Michael McFaul, who held the post between 2012 and 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, said on Monday that Ukraine would not hesitate to “respond” if the Kremlin decides to launch an attack on the country’s eastern side to “liberate” Russian speakers based there.
“If that happened, the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian army would respond, I have no doubt that they would, and then you would have a war in Europe between two very formidable armies,” Mr McFaul told the BBC on Monday.
It comes after Russian news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov said during a state TV primetime broadcast over the weekend that the country was “one step from war”.
Mr Kiselyov, who has previously been denounced as a “[Vladimir] Putin propagandist”, also used the programme to brand Ukraine a “Nazi” state, saying that Russia could be forced to “de-Nazify” it by force – a process which, he said, would bring about Ukraine’s “economic and military collapse”.
In the past few weeks, Russia is believed to have amassed some 80,000 troops in Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern border – including tanks, artillery pieces, armoured transports and support vehicles.
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The military build-up has coincided with the breakdown of the latest ceasefire in the enduring conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, who have been fighting the government there for years.
Russia has not beefed up its presence in the area, to this extent, since the annexation of Crimea – with various local and international reports in the past few days suggesting Mr Putin has redeployed an air brigade from near the Estonian border, and sent 10 naval vessels from its Caspian Sea Flotilla to reinforce the Black Sea fleet.
In response, the US has announced it will send two warships into the Black Sea.
Various EU counterparts have spoken to Mr Putin in an attempt to persuade him to stand down, including Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel who requested the military build-up be abandoned during a phone call last week.
Meanwhile, foreign secretary Dominic Raab tweeted on Sunday that he and the US’ secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, “agreed Russia must immediately de-escalate the situation & live up to the international commitments that it signed up to at OSCE”.
The Kremlin said over the weekend that it was not in fact heading towards a war, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling state broadcaster Russia-1: “Of course, nobody is planning to move towards war and in general, nobody accepts the possibility of such a war. Nobody also accepts the possibility of civil war in Ukraine.”
But, while saying this, various Russian outlets continued to attack Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky with state media positioning him as the aggressor.
A news report on Russia’s Channel One, for instance, likened Mr Zelensky – a former actor and TV comedian – to Napoleon after digging up images of him playing the part in an old TV drama.
Another report labelled him a “commander-in-chief comic”, and a “president of war” who was “inciting” conflict.
Viewers were also told that it was in fact Ukraine, along with Nato support, that was building up its military presence close to Donetsk and Luhansk, which are areas controlled by pro-Moscow rebels following a civil war in 2014 that has led to more than 14,000 deaths.
A Nato official told The Independent: “We are deeply concerned by the recent spike in violence in eastern Ukraine. Russian-backed militants are violating the ceasefire.
“We call on Russia to end its military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop supporting the militants and de-escalate immediately. We urge Russia to honour its commitments under the Minsk Agreements.”
Asked by BBC Radio 4 how concerned world leaders should be by the situation in Ukraine, former US ambassador Mr McFaul responded simply: “Very.”
While US secretary of state Mr Blinken has threatened “consequences and costs” if Russia moves into Ukraine, Mr McFaul said this did not go nearly far enough to dissuade the military.
“Sanctions almost never change Putin’s behaviour post-facto, but they might change his calculations before he decides to make a move,” he said.
He added that the Group of Seven, aka G7, should put out a statement condemning Russia’s actions instead of forcing America to take its stand alone.
Videos and images continue to flood social media of Russian troop movements, including artillery convoys along the bridge connecting Russia with Crimea and trains loaded with weaponry coming from as far east as Siberia.
More fighting on Sunday saw one Ukrainian soldier killed and another wounded by artillery fire, thought to have come from Russian separatists.
Ukraine says 27 soldiers have now been killed in the region this year, more than half the number who died in all of 2020.
The Independent has contacted the Ukrainian government for comment.
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