Russia’s foreign minister claims that NATO wants to pull Ukraine into the alliance, amid escalating tensions over NATO expansion and fears that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine.
In comments on state television Sunday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also challenged NATO’s claim to be a purely defensive structure.
Russia’s massing of an estimated 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine has brought increasingly strong warnings from the West that Moscow intends to invade. Russia in turn demands that NATO promise never to allow Ukraine to join the alliance, and to stop the deployment of NATO weapons near Russian borders and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.
The head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, on Sunday rejected Western warnings about a planned invasion.
“At this time, they’re saying that Russia threatens Ukraine — that’s completely ridiculous,” he was quoted as saying by state news agency Tass. “We don’t want war and we don’t need it at all.”
Russia has long resented NATO’s granting membership to countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or were in its sphere of influence as members of the Warsaw Pact.
NATO “has already come close to Ukraine. They also want to drag this country there,” Lavrov said. “Although everyone understands that Ukraine is not ready and could make no contribution to strengthening NATO security.”
Ukraine has sought NATO membership for years, but any prospects of joining appear far off as the country struggles to find political stability and attack corruption.
Lavrov also underlined Russia’s contention that NATO expansion is a threat because it has engaged in offensive actions outside its member countries.
“It is difficult to call it defensive. Do not forget that they bombed Yugoslavia for almost three months, invaded Libya, violating the U.N. Security Council resolution, and how they behaved in Afghanistan,” he said.
The U.S. and NATO has formally rejected Russia’s demands about halting NATO expansion, although Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope that there could be a way to avoid war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no public remarks about the Western response. Lavrov has said it leaves little chance for reaching agreement, though he also says Russia doesn’t want war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday that Putin could use any portion of his force to seize Ukrainian cities and “significant territories” or to carry out “coercive acts or provocative political acts” like the recognition of breakaway territories inside Ukraine.
Two territories in eastern Ukraine have been under the control of Russia-backed rebels since 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
The White House says President Joe Biden warned Ukraine’s president Thursday that there is a “distinct possibility” Russia could take military action against Ukraine in February. The Kremlin likewise sounded a grim note, saying it saw “little ground for optimism” in resolving the crisis after the U.S. this week again rejected Russia’s main demands.
Russian officials said dialogue was still possible to end the crisis, but Biden again offered a stark warning amid growing concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin will give the go-ahead for a further invasion of Ukrainian territory in the not-so-distant future.
The White House said Biden’s comments to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a phone call amplified concerns that administration officials have been making for some time.
“President Biden said that there is a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said. “He has said this publicly and we have been warning about this for months. ”
Tensions have soared in recent weeks, as the United States and its NATO allies expressed concern that a buildup of about 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine signaled that Moscow planned to invade its ex-Soviet neighbor. Russia denies having any such designs — and has laid out a series of demands it says will improve security in Europe.
But as expected, the U.S. and the Western alliance firmly rejected any concessions on Moscow’s main points Wednesday, refusing to permanently ban Ukraine from joining NATO and saying allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are nonnegotiable.
The U.S. did outline areas in which some of Russia’s concerns might be addressed, possibly offering a path to de-escalation. But, as it has done repeatedly for the past several weeks, Washington also warned Moscow of devastating sanctions if it invades Ukraine. In addition to penalties targeting Russian people and key economic sectors, several senior U.S. officials said Thursday with certainty that Germany would not allow a newly constructed gas pipeline to begin operations in the event of an incursion.
All eyes are now on Putin, who will decide how Russia will respond amid fears that Europe could again be plunged into war.
In the meantime, Biden spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart Zelenskyy on Thursday to reiterate American and allied support, including recent deliveries of U.S. military aid.
Biden warned Zelenskyy that the U.S. believed there was a high degree of likelihood that Russia could invade when the ground freezes and Russian forces could attack Ukrainian territory from north of Kyiv, according to two people familiar with the conversation who were not authorized to comment publicly.
Military experts have said Russia may be waiting for optimal ground conditions to move heavy equipment into Kyiv as part of any invasion. Eight years ago, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in late February.
Zelenskyy tweeted that he and Biden also discussed the possibility of additional financial support for Ukraine.