'Don't fear Putin': Former Ukraine PM's message to West as Russia invasion 'highly likely'

12 February 2022, 14:24 | Updated: 13 February 2022, 14:09

By Asher McShane

The former PM of Ukraine told LBC today that the West must not be cowed by Putin’s military build-up on the borders of the country, saying ‘those who lean back will be crushed’.

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Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who served as the Ukraine's PM between 2014 and 2016 told Swarbrick on Sunday: "Strong political will is needed for the free world to defend our values.

"Don’t be scared of Putin. He [Putin] has the gut feeling, those who are scared, are weak.

Mr Yatsenyuk was speaking from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after Defence Secretary Ben Wallace comments that an invasion from Russia was "highly likely".

"Those who lean back will be crushed. That’s his modus operandi. And those who are strong, he is to talk, and he is to lean back.”

His comments come after Whitehall sources said Putin is planning a "false flag" event to provoke a "justified" invasion of Ukraine.

Britain believes the Kremlin is preparing to "create the circumstances" to allow Russia to invade Ukraine on the basis that troops were "responding to Ukrainian or Western aggression".

The Defence Secretary has compared diplomatic efforts to prevent a Russian invasion to appeasement as he said it is "highly likely" Vladimir Putin will order an attack - despite the concerted talks to avert war.

Ben Wallace said there is a "whiff of Munich in the air", in an apparent reference to the agreement that allowed German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 but failed to prevent the Second World War.

Russia is accused of of “laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine”.

According to a readout of an hour-long call between Joe Biden told Mr Putin on Saturday, the US and its allies warned Russia they would "respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs" if an invasion takes place.

The White House added that Putin was warned military action in Ukraine would "produce widespread human suffering and diminish Russia's standing".

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she spoke to US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Saturday, and shared her "acute concerns" that Russia could launch further military aggression against Ukraine within days.

She said: "We agree Russia will face massive consequences for any invasion, including severe sanctions."

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The US President called on the Russian President to pull back more than 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine's borders during the high-stake call today.

In a statement today the White House said the US remains committed to diplomacy, but was "equally prepared for other scenarios".

In a sign that American officials were getting ready for a worst-case scenario, the United States announced plans to evacuate its embassy in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and Britain joined other European nations in urging its citizens to leave Ukraine.

Brits who have fled Ukraine have told of their panicked efforts to leave the country, as the US warns of a Russian invasion within days.

Landing at Gatwick on one of the final flights out, after MPs urged British citizens to leave the country immediately, one described a state of “panic” as people prepared to leave.

Medical student Haider Ali, 21, who had just stepped off a plane from Kyiv at Gatwick, said: "I'd been in two minds about coming back because of the advice coming out by the British Embassy, about the amber alert, red alert.

“A lot of people, a lot of students were waiting for the red alert, and it happened yesterday.

“Once that happened, everybody booked their tickets and left as soon as possible".

He said around half of the students at his university, the Dnipro Medical Institute, are British.

"A lot of students were sort of panic battle stations sort of thing: 'What do I do, is it to going to affect my studies? What are my family going to think?'

Paul Meakin, his wife Svetlana and their daughter arrive at Gatwick from Kyiv, Ukraine. Thousands of Britons are being urged to flee
Paul Meakin, his wife Svetlana and their daughter arrive at Gatwick from Kyiv, Ukraine. Thousands of Britons are being urged to flee. Picture: Alamy

"Because obviously, the general consensus of the people in Ukraine were saying that it's the Western media is blowing it out of proportion.

"But in the last couple of days, they have been saying, OK, something might be happening, especially because of Putin's statement."

He also said people's attitudes in the country had changed regarding a possible invasion by Russia.

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Haider Ali, 21, from Birmingham, arrives at Gatwick from Ukraine
Haider Ali, 21, from Birmingham, arrives at Gatwick from Ukraine. Picture: Alamy

"The Ukrainians are generally very laissez-faire as in terms of people, but the last couple of days they've started to get worried.

"And when that happens, alarm bells should be ringing".

He said his university had advised students to "get out as soon as you can".

He said: "I think the main thing that people were getting worried about as well is, because it's along the Dnieper River, a lot of the people were saying, 'if Putin wants to suffocate Kyiv, (he will) push his warships along that path as well'".

One expat, who had lived in Ukraine for 30 years, told LBC earlier he had to leave for the sake of his children.

