Russia.
In a separate move likely to anger Kyiv, Russian lawmakers on Tuesday voted to urge Putin to recognise two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as “sovereign and independent states”.
This would allow Russia to abandon the Minsk agreements peace plan for eastern Ukraine and potentially move in Russian troops — giving Putin a strong hand to play in any future negotiations with Kyiv.