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Russian military build-up and Belarus border crisis are 'absolutely connected', says Ukrainian PM

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By Euronews
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told Euronews Ukraine's main priority is European integration.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told Euronews Ukraine's main priority is European integration.   -   Copyright  Johanna Geron/AP

The military build-up of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and the ongoing standoff between Belarus and the European Union are "absolutely connected", Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine's Prime Minister, has claimed.

"All of these factors are connected, and we understand that this is a hybrid attack on the European Union, on Ukraine," Shmyhal told Euronews on Tuesday in an interview recorded in Brussels.

"These [are] all absolutely connected factors which lead to the aggression from Russia side, which lead to the using of energy [supplies] against Europe and against Ukraine's European inspirations."

His ominous comments come as foreign ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) meet in the Latvian capital with Russia on the agenda.

Moscow has deployed an unusually large contingent of troops alongside the Ukrainian border, stoking fears of an imminent invasion that would go beyond the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Shmyhal said more than 100,000 Russian soldiers are stationed in the area.

The renewed build-up coincides with a tense geopolitical crisis between the EU and Belarus in the bloc's eastern borders. Brussels accuses Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of exploiting migrants by bringing them to Minsk and then sending them towards Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The bloc argues Minsk is engineering the migrant crisis in retaliation for sanctions against high-ranking Belarusian officials over the fraudulent August 2020 presidential election and subsequent violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. 

There have been suspicions that Russian President Vladimir Putin is surreptitiously supporting his Belarusian counterpart in his "cynical" attempt to sow chaos and division among EU countries.

"Frankly speaking, I don't believe Lukashenko is doing what he is doing without strong support from Russia," Josep Borrel, the EU's High Representative, said earlier this month.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Lukashenko's plot and refutes experts who claim Moscow is preparing an all-out incursion into Ukraine. But the parallel crises have put Europe on edge.

"Now the situation is more tough," Shmyhal said.

"[From] our point of view, this [brings] destabilisation inside of Ukraine to stop (the) Ukrainian European integration path. But also it's bringing destabilisation inside of Europe because of this migration crisis, because of this energy crisis, because of these cyberattacks."

The Prime Minister argued the present escalation is different than previous episodes and warned Russian troops have more ammunition and are being trained "for attack in action, not for protection".

He also said the planned joint military exercises between Belarus and Russia were a matter of concern for the whole region. According to Belarusian Defense Minister Viktar Khrenin, the drills would take place on its border with Ukraine "in the medium term" but without a precise date.

"It's very dangerous for Ukraine and for all of the region, for Poland, also for Baltic countries," Shmyhal said. "We also ask support from our partners to stop such a kind of actions."

EU membership 'main priority' for Ukraine

Shmyhal spoke to Euronews during his official visit to Brussels, where he was joined by his Moldovan and Georgian counterparts. The three Eastern countries are pushing for closer ties with the EU that would lay the foundations for eventual membership.

"Our societies in Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova are waiting not for the association, but for integration with European Union," he said.

"This is the main priority for Ukrainian society. So we are hoping we are making all the best," he added, listing a series of reforms the country has undergone to approach European standards, including in the fight against corruption and in the field of education.

The Prime Minister also offered to provide the bloc with an extra "cheaper" 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year to mitigate the persisting energy crunch.

"As a next step, it should be integration to European Union."

Despite countless meetings and verbal promises, EU membership remains an elusive prospect for the five official candidates – Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey – and the evident lack of political appetite casts doubt over any other nation's desire to join the 27-strong club.

Nevertheless, Ukraine insists its future is European – and also transatlantic. Deepening ties with NATO is another high priority for the country in the face of Russia's "act of aggression".

"For us, the presence of NATO in the Black Sea region is a factor of security and safe and support to Ukraine and countries of the region, so it's our point of view now," Shmyhal said, noting he was looking for "cooperation, technologies, weapons and the training of our soldiers".

So far, Ukraine's diplomacy has paid off: both NATO and the EU have thrown their total support behind the country. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Russia's military build-up "unprovoked and unexplained" on Tuesday and urged Moscow to be transparent and diffuse tensions. Meanwhile, the European Commission has defended Ukraine's "territorial integrity and sovereignty".

Western countries are determined to avoid a repetition of 2014, a fateful year that unleashed a bloody civil war in the rebel-controlled Donbas region which continues to this day.

The conflict has killed more than 14,000 people.