Stuart Mackenzie, a British expat living in Ukraine was asked if he was contemplating packing his bags and leaving. He said "We're doing it right now.”

The expat revealed that if Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden don't reach an agreement, he's ready to leave with his children, his wife and mother-in-law on Sunday.

He said while "it's been a very difficult decision" the safety of his family is his priority. Additionally, his children's teachers have been evacuating Ukraine since tensions began.

Armed forces minister James Heappey told LBC earlier today that people should leave while they still can.

People should "leave now while commercial means are available,” he said.

He warned the worst-case scenario in the region would be a ground war between nations with powerful military capabilities but that all diplomatic options would be pursued.

"The UK will not play an active role in combat operations in Ukraine," he added.

Chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood told LBC he believes a Russian invasion of Ukraine is now “inevitable."

The US has warned of the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine "within days," and all British nationals have been advised to leave the country.

The Foreign Office has advised all British nationals to leave Ukraine now and warned against all travel to the country and the US will evacuate its embassy.

The Foreign Office said the build-up of Russian forces – now estimated at some 100,000 troops – "increased the threat of military action".

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington believes Putin could invade Ukraine in the coming days, and he issued a warning to Americans in the country: Get out immediately.

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He said: "We encourage all American citizens who remain in Ukraine to depart immediately.

"We want to be crystal clear on this point. Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible and in any event in the next 24 to 48 hours.

"The risk is now high enough and the threat is now immediate enough that this is what prudence demands.

"If you stay you are assuming risk, with no guarantee that there will be any other opportunity to leave and there is no prospect of a US military evacuation in the event of a Russian invasion."

He warned that Russia could invade inside a week, echoing earlier calls from Mr Biden for US citizens to leave Ukraine.

British embassy staff have also been withdrawn from Kiev, despite it remaining open, the Foreign Office confirmed.

It warned that "any Russian military action in Ukraine would severely affect the British Embassy Kiev's ability to provide any consular assistance", adding: "If you decide to remain in Ukraine, you should remain vigilant throughout due to potential combat operations, keep your departure plans under constant review and ensure your travel documents are up to date."

Tensions have continued to rise between the West and Russia over what has been claimed to be an "imminent" invasion.

Russia previously insisted that it had no plans to invade its neighbour.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "The safety and security of British nationals is our top priority, which is why we have updated our travel advice.

"We urge British nationals in Ukraine to leave now via commercial means while they remain available."

Boris Johnson told world leaders - including Mr Biden - earlier on Friday that he feared for the security of Europe, according to Downing Street.

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After a virtual call, a No10 spokesman said: "The Prime Minister told the group that he feared for the security of Europe in the current circumstances.

"He impressed the need for Nato allies to make it absolutely clear that there will be a heavy package of economic sanctions ready to go, should Russia make the devastating and destructive decision to invade Ukraine.”

Speaking during a press conference in Moscow, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said he was not as optimistic as he used to be about putting a stop to the crisis on the Ukrainian border.

He said: "I think the direction of travel has been against the direction of the diplomatic travel over the last few weeks.

"We've seen continued build-up of forces as we've seen a build up of diplomacy, and you would hope that, actually... one goes up, one goes down - and I think that is why my optimism is not as (optimistic) as I used to be, or can be.

"And I'm hoping that the beginning today is an effort to try and see if there is a way forward to make sure we do de-escalate.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron refused to take a Russian Covid test while in Moscow for talks, with reports claiming that it was because he did not want them to get hold of his DNA.

He instead met President Putin at the end of a four metre long table to continue lengthy discussions over the crisis on Friday.

Despite ongoing talks between nations, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned that a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine could come before the end of the Winter Olympics - within a week.

He called on US civilians to leave the country too, saying: "Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible and in any event in the next 24 to 48 hours.

"We obviously cannot predict the future, we don't know exactly what is going to happen, but the risk is now high enough and the threat is now immediate enough that this is prudent."

Mr Sullivan added that there will be no military evacuation of US citizens if Russia invades.

He said: "The president will not be putting the lives of our men and women in uniform at risk by sending them into a war zone to rescue people who could have left now but chose not to."

The comments follow similar warnings from Mr Biden, who told NBC: "We're dealing with one of the largest armies in the world. It's a very different situation and things could go crazy quickly."

Asked whether there was a scenario that could prompt him to send troops to rescue Americans, Mr Biden replied: "There's not. That's a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another. We're in a very different world than we've ever been."