Russia Just Warned All Aircraft To Avoid Huge Swath Of Airspace Over Eastern Ukraine (Updated)
Ukraine has enacted a state of emergency as signs that Russia is about to launch a broader invasion grow.
The U.S. military says that some 80 percent of the forces that Russia has arrayed along its borders with Ukraine, as well as in neighboring Belarus, which include between 150,000 and 200,000 personnel, are "ready to go" should the Kremlin give the order. Some of these elements are in positions only five kilometers, are just over three miles, from the Ukrainian border. This comes as signs that a broader Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent are only continuing to grow.
You can get fully up to speed on how the crisis has evolved already this week in The War Zone's previous reporting.
Now that the major military operation has kicked off, you can find the latest details about the crisis in a new post linked here.
A senior U.S. defense official disclosed this assessment in a call with reporters today. They said that this was based at least in part on observations of recent Russian movements around Ukraine.
That official specifically cited the gathering of 10 large amphibious warfare ships in the Black Sea region, which could be used to support one prong of a larger invasion, as one such worrisome observation. There are now reports that Russia has moved some of these ships, as well as other maritime forces, into the adjacent Sea of Azov, where they would be ideally positioned to support operations in southeastern Ukraine, including around the strategic port city of Mariupol
That intelligence assessment is certainly based in part on information that the U.S. military continues to collect on Russian troop movements through persistent flights by manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft over Ukraine and from nearby airspace over NATO member states and international waters in the Black Sea. Other NATO nations have contributed to this aerial intelligence-gathering effort, as well, as you can read more about here.
Just today, online flight tracking software showed an RC-135W Rivet Joint spy plane and an RQ-4 Global Hawk drone operating over Ukraine along with another Rivet Joint belonging to the U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF). A NATO E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar plane was also tracked flying in Ukrainian airspace, likely helping to coordinate and deconflict these sorties with other air traffic in the region, as well as monitor for potential Russian air activity. Newsweek
reported earlier today that Russian military aircraft may have violated Ukrainian airspace recently, possibly to conduct their own reconnaissance missions.
Earlier today, Ukraine's parliament, or Rada, approved a state of emergency across the country, which allows for the imposition of travel restrictions and curfews, the stepping up of security around critical infrastructure, and various measures to ensure the continued functioning of the country's economy, among other things. Ukrainian authorities have also called on all citizens currently in Russia to leave immediately.
That came a day after Russian lawmakers rubber-stamped Russian President Vladimir Putin's request for the authority to use military force in Ukraine following the Kremlin's recognition of two breakaway areas of Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as independent countries. The U.S. government, among others, has already decried Putin's ordering of troops into those disputed territories as an invasion.
"These are preventive measures to keep calm in the country, so that our economy and our country can work," Secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov said at a press briefing today regarding the emergency declaration. "Depending on the threats that may arise in certain territories, there will be either a more strengthened or more weakened state of emergency."
Danilov did say that the proposed state of emergency would not yet include a declaration of martial law in Ukraine. However, "if necessary, this provision will be adopted immediately," he said.
These emergency provisions will be in place for at least the next 30 days with the possibility of extending it for another 30 days after that. Ukrainian lawmakers have separately moved today toward passing a law that would make it legal for Ukrainians to carry firearms in self-defense. That move is in line with other recent efforts, some under the auspices of the Ukrainian government and others organized by independent groups, to establish volunteer militias to resist any potential future Russian military action.
Unrelated to the emergency declaration, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has ordered the calling up of the country's formal military reserves for training. Secretary Danilov stressed that, despite reports to the contrary, this did not amount to a general mobilization of the country's military, a much more serious action.
"With regards to mobilization, this is a separate decision," Danilov said. "At the moment, there has been no such decision. If the need arises, it will be approved – it has not been approved yet."
At the same time, President Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials, as well as their international partners, continue to call for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced yesterday that he had canceled a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that was due to take place this week and would not engage with the Kremlin until it took demonstrable steps to defuse the current tensions.
In the meantime, the U.S. government and others continue to level new sanctions against Russia, including ones targeting its access to international financial markets, over the actions it has already taken and have threatened more if Russia escalates the situation.
However, there have been multiple reports today that U.S. authorities have warned their Ukrainian counterparts that the Kremlin could launch a large-scale military intervention within 48 hours, starting possibly with an offensive aimed at the city of Kharkiv in the northeastern portion of the country.
For weeks now there has also been a steady stream of videos and pictures online showing large numbers of Russian forces on the move in the country's Belgorod region, which lies just to the north of Kharkiv. Tanks and other armored and unarmored vehicles in Belgorod and other areas of Russia near Ukraine have been recently seen sporting curious temporary markings that could be linked to preparations for an invasion, as The War Zone
American authorities and others have warned that other population centers could be targeted, including the capital Kyiv, as part of a major Russian military intervention. The Kremlin is already pushing additional forces into the breakaway parts of the Donbas, putting them that much closer to potential objectives, such as the port city of Mariupol, deeper inside Ukraine.
