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Boris Johnson: UK, US not exaggerating Russian threat to Ukraine

LONDON — Britain and the United States are not trying to exaggerate the threat of a Russian incursion into Ukraine, Boris Johnson said, as he warned Moscow is trying to “redraw the security map of Europe.”

The U.K. prime minister is in Kyiv for crisis talks with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Speaking at a joint press conference, Johnson described the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border as possibly “the biggest demonstration of hostility towards the Ukraine in our lifetimes.”

But the prime minister rejected suggestions that London and Washington are talking up the risk of a Russian military incursion into Ukraine, stressing such warnings are backed by intelligence.  

“Somebody said were we exaggerating the threat, [that] we’re — the U.S. and the U.K. — in any way trying to big this up,” Johnson said. “I’ve just got to say, that is not the intelligence that we’re seeing. This is a clear and present danger. We see large numbers of troops massing, we see preparations for all kinds of operations that are consistent with an imminent military campaign.”

Johnson’s visit, the first to Ukraine as prime minister, took place hours after the U.K.’s Chief of Defense Staff Tony Radakin told the British Cabinet that Russia’s military actions at its border with Ukraine fit “a pattern of coercion and intimidation that sought to undermine the values and principles of the West,” according to a note from No. 10 Downing Street.

Johnson said it is “vital” that Moscow understands “there will be automaticity” in the use of U.K. sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine.

Zelenskiy told reporters “preventative sanctions” against Russia could also halt further escalation.

“If you’re asking me, I would say that they would work if they are introduced prior to escalation,” he said, adding Kyiv will back any British efforts to tackle “dirty money” being laundered by Russian oligarchs in London.

Three-way security talks

The U.K., Poland and Ukraine are already in talks to strengthen cooperation against Russian aggression, according to representatives and officials from all three countries.

Their aim is to sign a trilateral document in the near term, setting up a new format for regional cooperation in the face of Russian aggression, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told a separate press conference earlier Tuesday, following a meeting with his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki in Kyiv.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was due to accompany Johnson to Kyiv but tested positive for coronavirus on the eve of the trip, has been leading the talks on behalf of the U.K. government, according to a British official.

The three countries were planning to sign a “memorandum of cooperation” in Warsaw on either February 17 or 24, but all sides have now agreed that any announcement should be deferred, partly to allow Truss to host bilateral meetings with her Ukrainian and Polish counterparts, a British diplomat said.

Appearing next to Shmyhal, Morawiecki said foreign ministers are “working on a potential format that could tighten cooperation on various fields between Poland, Ukraine and Britain.”

Warsaw is ready to provide Ukraine with arms — including artillery ammunition, mortars, portable air-defense systems and surveillance drones — as well as gas supplies, and humanitarian and economic support.

“Living close to a neighbor like Russia, we have the feeling of living at the foot of a volcano,” Morawiecki added.

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