Putin accuses Ukraine of ‘systematic’ human rights violations

Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of “systematic” human rights violations against the country’s Russian-speaking population as Moscow ratcheted up the pressure in its stand-off with the West.

The Russian president insisted that large-scale military exercises with Belarusian forces close to the Ukrainian border were “purely defensive” and did not represent a threat to any other country.

But as Western leaders began heading for Munich to discuss the crisis, the Russian defence ministry announced that it would be carrying out fresh exercises on Saturday involving its strategic nuclear forces.

Mr Putin will observe the drills involving multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in a demonstration that Russia remains a nuclear superpower.

The latest developments came after US President Joe Biden said on Thursday an invasion of Ukraine could come within “several days” while Boris Johnson said the situation was “very grim”.

At a news conference in Moscow with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Russian leader said their joint military manoeuvres had achieved all their objectives.

“These military exercises were purely defensive and are not a threat to any other country,” he said.

(PA Graphics)

However he went on to lash out at the Ukrainian authorities over what he said was their “discrimination” against the Russian-speaking population in the east of the country.

“We see also in Ukraine systematic violation of human rights and discrimination against the Russian-speaking population,” he said.

His claim came after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Thursday that Moscow could use purported attacks on the Russian-speaking minority as a “manufactured pretext” for an invasion of its neighbour.

Standing alongside Mr Putin, Mr Lukashenko warned the “irresponsible” conduct of some Western leaders was taking Europe to the brink of war.

“We are on the verge of a conflict that will involve the whole continent,” he said.

Local residents pass by vendors at a street market in Mariupol, Ukraine
Local residents pass by vendors at a street market in Mariupol, Ukraine (Sergei Grits/AP)

“We see that the irresponsibility of a number of Western leaders has led to the situation and we see that this irresponsible or irrational behaviour of our neighbours has led to this situation.”

Andrei Kelin, the Russian ambassador to the UK, said he was “sure that the war will not happen” with Ukraine.

He told Times Radio: “We are totally sure that absolutely 100% this will not happen.”

But Mr Kelin hinted that the planned “wrap-up” of military drills by the weekend was not assured if there were “provocations”, although he said such tensions could be resolved by “negotiations” rather than fighting.

With Mr Johnson due to head to the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, UK Security Minister Damian Hinds said Western powers needed to be prepared for Kremlin “disinformation” which could be used to justify an attack.

“We need to be steeled to that. We need to understand what might be coming, what might be portrayed as some sort of spurious justification for an attack, for an invasion, and not take things at all at face value,” he told Times Radio.

He said an invasion of Ukraine was “not inevitable” but could happen at “any time” as he urged Russia to take a “diplomatic route”.

He added: “There are many, many troops built up on the Ukrainian border. There is no sign of that falling back, contrary to what has been claimed.

“Troops remain in place and there could be an invasion, there could be an incursion at any time, but it could also take longer.”

Meanwhile in a further sign of rising tensions, Russian-backed separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine said they were evacuating civilians to Russia.

Denish Pushilin, the head of the separatist government in the Donetsk region, said women, children and the elderly will be evacuated first, and that Russia has prepared facilities to accommodate them.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the situation was “potentially very dangerous”.

A strong explosion was also reported on Friday in the centre of the city of Donetsk. There were no immediate details on casualties or where it took place.

The conflict between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists erupted in 2014 following the ousting of the pro-Moscow government in Kyiv and has killed more than 14,000 people.