Blinken seeks to reassure Ukraine as Russia moves troops to region

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The Biden administration’s top diplomat sought to reassure the Ukrainian president of the West’s unified support, but warned that Russia could invade as concerns mount over Moscow’s troop deployment to Belarus, which shares a border with Ukraine.

“We have made it very clear to Moscow that if he chooses to renew aggression against Ukraine, he will succeed and he will face very serious consequences,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a briefing. meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“I strongly, strongly hope that we can keep this going on a diplomatic and peaceful way, but ultimately it will be President Putin’s decision,” Blinken told US Embassy staff on Wednesday, referring to the Russian President.

A senior US State Department official confirmed that the Biden administration had approved $200 million in new defensive military aid to Ukraine, saying on Wednesday that the United States “will continue to provide Ukraine with the support what she needs.” Yet the administration stopped supplying offensive weapons to Ukraine and said it would not use direct military force to support the country.

“To take very quick steps to modernize the army, we need help here, especially in these difficult times,” Zelensky said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during Wednesday’s meeting with Antony Blinken in Kyiv.


Photo:

SWIMMING POOL/REUTERS

British C-17 cargo planes carried anti-tank weapons into the country for Ukrainian forces. The additional $200 million U.S. support package for Ukraine also includes Javelin anti-tank missiles, U.S. officials said, though the Biden administration has not publicly elaborated on specifics.

Tensions over Ukraine are part of a wider disagreement between Moscow and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization over security in Eastern Europe, with US officials saying this week that troops and weapons Russians were moving to Belarus – a change that could position them for deployment to Ukraine. This is in addition to the roughly 100,000 Russian troops that US and European officials believe are deployed near the Russia-Ukraine border.

Russian forces move to frame Ukraine on three sides. The deployments in Belarus expand the Russian military‘s already sizable presence in northern Ukraine and provide the Russian military with greater firepower if it chooses to head towards Kiev, among other eventualities. Russia has a strong force in eastern Ukraine and supports separatists in that part of the country.

A flotilla of Russian amphibious assault ships, meanwhile, has left the Baltic Sea and is heading for the English Channel, according to social media photographs and military analysts. Analysts said the ships were likely heading to the Black Sea to bolster Moscow’s already formidable military presence in and around Crimea.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said troops from Belarus and Moscow were conducting drills and taking action “to neutralize threats” on the borders of the Union state, an alliance that binds Russia and Belarus in various fields ranging from economy to defence.

A military buildup along the Ukrainian border further strains ties between Russia and the United States, after clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. The WSJ explains what is deepening the rift between Washington and Moscow. Photo Composite/Video: Michelle Inez Simon

The forces would prepare for “actions not only within their limits of responsibility”, but also for threats that suddenly arise from any direction, Fomin said.

He did not say how many troops would be involved in the drills, the first phase of which is scheduled to begin Feb. 9.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday that the joint drills would be conducted on Belarus’ western border and on the country’s southern flank, bordering Ukraine.

To ensure functional air defense for the Russian-Belarusian union, 12 Su-35 aircraft will be moved to Belarusian territory, in addition to two divisions of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, Fomin said. The Pantsir-S missile and anti-aircraft gun battalions will also be redeployed, he said.

A senior US administration official told reporters on Tuesday that “there can be no doubt about Belarus’ role as an increasingly destabilizing player in the region.”

The official noted a series of incidents to demonstrate Belarusian efforts, including the recent migrant crisis along its border with Poland – which the official said was “fabricated” by Belarus – and its diversion forced off a European airliner last year in order to arrest an opposition activist who was on board.

Military vehicles arrive on a Russian transport train for exercises in Belarus.


Photo:

document/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The timing of Russian troop movements into Belarus is “remarkable and of course raises concerns that Russia may intend to station troops in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises in order to potentially attack the ‘Ukraine from the north,’ the senior US administration official said. .

“If Minsk agreed to the use of its road and rail networks, the Russian military could outflank the Ukrainian defenses around Kiev and approach them from the rear,” according to a January report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a thinker from Washington. Tank.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Wednesday that Russia had no intention of taking aggressive action against Ukraine, “attacking or invading” its neighbour. But Moscow sees a threat in Ukraine’s potential NATO membership, he said.

On the issue of military maneuvers in Belarus, Ryabkov urged officials to focus on diplomacy rather than the potential for conflict.

“I assure you that there is no reason to worry about anything related to these exercises,” he told Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based chat group.

The diplomat also repeated Moscow’s view that the United States and NATO were responsible for the precarious security situation in Europe. “Washington and NATO, among others, are using Ukraine as leverage on Russia,” he said.

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The Kremlin demanded that NATO withdraw from Eastern Europe and refrain from adding potential new members such as Ukraine. US and NATO officials have rejected those demands, but Washington has sought to find common ground on some security issues in a series of meetings last week.

Asked if the United States would negotiate with Russia on Moscow’s core NATO concerns, Blinken said he was open to discussing issues that would improve everyone’s security on a reciprocal basis. .

After his stopover in Ukraine, Mr. Blinken is due to meet his German, French and British counterparts in Berlin on Thursday. The United States is seeking a unified position with its American allies on potential financial sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it invades Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the United States should impose sanctions on four pro-Russian operatives operating in Ukraine, administration officials say. The Biden administration has said Russia is considering using agents in Ukraine to stage a provocation in the country which, in turn, could serve as a trigger for an invasion.

On Friday, Mr Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to take stock of meetings between their deputies and among other officials last week.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that the talks between Messrs. Lavrov and Blinken were crucial, but he declined to comment further on the details of the negotiations.

“In light of recent negotiations, and as the United States and NATO formulate their responses, such contacts, which will take place on Friday, are extremely important,” Peskov told reporters. “We will not say anything at this stage. The agenda is absolutely clear. Let’s wait for Friday.

Write to William Mauldin at [email protected] and Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]

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