But if Russia’s President does press ahead with military action, he risks triggering a backlash within his own country which could “sow the seeds of his own downfall”, the former Labour cabinet minister predicted. Lord Owen was speaking at a time of spiking tension between Moscow and NATO, with well over 150,000 Russian troops believed to be massed close to Ukraine’s borders, along with tanks and other materiel, while multiple explosions were reported in the Donetsk region on Saturday.
He told Express.co.uk: “I think an invasion is more likely than not, but even if he doesn’t choose to invade, Putin’s not going anywhere – a large-scale withdrawal is not likely.
“He can keep his forces there for quite a long time.”
Lord Owen explained: “You don’t assemble the huge number of troops, tanks, ships and other materiel, which he has, almost completely encircling Ukraine, if you aren’t serious about invading.
“The issue at the moment is the climate – at the moment the ground is frozen, but soon it will turn to mud, which will change the situation somewhat.
“Therefore, the next few weeks are likely to be crucial.”
However, turning his attention to the domestic reaction, Lord Owen added: “I think Putin has also underestimated the backlash he is likely to see from Russians unhappy at the prospect of attacking fellow Slavs.
READ MORE: Ukraine evacuation begins: Deafening sirens order residents to leave
He said: “I think it’s also quite important to understand the Russian mindset. One of Putin’s main motivations is increasing the distance between Nato forces and the Russian border.
“However, none of this should overshadow Putin’s totally unacceptable behaviour in attacking a neighbouring, independent country with defined borders eight years ago.”
Nor would any invasion of Ukraine be “straightforward” in any case, Lord Owen emphasised.
He added: “The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has been quite insouciant in saying he isn’t particularly worried and Ukraine features some very difficult terrain, lots of marshland for example. It won’t be easy for Russian forces by any means.”
With respect to the resolve demonstrated by the UK, the United States and other allies in the face of Russian aggression, Lord Owen continued: “All of this also underlines the importance and strength of NATO.
“The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is excellent and has spent a lot of time in Europe.
“NATO is much more united as a result of all this.”
Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine said on Friday they planned to evacuate their breakaway region’s residents to Russia.
Announcing the move on social media, Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said Russia had agreed to provide accommodation for those who leave. Women, children and the elderly should be evacuated first. The other self-proclaimed region, Luhansk, made a similar announcement.
Millions of civilians are believed to live in the two rebel-held regions of eastern Ukraine; most are Russian speakers and many have already been granted Russian citizenship.
In the most detailed US warning yet of the likelihood of war, Mr Blinken told the UN Security Council on Thursday Washington believed Russia was planning an all-out assault.
Mr Blinken said this could begin with a manufactured pretext, possibly involving a faked attack and false accusations about the separatist conflict.
Speaking on Friday, Mr Biden said he was “convinced” Mr Putin planned to invade but conceded diplomacy remained a “possibility”.