There are other signs that could point to Russian preparations for a major military offensive against Ukraine, as well. Ukrainian government websites were subjected to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack today, the second such incident in as many weeks. Officials in Ukraine said the first attack was the largest of its kind in the country's history and U.S. officials subsequently announced that they believed it to be the work of Russia's Main Directorate intelligence agency, better known by the acronym GRU. The speed with which that assessment was made public was notable given that it has often taken American authorities months or even years to publicly attribute cyberattacks to state actors.
In addition, there have been other reports today about disruptions of cell phone service in Ukraine and bomb threats, as well as Ukrainian service members receiving threatening text messages.
This is all in addition to a slew of entirely unsubstantiated allegations that Ukraine is engaging in a host of hostile activities that have been emanating recently from Russian authorities and pro-Kremlin separatists in Donbas, as well as friendly media outlets. A number of these claims have been debunked already, with experts and observers highlighting how lazily many of them appear to have been manufactured. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has taken to Twitter today to raise the possibility that reports regarding curious activity at a chemical plant in Cimrea might point to another such staged provocation in the works.
Regardless, Russia has employed these exact kinds of hybrid warfare tactics against Ukraine, among other adversaries, in the past. In addition, for weeks now, U.S. and Ukrainian officials, among others, have warned that the Kremlin might employ these techniques to provide pretexts for a larger military intervention.
The Kremlin, of course, denies it has any such plans, but appears to be moving toward shuttering its embassy in the capital Kyiv and its consulate in the Black Sea port city of Odesa, if it hasn't already, which might be another sign of impending military action. Videos had emerged in the past 24 hours reportedly indicating that Russian personnel at both locations were burning documents, a step typically taken before the closure of a diplomatic facility.
All told, whether or not Russia does kick off a larger invasion of Ukraine this week, the crisis does appear to be steadily moving toward an inflection point.
Update 6:40 PM EST:
Russia has issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM) that effectively closes the airspace virtually all of its border with northeastern Ukraine to all civilian air traffic. This NOTAM is currently in place through May 18. This is an extremely worrisome sign that a major military operation may be imminent.
Ukraine's President Zelensky has also addressed his nation, saying that he tried to reach out to Putin earlier today, but was rebuffed. He also implied that Russian forces have already received the order to launch an invasion of his country, something that U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly assessed to be the case recently based on intercepted communications.
"We are divided by a shared border of more than 2,000 kilometers. Almost 200,000 of your troops and thousands of military vehicles are standing alongside it," Zelensky said, speaking Russian rather than Ukrainian in a portion of his speech directed at the Russian people. "Your leadership has ordered them to move forward, onto another country's territory."
The Mayor of Kyiv, Vitaly Klitschko, has now also declared a specific state of emergency in the city, which started at midnight local time. An "operational headquarters has been set up to coordinate the actions of the executive branch, the military command and law enforcement agencies," an official statement said.
Update 9:25 PM EST:
It is now after 4:00 AM in Ukraine, a time after which there had been unconfirmed rumors that a major Russian attack would begin. There was a curious, still unexplained sighting in the sky over the city Lviv in the western part of the country, which may have been a flare, and disputed reports that the port city of Mariupol in the east had come under attack. Unconfirmed video suggests that a Ukrainian checkpoint opposite Russian-control Crimea may have come under attack.
Google Maps is showing an unusual 'traffic jam' in Russia's Belgorod Oblast on a highway that heads to the Ukrainian border. This could reflect civilians caught in roadblocks as Russian forces move into position. Pictures and videos had also emerged earlier showing Russian vehicles with masked license plates, as had been seen ahead of the Kremlin intervention in Ukraine in 2014.
In the meantime, Ukrainian authorities appear to have shut down commercial air traffic in the country. There are unconfirmed reports that vehicles have been moved onto the runways at airports close to the Russian border in order to prevent aircraft, such as ones carrying airborne troops, from landing.
Earlier in the evening, a pair of Turkish Air Force A400M cargo aircraft flew to Boryspil International Airport outside of Kyiv. It is unclear what their mission was, but they may be helping Turkish diplomatic staff or other nationals evacuate. At least one of those aircraft was still on the ground at the time of this update.
A major attack may still be to come. ABC News has reported, citing a U.S. official, that there are indications that Russian officials have entered a command center. There are reports that yet another major cyber attack targeting the Ukrainian government is already under way.
UPDATE: 10:57 PM EST—
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