Britain will send defensive weapon systems to Ukraine for the first time to help deter a potential Russian attack, the defence secretary has announced.
Ben Wallace said he would also invite Sergei Shoigu, his Russian counterpart, to talks in London in a bid to defuse an escalating crisis that has seen Moscow threaten to attack Ukraine unless Nato delivers on a series of security guarantees.
“We have taken the decision to supply Ukraine with light anti-armour defensive weapon systems,” Mr Wallace told parliament on Monday evening. “They are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia. They are to use in self-defence.” The Telegraph understands they will be next generation light anti-tank weapons.
A small number of trainers will be sent to teach Ukrainian troops how to use the weapons. Britain already maintains a training mission, Operation Orbital, in Ukraine.
Russia has deployed upwards of 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine in what Western officials say are preparations for a possible invasion.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has issued a series of demands, including a guarantee Ukraine will never join Nato, and warned of “military-technical” response if they are not met.
The United States has claimed intelligence shows the Russian plan may be to attack in January or February. It said last week it believed Russian special forces were preparing to stage an incident to provide a pretext to attack.
Meanwhile, Russian troops arrived in Belarus on Monday ahead of joint exercises, which Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko described as preparation for a possible confrontation with Nato and Ukraine.
The deployment will be seen in Western capitals as an attempt to put further pressure on Ukraine and the West to concede to Mr Putin’s demands.
Military analysts have suggested Russia might use Belarus to open a northern front threatening Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in the event of war.
Exercise “Allied Resolve” will be held next month in western Belarus, near the borders of Poland and Lithuania, both Nato members, and in the south near the border with Ukraine, Mr Lukashenko said.
“These should be normal exercises to work out a certain plan for confronting these forces: the West, the Baltics and Poland, and the south – Ukraine,” he said in comments carried by state media.
He added in orders to his generals: “Set an exact date and let us know, so we aren’t blamed for massing some troops here out of the blue, as if we are preparing to go to war.”
Russian trains loaded with military vehicles were seen passing through Belarus in videos posted on social media on Monday afternoon.
Belarus and Russia are formally linked in a “union state” and their armed forces frequently exercise together.
In September Russian paratroopers conducted a jump in Belarus in what was widely seen as a show of support for Minsk during a standoff with Poland over a migration crisis.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesperson, said reports that Estonia was readying to host 5000 Nato troops proved Russia was right to be concerned.
“It proves we’re not the reason for escalating tensions,” he said. He declined to rule out the option of deploying missiles in Cuba or Venezuela as a possible response if the West does not deliver on Moscow’s demands.
Mr Wallace’s announcement came after Germany’s foreign minister rejected Ukrainian requests for weapons.
Annalena Baerbock said after a meeting with Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, in Kyiv that Berlin “will do our all to guarantee Ukraine’s security” but would not supply arms for historic reasons.
Ukraine last month accused Germany of blocking Nato arms supplies to the country.
Mr Kuleba said dialogue would continue on the issue. He said Kyiv and Berlin agreed to try to revive the “Normandy format” peace talks between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
“It is important for us now that neither Berlin nor Paris makes any decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine, and does not play any game behind our backs in relations with Russia. This is the key now,” Kuleba said.
Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper reported on Monday that Western governments have ditched the idea of cutting Russia off from the Swift global payments systems if it attacks Ukraine again.
Suspension from Swift has been described as the “nuclear option” of economic sanctions. The paper cited German government sources saying sanctions against major Russian banks were being considered instead.
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