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Britain is considering a deployment of hundreds of military personnel to eastern Europe in advance of Russia potentially invading Ukraine, The Telegraph has learned.
Government sources confirmed that “very advanced discussions” are underway, after reports emerged from Washington that the US, UK and a handful of other Nato allies are in talks about bolstering their military presence on the coalition’s eastern flank.
It is thought a public announcement on new deployments from a smaller grouping of partners within the alliance could come as soon as Thursday.
The US and Nato last night delivered their first written responses to Russia’s European security demands, rejecting Vladimir Putin’s key requirement that Ukraine must never be allowed to join the alliance.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, on Wednesday declared the alliance is “prepared for the worst”.
Mr Stoltenberg warned that fresh Russian deployments in Belarus, which Moscow argues are planned military exercises, could be “used as a disguise to launch an attack”.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, on Wednesday travelled to Nato HQ in Brussels to discuss the Ukraine crisis with Mr Stoltenberg, and also visited his Dutch and German counterparts.
It came as the American broadcaster CNN reported that major battle groups of 1,000 troops could be offered to each of several eastern flank countries by the US, UK and some other Nato allies.
However, UK Government sources on Wednesday that any British deployment is likely to number in the low hundreds at most, rather than 1,000 personnel.
It is understood that units from the Army, Royal Navy and RAF are all under consideration to be dispatched, but no final decisions have been made.
Some Government sources were downbeat on the prospect of Britain sending any extra personnel at all. Sending additional supplies of weaponry and materiel remain other options.
Britain already has around 850 troops stationed in Estonia and about 150 in Poland under Nato missions. The UK has sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and offered military training to its forces.
The US, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark have all indicated they are planning, or willing, to boost their military presence on the fringes of eastern Europe before any Russian invasion.
The UK Government has been increasingly keen to focus on the looming threat of war in Ukraine, amid a deepening domestic political crisis over partygate.
In a statement to the Commons on Tuesday Boris Johnson indicated that Britain was prepared to strengthen its presence in eastern Europe only in response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. A day earlier Government sources similarly insisted to The Telegraph that no additional deployment was likely before Moscow undertook such an act.
The active talks now underway in Whitehall about a pre-emptive deployment therefore mark a significant hardening of the UK’s position.
Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence select committee, welcomed the proposal. “The idea you send in troops after invasion is daft,” he said. “If we want to shore up Nato territory, limiting any incursion to non-Nato Ukraine, we need to move personnel and equipment now.”
Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, announced he would speak again in the coming days to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after a meeting in Geneva last Friday, amid a separate diplomatic initiative led by France.
Mr Blinken renewed an offer on “reciprocal” measures to address mutual security concerns, including reductions of missiles in Europe and transparency on military drills and Western aid to Ukraine.
He refused, however, to acquiesce to Russia’s demand for a guarantee against Ukraine ever being admitted to Nato.
Another of US’s top diplomats said Washington was preparing for Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine by mid-February.
Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, said Mr Putin may wait until just after he attends the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Giving the US's most detailed expectations so far on Mr Putin's timeline, she said: “I have no idea whether he's made the ultimate decision, but we certainly see every indication that he is going to use military force sometime perhaps (between) now and the middle of February.”
Last night, six US F-15 jets landed at an Estonian airbase as part of Nato reinforcements to the region.
Britain meanwhile piled pressure on Germany to use Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline that will bypass Ukraine to bring Russian gas to Europe, as “leverage” against the Kremlin.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace said: “What we want from Germany, as the biggest economy in Europe, is a stronger signal on sanctions.” Berlin has faced repeated calls to cancel the £8bn project in response to Russian aggression.
Russia deploys 'undercover teams' as 'advanced elements' into Ukraine
By Roland Oliphant, Senior foreign correspondent
Russia may have deployed undercover teams into Ukraine as advanced elements to prepare the way for an invasion, the British Government has said.
The warning came as Ukraine's security service said it had dismantled a group of Russian-directed saboteurs planning a series of attacks to "destabilise" the east of the country.
Russia denies planning to attack Ukraine, but has massed more than 100,000 troops near the border and has issued a series of ultimatums to the West that it says will trigger military action if unmet.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, told MPs on Monday that there were individuals already in Ukraine "linked to the Russian state in ways that are not conventional" and "that should give cause for concern".
"We are becoming aware of a significant number of individuals that are assessed to be associated with Russian military advance force operations that currently are located in Ukraine," he told the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee.
"Any crossing into Ukraine, whether small or large, would be viewed as a breach of that sovereignty, against international law and an invasion.
Later on Tuesday the SBU, Ukraine's security agency, said it had broken up a criminal group "coordinated by Russian special services".
The group was led by two men, one of whom is a Russian citizen, who were planning a "series of armed attacks" on city infrastructure with the goal of "destabilising the internal situation in the regions", the agency said.
The pair were recruiting from criminal groups under the pretext of hiring for a private security firm and planned attacks in Kharkiv, a city of one million near the border with Russia, and in Zhytomyr, in central Ukraine.
Raids in both cities led to the seizure of communications equipment, an explosive device, small arms and ammunition.
Vadym Pristaiko, Ukraine's ambassador to the UK, declined to comment on the specifics of Mr Wallace's warning, but said he "totally agreed" that Russian military intelligence teams are operating on Ukrainian soil.
"It is not the first time when you have GRU operatives in Ukraine. It is not big news for us that they are already there. We are ignorant of the immediate danger - but we have seen it all," he told the Telegraph.
"What we are trying to do right now is reinforce the defence and security of critical infrastructure, nuclear powers stations, bridges, dams and all this stuff. As you know, we have already lost a couple of ammunition depots already."
Massive explosions that tore apart two Ukrainian ammunition depots in 2017 and 2018 have been blamed on operatives from the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency.
In April last year the Czech Republic expelled 18 Russian diplomats after the GRU was linked to a 2014 blast that destroyed 50 tons of ammunition at Vrbetice.
On Saturday the Foreign Office claimed that Russia was considering installing Yevhev Murayev, a former MP from Kharkiv, in a pro-Russian occupation government.
Mr Murayev denied the allegations.