Russia is building up its forces on Ukraine’s border even further to an estimated 190,000, according to some reports. The Kremlin has ordered “peacekeepers” into Donbas and the Duma has just passed a law giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the go-ahead to deploy troops “abroad.” In the face of a looming invasion the government in Kyiv declared on February 23 that a 30-day state of emergency will be introduced.
Ahead of a possible large-scale Russian invasion Kyiv will call up military reservists between the ages of 18 and 60 and allow ordinary civilians to carry firearms.
Some 100,000 firearms have already been distributed by volunteer brigades and impromptu training sessions to teach civilians how to use a gun have started.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said February 22 that he does not expect an "all-out war against Ukraine" and has repeatedly played down the US intelligence sourced warnings that a Russian invasion could happen “any day,” as was announced at a briefing by White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan on February 12.
However, after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk on February 21 the game has changed. Zelenskiy has responded that he is putting “Ukraine on a war footing" in case there is a "broad escalation" from Russia.
His western allies have also reacted to the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent from Ukraine. US President Joe Biden said that the “invasion has already started,” and a series of western countries imposed a raft of sanctions on Russia on February 22.
The state of emergency will apply to the whole of Ukraine bar the occupied regions in the east, the authorities said. It will allow the government to impose additional security measures and inspections, pending parliamentary approval, and could be extended a further 30 days after it ends in March.
Ukraine has a standing army of some 250,000 but up to 800,000 more soldiers as reservists. In a recent survey up to a third of adult Ukrainians said they would be willing to fight to defend their country against a Russian invasion.
The Ukrainian government has also called on millions of Ukrainian citizens to leave Russia, warning that it could become difficult to ensure their safety in a hostile country.
In another ominous sign the Russian Foreign Ministry pulled its staff out of its embassy in Kyiv and took down its flag. According to reports the building is now standing empty. Many western diplomats have already been ordered to leave, while the US State Department has been actively calling US citizens resident in Ukraine’s capital and advising them to leave.
Other diplomats and officials have relocated to the city of Lviv in Ukraine’s far west near the border with the EU for security reasons. There have also been reports of the government moving important files and records to locations in the west of the country.
However, Zelenskiy said that he was not leaving Kyiv and that his wife would also remain the capital.
After having downplayed the threat, Zelenskiy seems to have changed his mind after Putin’s recognition of the breakaway regions. That has two effects: to definitely end the Minsk II process that was supposed to bring peace to the east and effectively hive for more Ukrainian territory and put it beyond the reach of the state forever.
The mood in Kyiv has noticeably darkened over the weekend as the possibility of an armed conflict becomes much more real, according to bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in the capital. The rhetoric from top officials has become much more binary as well.
"Plan A is to utilise every tool of diplomacy, to deter Russia and prevent further escalation," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said at a press conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on February 22. "And if that fails, plan B is to fight for every inch of our land, and every city and every village. To fight until we win."
Russian forces have entered the occupied territories in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine – the first time Russian forces have openly moved into what the rest of the world still considers to be sovereign Ukrainian territory.
What remains unclear is whether the newly minted Donetsk and Luhansk republics will lay claim to the whole of the Donbas region. Currently the DNR and LNR only control about a third of the region, while the rest is in the hands of Ukrainian forces. Should the rebels try to take control of the whole region then significant fighting would ensue that would cross the line of contact that has kept the two sides apart for most of the last eight years. It remains an open question if the rebels attempted to take the whole region whether Russian forces would participate in such action.