The Biden administration’s top diplomat sought to reassure Ukraine’s president about total Western support, but warned that Russia could invade as concerns grew over Moscow’s deployment of troops to Belarus, which shares a border with Ukraine.
“We have made it very clear to Moscow that if it chooses to renew aggression against Ukraine, it will be met and it will have very serious consequences,” Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said at a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“I very much, very much hope that we can keep this on a diplomatic and peaceful path, but in the end it will be President Putin’s decision,” Mr Blinken told the US embassy earlier Wednesday, referring to the Russian president.
A senior State Department official confirmed that the Biden administration had approved $ 200 million in new defensive military assistance to Ukraine, and said Wednesday that the United States “will continue to provide Ukraine with the support it needs.” Still, the administration has stopped supplying offensive weapons to Ukraine, saying it will not use direct military force to support the country.
“To take very rapid steps to modernize the army, we need help here, especially help in such times – difficult times,” said Mr. Zelensky.
British C-17 cargo planes have been carrying anti-tank weapons to the country for Ukraine’s forces. The additional $ 200 million US aid package to Ukraine also includes Javelin anti-tank missiles, U.S. officials said, although the Biden administration has not publicly clarified details.
Tensions over Ukraine are part of a larger disagreement between Moscow and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on security in Eastern Europe, with US officials this week saying Russian troops and weapons are on their way into Belarus – a shift that could position them for deployment. to Ukraine. It comes in addition to about 100,000 Russian soldiers that US and European officials estimate are being deployed near Russia’s border with Ukraine.
Russian forces are moving to get Ukraine on three sides. The missions in Belarus expand the Russian military’s already significant presence north of Ukraine and give the Russian military greater firepower if it chooses to run towards Kyiv, among other things. Russia has significant strength east of Ukraine and has supported separatists in that part of the country.
A flotilla of Russian amphibious attack ships has meanwhile left the Baltic Sea and is on its way through the English Channel, according to photographs on social media and military analysts. Analysts said these ships were likely to steam to the Black Sea to build Moscow’s already formidable military presence in and around Crimea.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said troops from Belarus and Moscow were conducting exercises and taking measures “to neutralize threats” against the borders of the EU state, an alliance that binds Russia and Belarus together in various areas ranging from economy to defense.
The forces would prepare for “actions not only within their limits of responsibility”, but also for threats that suddenly arise from any direction, said Mr. Fomin.
He did not specify how many troops would be involved in the exercises, the first phase of which is scheduled to begin on February 9.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday that the joint exercises would take place on Belarus’s western border and on the country’s southern flank, which borders Ukraine.
To ensure a functioning air defense for the Russian-Belarusian union, 12 Su-35 jets will be moved to Belarusian territory, in addition to two divisions of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, said Mr. Fomin. Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missile and cannon battalions would also be relocated, he said.
A senior US administration official told reporters on Tuesday that “there can be no doubt about Belarus’s role as an increasingly destabilizing player in the region.”
The official noted a number of incidents to demonstrate Belarusian efforts, including the recent migrant crisis along the border with Poland – which the official said was “manufactured” by Belarus – and its forced redirection of a European passenger plane last year to arrest an opposition activist on board.
The timing of Russia’s troop movements against Belarus is “remarkable and naturally raises concerns that Russia might intend to station troops in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises to potentially attack Ukraine from the north,” the senior official said in a statement. the US administration. .
“If Minsk agreed to the use of its road and rail networks, the Russian army could bypass Ukrainian defenses around Kiev and approach them from behind,” according to a January report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. tank.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Wednesday that Russia did not intend to take any aggressive action against Ukraine, “to attack or invade” its neighbor. But Moscow sees a threat in Ukraine’s potential membership of NATO, he said.
On the issue of military maneuvers in Belarus, Mr. Ryabkov officials to focus on diplomacy rather than the potential for conflict.
“I assure you, there is no need to worry about anything in connection with these exercises,” he told the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based discussion group.
The diplomat also reiterated Moscow’s view that the United States and NATO were to blame for the precarious security situation in Europe. “Washington and NATO are using Ukraine, among other things, as a lever for pressure on Russia,” he said.
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The Kremlin has demanded that NATO withdraw from Eastern Europe and refrain from adding potential new members such as Ukraine. U.S. and NATO officials have rejected those claims, but Washington sought to find a common ground on selected security issues at a series of meetings last week.
Asked whether the United States would negotiate with Russia on Moscow’s key concerns about NATO, Mr Blinken said he was open to discussing issues that would improve everyone’s security on a reciprocal basis.
After his stop in Ukraine, Mr Blinken will meet his German, French and British colleagues on Thursday in Berlin. The United States is seeking a unified position with US allies on potential economic sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it invades Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the United States is expected to impose sanctions on four pro-Russian agents operating in Ukraine, according to administration officials. The Biden administration has said that Russia is considering using agents in Ukraine to stage a provocation in the country, which in turn could serve as a trigger for invasion.
On Friday, Mr Blinken will sit down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to take stock of meetings between their deputies and other officials last week.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that talks between Mr Lavrov and Blinken were crucial, but declined to comment further on the specifics of the negotiations.
“In light of the recent negotiations, and as the United States and NATO formulate their response, such contacts, which will take place on Friday, are extremely important,” he said. Peskov for journalists. “We do not want to say anything at this time. The agenda is quite clear. Let’s wait until Friday.”
– Vivian Salama in Kiev contributed to this article.
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