WASHINGTON — (TNS) The U.S. said Moscow needs to take steps to de-escalate tensions on the Ukraine border as Western nations and officials in Kyiv said Russian troops continue to amass ahead of a potential attack.
A U.S. official, briefing reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. continues to see signs of a stepped up disinformation campaign from Russia, seeking to pin tensions on Kyiv. Ukraine estimates 122,000 Russian troops are within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of their shared border, up from about 100,000 just weeks ago.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Wednesday that her “concern is great” over the situation, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks Thursday on the alliance’s approach toward Russia. Blinken also spoke with U.K. Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss.
The U.S. briefing on Thursday followed President Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference in Moscow, a marathon four-hour affair that touched on everything from the Ukraine border standoff to Russia’s struggles to contain Covid-19.
Putin hailed what he described as a “positive” U.S. response to the Kremlin’s demands for legally binding security guarantees to defuse the stand-off. But he also warned that “military technical measures” might still be necessary in response to any “unfriendly steps” from Western powers on military cooperation with its neighbors in Eastern Europe.
“Our American partners say they’re ready to start discussions early next year in Geneva,” Putin said. “Both sides have named representatives and I hope that things will continue along the same path.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday the U.S. also believes “that is the best path and the right path forward.” But the U.S. official briefing reporters earlier also reiterated warnings that there would be a “massive” package of sanctions unveiled in response to any attack.
And while both sides have agreed to have lower-level officials begin talking soon, Psaki said there is no date or location agreed to for those negotiations.
Putin and President Joe Biden last discussed the border buildup and Russia’s concerns in a Dec. 7 phone call. Biden said that he was “very straightforward” with the Russian leader during their call this month.
“There were no minced words,” Biden said on Dec. 8. “It was polite, but I made it very clear: If, in fact, he invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences — severe consequences — and economic consequences like none he’s ever seen or ever have been seen, in terms of being imposed.”
The remarks from the two sides on Thursday also underscored how far apart they remain in terms of sharing an understanding of what provoked the crisis.
The U.S. and its European allies put the blame squarely on Russia, dating back to the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, and they emphasize that NATO is a defensive alliance that shouldn’t be seen as a threat to Moscow.
Yet in a set of demands released publicly last week, Russian officials called for a written promise that NATO would not expand further to the east. The U.S. has called some of the Kremlin’s proposals unacceptable. And while several Eastern European nations are NATO members, Ukraine isn’t seen as likely to gain membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization anytime soon.
Even if Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, Putin and his aides have repeatedly said they view Ukraine’s growing relationship with the military bloc as an existential threat.
Putin declined to provide a guarantee that Russia won’t invade Ukraine, instead demanding the West give Russia the security assurances he seeks. “You should give us guarantees. You! And without any delay! Now!” he said.