The Prime Minister said it was essential to step up immediate military support to Kyiv, as he warned there is a “realistic possibility” that the conflict could drag on for a “long period”.
This comes as a senior military general was reported to have said Russia wants to take over “southern Ukraine” and open a land bridge into a pro-Russian breakaway republic in Moldova, raising fears of an incursion into the country.
Military commander Major General Rustam Minnekayev, said Russia believed that there was evidence of “instances of oppressing the Russian-speaking population” in the republic, which is technically part of Moldova, raising fears that Russia could be laying the ground for a potential invasion of Moldova, which has been more aligned with the West in recent years.
Meanwhile, the World Bank said today that physical damage to Ukraine’s buildings and infrastructure from Russia’s invasion has reached around £46bn.
Mr Johnson said Britain is looking to send tanks to “backfill” in Poland so Soviet-era T-72s – with which Ukrainian crews are familiar – can be released to the government in Kyiv. A defense source said sending Challenger 2 battle tanks to Poland was being “looked at”.
Mr Johnson said a long-term vision for Ukraine’s place in the future “security architecture” of Europe also needs to be developed.
While he said it will not be the same as the Nato Article 5 guarantee – in which an attack on one member state is considered to an attack on all – he hoped it would offer “deterrence by denial”.
“What the Ukrainians want – and I think are now going to get – is a collection of guarantees from like-minded countries about what we can do to back them up with weaponry, with training and with intelligence-sharing,” he said.
“It will, I hope, enable the Ukrainians to offer deterrence by denial and make sure their territory is so fortified as to be impregnable to further attack from Russia. That is what we need to do.”
However, I have accepted a Western intelligence assessment that the conflict could continue for most of the rest of the year, potentially ending with a victory for President Vladimir Putin.
But he insisted the Russian artillery bombardment, described by the United Nations as a “horror story of violations against civilians” as it said it was investigating more than 300 alleged unlawful killings, will never succeed in crushing the spirit of the Ukrainian people.
“Putin has a huge army. He has a very difficult political position because he’s made a catastrophic blunder,” he said. “The only option he now has, really, is to continue to try to use his appalling, grinding approach driven by artillery, trying to grind the Ukrainians down.
“No matter what military superiority Vladimir Putin may be able to bring to bear in the next few months – I agree, it may be a long period – he will not be able to conquer the spirit of the Ukrainian people. That is an observable fact .
“On the contrary, what he is doing is reinforcing that will to resist in the people of Ukraine.”
In its latest intelligence update, the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) said Mr Putin’s decision to blockade Azovstal steel works in the besieged city of Mariupol was intended to release troops for the Russian offensive in the Donbas region.
An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian troops remain holed up in the vast plant, where they have been holding out against numerically superior Russia for weeks.
“A full ground assault by Russia on the plant would likely incur significant Russian casualties, further decreasing their overall combat effectiveness,” the MoD assessment said.
“Despite Russia’s renewed focus, they are still suffering from losses sustained earlier in the conflict. In order to try and reconstitute their depleted forces, they have resorted to transiting inoperable equipment back to Russia for repair.”
Mr Johnson said the situation in the region remains “unpredictable”, underlying the need to maintain support for Ukraine.
However, he said that the security situation had improved to the point that the UK could re-open its embassy in Kyiv. The embassy will join a number of other countries’ diplomatic hubs in reopening since their closures at the beginning of the war, including those of Romania, France and Italy.
“We have got to look at what more we can do militarily. We have got to keep intensifying economic sanctions. We want to make sure there is a wave upon wave of intensifying pressure on Putin,” he said.
Analysts raised questions as to whether Minnekayev’s idea of a land bridge could be created and said they were skeptical about the plans. Russian troops are already based in Transnistria.
Minnekayev said: “Since the beginning of the second phase of the special operation, which has already begun just two days ago, one of the tasks of the Russian army is to establish full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine. This will provide a land corridor to Crimea, as well as affect the vital facilities of the Ukrainian economy.”
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He added that controlling southern Ukraine would open “another way to Transnistria,” where he claimed “there are also instances of oppressing the Russian-speaking population.”
The comments were reportedly made at a regional event, the annual meeting of the Union of Defense Industry Plants of Sverdlovsk Region.
Mattia Nelles, a Kyiv-based political analyst, said: “The clearly defined objective to take all the south and to create a land bridge to Transnistria means that they will have to break through Mykolaiv and reach Odesa. This will directly affect Moldova and the EU. The statement that in Transnistria “oppression of the Russian-speaking population” is taking place is a direct threat to Moldova and its territorial integrity.”
He added: “Everyone needs to understand these maximalist objectives, regardless of whether we [think] they are realistic or not. This is not a crazy propagandist stating his desires for him, this is the Russian military stating their goals of conquering more land and taking (parts of) Moldova.”
Ian Bond, director of foreign policy, at the Center for European Reform in London, said: “Based on Russia’s performance so far, I suspect that creating a land bridge to Transnistria will be impossible; but it can do a lot more damage to Ukraine in the attempt.”
The Russian Defense Ministry has reportedly said it is “looking into” Maj Gen Minnekayev’s remarks.