Another sweeping cyberattack struck Ukrainian government websites Wednesday as the Pentagon said Russian forces were closing in on Ukraine’s borders, readying “to conduct military action” at “virtually any time now.”
“We believe that they are, they’re ready,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.
Kirby said the Pentagon believes “additional Russian military forces are moving into” the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, but he would not confirm specifics on the number of Russian troops that have moved into these two regions.
VOA has not independently confirmed the presence of additional Russian troops in the Donbas.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state media that the heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic had asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for help Wednesday in fighting Ukrainian forces.
Kirby would not attribute the latest cyberattack to Russia, only saying that disruptions in cyberspace were “of a Russian playbook.” Kyiv blamed Moscow for the cyberattacks, although Russia has denied any involvement.
A senior defense official told reporters earlier Wednesday that as many as 80% of the more than 150,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine were in “forward positions ready to go,” including troops on more than 10 landing ships in the Black Sea.
The U.N. Security Council was to convene for a second time this week to discuss Ukraine. The session was scheduled for 9:30 p.m. EST
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed his nation late Wednesday night.
“The people of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine want peace,” he said in Russian, hours after declaring a nationwide state of emergency. But if the nation comes under an attack, “we will fight back.”
He went on to reject Russia’s claims that Ukraine was a threat and said an invasion would cost thousands of lives.
He also said he tried to call Putin, but there was no answer from the Kremlin.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned on Twitter about reports from Crimea that “the entire night shift of Titan chemicals plant in Armyansk [had] evacuated from the facility.”
“This might be a preparation for another staged provocation by Russia,” he said.
Ukraine welcomed the range of Western sanctions imposed against Russia for its actions in eastern Ukraine, while lawmakers in Kyiv approved a 30-day national state of emergency starting Thursday and the government recalled its ambassador to Moscow.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered sanctions on the company and its executives that run the new Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that stretches from Russia to Germany. The White House responded to criticism that these sanctions came too late by saying Washington wanted Berlin’s diplomatic cooperation before moving against the pipeline.
“There were calls by some in Congress to do preemptive sanctions, or earlier sanctions, or take the earlier steps, I should say, on Nord Stream 2; we disagreed with that strategy,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday had halted certification for the pipeline, which is completed but not yet operational.
The U.S., Germany, Britain, Canada, the European Union and others have all taken a variety of actions to punish Russia and promised harsher sanctions if Russian troops advanced farther into Ukraine.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said, “We have not yet seen a full-scale invasion, but we are very clear that if President Putin escalates, we, the international community, will escalate our sanctions.”
Standing up to ‘bullies’
Australia on Wednesday added sanctions targeting members of Russia’s security council, while Japan joined with asset freezes for certain Russian individuals and a ban on the issuance of Russian bonds in Japan.
“Australians always stand up to bullies, and we will be standing up to Russia, along with all of our partners,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters. “I expect subsequent tranches of sanctions; this is only the start of this process.”
Ukraine’s military said Wednesday that shelling by pro-Russian separatists in the Luhansk region had killed one Ukrainian soldier and injured six others.
Zelenskyy signed an order to call up some military reservists, citing a need to quickly staff up the nation’s army.
Putin said Wednesday that he was always open to finding a diplomatic solution, but added, “The interests of Russia and the security of our citizens are non-negotiable for us.”
Earlier this week Putin decreed the eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk were independent states. Putin also said he was sending what he characterized as “peacekeeping forces” across the Ukrainian border, stoking fears of a broader conflict with the one-time Soviet republic, which has been independent since 1991.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry advised against travel to Russia and urged any Ukrainians there to leave immediately, contending that Moscow’s “aggression” could curb its ability to provide consular services.
Russia began evacuating its diplomatic posts in Ukraine and by Wednesday afternoon the Russian flag was no longer flying over its embassy in Kyiv, where police surrounded the building.
White House Correspondent Anita Powell, U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer and VOA’s Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.