Observers keep close eye on Russian activity in Ukraine’s east

By Melissa Coade

February 21, 2022

Marise Payne
Foreign minister Marise Payne. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

According to new US intelligence reports, 40-50% of Russian forces encircling Ukrainian borders have moved into combat formation.

Concerns of an imminent attack by Russian forces escalated at the weekend, with increased artillery fire in eastern Ukraine and some locals fleeing into Russia

Confused messages that Kyiv would soon attack so-called ‘separatist’ regions of Ukraine have not materialised, and some security experts question whether these warnings are part of a Moscow-led propaganda campaign to justify a military incursion. 

The New York Times reports that Ukrainian civilians are being offered $130 by Vladimir Putin should they wish to ‘escape’ into Russia as part of evaluations via train. So far hundreds of people from the East are believed to have taken up the offer, citing dwindling emergency supplies in stores such as candles and batteries. 

On Friday, the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces reassured citizens that the rumours they would be attacked by the Ukrainian military were not true. It was not possible to justify the harm of civilian populations such actions would cause, he said, stressing that only political and diplomatic solutions were being considered. 

“The military-political leadership of the state does not plan or conduct offensive operations in eastern Ukraine. 

“For us, unlike the invaders, the lives of our Ukrainian citizens throughout the territory of our state and beyond is of the highest value,” General Lieutenant Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said.

“Even these days, when militants commit numerous ceasefire violations, we respond only in case of threatening the lives of personnel or civilian residents. 

“We do not surrender to provocation. We don’t shoot at residential areas where militants cynically placed their positions,” he said.

Meanwhile, Australia has joined with the UK in public condemning Russia for cyber attacks on the Ukrainian banking sector last week. On 15 and 16 February, the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) was responsible for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on Ukrainian banks.

“The Australian government stands in solidarity with Ukraine and our allies and partners to hold Russia to account for its ongoing unacceptable and disruptive pattern of malicious cyber activity,” a joint statement from foreign minister Marise Payne, defence minister Peter Dutton and home affairs minister Karen Andrews said.

“Russia’s actions pose a significant risk to global economic growth and international stability.”

The Australian government called on Russia to abide by international laws and norms of ‘responsible state behaviour’, and said it would continue to support Ukraine uphold a rules-based order online. This support included a new bilateral cyber policy dialogue Australia has struck with Ukraine and further cyber security training for Ukrainian officials. 

“Australia commends the swift action taken by Ukrainian authorities and the private sector to substantially mitigate the impacts of this incident,” the statement read.

“Governments, the private sector and households must remain vigilant about the ongoing threats we face in cyberspace.”

The Australian prime minister said on Monday that the ‘very serious’ situation in Ukraine underscored how Russia’s threats of intimidation and violence could not be used to gain concession or leverage.

“Ukraine should have every right to decide their own future and not be bullied and intimidated by its neighbour,” Morrison said.

“And we will always stand up to authoritarian autocrats who think they can bully others.”

US vice president Kamala Harris also threw her support behind Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking to reporters from the Munich Security Conference on Sunday.

“As the [US] President has said, we believe that Putin has made his decision [to invade Ukraine]. Period,” Harris said.

“Let’s really take a moment to understand the significance of what we’re talking about. It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years, as I mentioned yesterday, there has been peace and security. We are talking about the real possibility of war in Europe.”

Addressing the conference, Zelenskyy said Ukraine would protect his nation ‘without the support of our partners’.

“Has our world completely forgotten the mistakes of the 20th century?” Zelenskyy asked. “Where does appeasement policy usually lead to?

Putin delivered a speech on Monday following a session of the Russian Security Council where he said Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk (reaching into areas controlled by the Ukrainian army) would be recognised by Russia as independent regions. Ukraine has signalled this move may result in so-called separatist leaders callings for Russian military help and lead to a military incursion into the state.

Putin also accused the US and its allies of treating Ukraine as ‘an instrument of confrontation’ against Russia.


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Why Is Putin acting now?

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