Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russian troops were massing in the breakaway Transnistria enclave in Moldova and mobilising for a possible attack that would open another front in the war.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that it believed that troops based in the Russian-occupied, self-declared republic, which borders south-western Ukraine and is near the third-largest city of Odesa, were preparing to carry out “provocations” along the border.
“We have noted the redeployment of Russian troops and divisions of the so-called Transnistrian-Moldovan republic to demonstrate readiness for an attack and, possibly, military actions against Ukraine,” the military said in a regular update on its operations published early on Saturday. Ukrainian and Russian claims about military actions cannot be independently verified.
The remarks were made at the end of a week in which Russia pulled back forces from around the capital Kyiv after failing to breach Ukrainian defences. Ukrainian officials said Russia was refocusing its offensive on the Donbas region, where it supported a separatist uprising in two breakaway “republics” in 2014, the second city Kharkiv, and other areas in the country’s east.
“In the east of our country, the situation is becoming very difficult,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech published overnight on Friday. “They are preparing for new, powerful strikes. We are preparing for an even more active defence.”
Russia confirmed this week that it was reducing military activity near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to focus its efforts on taking control of the Donbas.
On Friday officials in the Russian city of Belgorod, near the border, blamed Ukraine for an explosion at a fuel depot that caused a fire. Kyiv neither confirmed nor denied the strike on Russian territory.
Britain’s military intelligence said that the attack would “add additional short-term strain to Russia’s already stretched logistics chains”, and that supplies to forces encircling Kharkiv might also be affected.
Amid military gains in recent days, Ukraine has adopted a tougher rhetorical stance towards Russia after inconclusive peace talks held in Turkey where Moscow has been pressing Kyiv for territorial concessions and a commitment to neutrality.
Zelensky said in a Fox News interview that Ukraine would not give up any of its territory to Russia because its people would “not accept any outcome” other than victory.
“We do not trade our territory,” the Ukrainian president said through an interpreter. “The question of territorial integrity and sovereignty is out of discussion.”
Zelensky also raised the prospect of Ukraine joining Nato, appearing to air the prospect of membership, which would go against Moscow’s central condition for a peace agreement.
“It’s hard for us to talk about Nato because Nato doesn’t want to admit us,” Zelensky said. “I think it’s a mistake because if we join Nato, we make Nato much stronger,” he said, adding that Ukraine was “not a weak state”.
“We are not proposing to make us stronger at the expense of Nato . . . We are not an addition, we are the locomotive, Zelensky said. “I think we are one of the important components of the European continent.”
The statements contradict what Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s negotiator, said following the talks. Medinsky claimed that Ukraine had agreed to Russia’s principal demands of not joining Nato and on refusing to host military bases.
Zelensky, who has repeatedly criticised Nato for doing too little to help Ukraine, said he had invited the US to be part of a future peace agreement in his recent conversation with President Joe Biden. Washington, he said, “is considering the proposition”.