MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian lawmaker is encouraging residents of rebel-held areas of Ukraine to join the Russian military, a sign that Moscow continues to try to integrate those territories as much as possible amid Western fears that the Russia plans to invade Ukraine.
Viktor Vodolatsky said on Saturday that residents of areas controlled since 2014 by Russian-backed rebels fear onslaught by Ukrainian forces and that those who hold Russian passports would be welcome in the army.
“If Russian citizens residing in the (territories) want to join the Russian armed forces, the Rostov regional military commissariat will register and enlist them,” Vodolatsky, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on relations with neighbors, told the state news agency Tass.
Russia has granted passports to more than 500,000 people in the territories. Vodolatsky said the recruits would serve in Russia – but that leaves open the possibility that they could join any future invasion force.
Russia has massed about 100,000 troops near Ukraine. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Friday that President Vladimir Putin could use any part of the force of around 100,000 soldiers to seize Ukrainian cities and “important territories” or to conduct “coercive acts or provocative political acts”.
Russia denies planning an invasion, but argues Ukraine poses a security threat and demands NATO promise never to allow Ukraine to join the alliance, as well as to stop deploying weapons of the alliance near the Russian borders and to push back its forces from Eastern Europe.
The United States and NATO formally rejected those demands this week, though Washington outlined areas where talks are possible, raising hopes there might be a way to avert war.
The Russian president has made no public remarks on the Western response, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he left little chance of reaching an agreement.
“While they say they won’t change their positions, we won’t change ours,” Lavrov told Russian radio stations in a live interview. “I see no room for compromise here.”
“There will be no war as it depends on the Russian Federation, we don’t want war,” he added. “But we will not allow our interests to be grossly trampled on and ignored.”
A senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration said the United States welcomed Lavrov’s comments that Russia doesn’t want war, “but that needs to be backed up with action.” We need to see Russia withdraw some of the troops it has deployed from the Ukrainian border and take further de-escalation measures. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Lavrov said the United States has suggested the two sides could discuss limits on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles, restrictions on military exercises and rules to prevent accidents between warships and aircraft. He said the Russians had offered to discuss these issues years ago, but Washington and its allies had never addressed them until now.
He also said that these issues are secondary to Russia’s main concerns with NATO. He said international agreements state that the security of one nation should not come at the expense of others, and said he would send letters to his Western counterparts asking them to explain their failure to comply with this commitment. .
Washington has warned Moscow of devastating sanctions if it invades Ukraine, including sanctions targeting senior Russian officials and key economic sectors. Lavrov said Moscow warned Washington that the sanctions would amount to a complete severance of ties.
NATO, meanwhile, said it was strengthening its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region.
Russia has launched military exercises 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 are also in Belarus for joint exercises, raising fears in the West that Moscow could stage an attack on Ukraine from the north. The Ukrainian capital is 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) from the border with Belarus.