Boris Johnson’s chief of staff, Steve Barclay, has said the UK will respond to Russia’s attack on Ukraine with “overwhelming” sanctions, as the prime minister prepares to address the nation about the crisis.
Speaking to MPs at Westminster, Barclay said he was appalled by what he called “an unprovoked attack” and the UK and its allies would respond decisively.
He added that the prime minister would address parliament later, “to outline the UK response, including overwhelming sanctions”.
After speaking to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy,early in the morning, the prime minister said: “This is a catastrophe for our continent.” He said the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had “chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction”.
The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said she had summoned the Russian ambassador “to meet me and explain Russia’s illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”. She is expected to speak to her counterparts in various countries throughout the day.
Following a meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee at 7.30am on Thursday, Johnson is expected to give an address to the nation, followed by a call with G7 leaders in the afternoon and a statement in the House of Commons at 5pm.
Ukraine’s president declared martial law, while Russia’s military said it had targeted Ukrainian airbases and other military assets and not populated areas.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the Cobra committee meeting, chaired by Johnson, discussed the response to the “horrific attacks”.
Zelenskiy introduces martial law in Ukraine as sirens blare in Kyiv – video
Britain, in common with other Nato allies, has said it will not fight Russia, because Ukraine is not a Nato member. But the UK has supplied arms to Kyiv and has already announced limited economic sanctions.
The UK previously said it expected Russia to launch an invasion along “multiple axes” – aimed at Ukraine military forces in the east of the country and above all, the capital, Kyiv, in what could be a bloody attempt to force a change of regime.
Western officials have said they expect Russia to seek to encircle Ukraine’s major cities and rely on the FSB intelligence service to deliver them with limited fighting. The US has warned key Ukrainian figures could be targeted in this phase.
In a statement posted on Twitter at 4.53am, Johnson said he had spoken with Zelenskiy to discuss “next steps”.
He said: “I am appalled by the horrific events in Ukraine and I have spoken to President Zelenskiy to discuss next steps. President Putin has chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction by launching this unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The UK and our allies will respond decisively.”
I am appalled by the horrific events in Ukraine and I have spoken to President Zelenskyy to discuss next steps.
President Putin has chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction by launching this unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
The UK and our allies will respond decisively. — Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) February 24, 2022
A Downing Street spokesperson said Johnson had assured Zelenskiy the west “would not stand by as President Putin waged his campaign against the Ukrainian people”.
“The prime minister said he hoped Ukraine could resist and that Ukraine and its people were in the thoughts of everyone in the United Kingdom during this dark time,” the spokesperson said.
The Foreign Office minister James Cleverly promised there would be an “unprecedented” fresh set of sanctions imposed on Russia for the “appalling decision” to invade Ukraine. He accused Putin of “recreating some kind of tsarist, expansionist Russia” and being driven by ego as well as a “foolish attempt to write himself into the history books”.
Cleverly said on Sky News that the Russian stock market had already dropped 30% in value. In London, the FTSE 100 also fell 2.5% to 7,311.69 as Europe awakened to news of the Russian invasion.
Gen Sir Richard Shirreff, a former senior British army officer, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Absolutely there is a possibility that we as a nation will be at war with Russia. Because if Russia puts one boot-step across Nato territory, we are all at war with Russia – every single member of the Nato alliance.”
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, cancelled a speech on the economy in Huddersfield and called for Johnson to unveil the “hardest possible sanctions” against all those linked to Putin.
After the government was criticised for what were derided as weak sanctions announced by the prime minister on Tuesday, Starmer urged the prime minister to “match our rhetoric with action”, and added: “The influence of Russian money must be extricated from the UK.”
Britain’s ambassador to Ukraine urged UK nationals to leave the country immediately. Melinda Simmons wrote on Twitter: “We advise GB nationals to leave Ukraine immediately if you judge that it is safe to do so from your location. Please call +380 44 490 3660 if you need assistance.”
Putin announced the action during a televised address early on Thursday morning, saying the move was a response to threats from Ukraine. He said Russia did not have a goal to occupy Ukraine, but that the responsibility for bloodshed lay with the Ukrainian “regime”.
He also warned other countries that any attempt to interfere with the Russian action would lead to “consequences they have never seen”.
The UK’s defence secretary, Ben Wallace, described Russia’s actions as “naked aggression against a democratic country” and said no one had been fooled by the Kremlin’s “false flags and fake narratives”.
“The Russian Federation has today further violated Ukrainian sovereignty,” he said. “Despite the efforts of the international communities, Russia has chosen conflict. No one has been fooled by the Kremlin’s false flags and fake narratives.
“This is naked aggression against a democratic country which had dared to express a different aspiration than being a supine neighbour to Russia. No one should forget this day. Putin thinks this land grab is about securing his legacy – it will be, but not the one that he wishes.”