MOSCOW: Russia’s top diplomat said Friday that Moscow will not start a war in Ukraine but warned that it wouldn’t allow the West to trample on its security interests, amid fears it is planning to invade its neighbor.
US President Joe Biden warned Ukraine’s leader a day earlier that there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia could take military action against the former Soviet state in February.
“There won’t be a war as far as it depends on the Russian Federation, we don’t want a war,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a live interview with Russian radio stations. “But we won’t let our interests be rudely trampled on and ignored.”
Tensions have soared in recent weeks, and the United States and its NATO allies warily eyed a buildup of more than 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine, worrying that Moscow was preparing to attack. Russia has repeatedly denied having any such plans, but has demanded that NATO promise Ukraine will never be allowed to join and that the alliance roll back deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe.
The US and NATO formally rejected those demands this week, though Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope that there could be a way to avoid war.
Russia’s official response to those proposals will come from President Vladimir Putin, but the Kremlin has said there was “little ground for optimism.”
Lavrov echoed noted that grim note Friday.
“While they say they won’t change their positions, we won’t change ours,” he said. “I don’t see any room for compromise here.”
Putin opened the weekly meeting of his Security Council on Friday, saying only that it would address foreign policy issues. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Russian leader may also discuss his reaction to the US rejection with French President Emmanuel Macron during their video call the same day.
Lavrov noted that the US suggested the two sides could talk about limits on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles, restrictions on military drills and rules to prevent accidents between warships and aircraft. He said that Russia proposed discussing those issues years ago — but Washington and its allies never took them up on it until now.
While he described the US offers as reasonable, he emphasized that Russia’s main concerns are to stop both NATO’s expansion and the deployment of the alliance weapons near Russia’s borders. He noted that international agreements say that the security of one nation must not come at the expense of others’ — and that he would send letters to ask his Western counterparts to address that obligation.
“It will be hard for them to wiggle out from answering why they aren’t fulfilling the obligations sealed by their leaders not to strengthen their security at the expense of others,” he said.
As tensions build, Washington warned Moscow of devastating sanctions if it invades Ukraine, including penalties targeting top Russian officials and key economic sectors. Several senior US officials also said Thursday that Germany would not allow a newly constructed pipeline — which is meant to bring gas directly from Russia — to begin operations if Russia invades Ukraine.
Asked about possible sanctions, Lavrov said that Moscow had warned Washington that their introduction would amount to a complete severing of ties.
While Moscow and the West are mulling their next steps, NATO said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region, and the US ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to Europe.
Russia has launched a series of military drills involving motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, and dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic. Russian troops have also headed to Belarus for sweeping joint drills, raising Western fears that Moscow could stage an attack on Ukraine from the north. The Ukrainian capital is just 75 kilometers (50 miles) from the border with Belarus.
Despite the alarming rhetoric, Ukrainian officials have repeatedly tried to project calm.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told parliament Friday that the total number of Russian troops near Ukraine — about 130,000 — is comparable to Moscow’s military buildup in the spring of 2021, when Moscow eventually pulled its forces back after massive military exercises.
“We haven’t observed any events or actions of military character that significantly differ from what was going on last spring,” with the exception of the deployment to Belarus, Reznikov said.
But that has so far not reassured many in the West. Biden warned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Thursday’s call that the US 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.
While concerns rise about an invasion, Ukraine is already beset by conflict. Following the 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed an insurgency in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement have stalled.