Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government raised the specter of a military conflict in a series of statements reinforcing its demanded rollback of NATO military presence in Eastern Europe after U.S. lawmakers denounced the Kremlin proposal as a “pretext for war” against Ukraine.
“The security situation in Europe, the Euro-Atlantic region, and Eurasia has indeed greatly deteriorated recently,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Monday. “The time of diplomatic parlance is over.”
That ominous note persisted through the weekend, despite multiple conversations between U.S. and Russian officials and public warnings from Congress. State Department officials in Kyiv issued a travel warning for Ukraine “due to increased threats from Russia,” while Russian officials affirmed their truculent posture.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything that would allay our concerns,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.
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Russian forces have amassed around Ukraine over recent months, but the sense of foreboding deepened in Washington after Moscow responded to warnings not to attack Ukraine by unveiling a “draft treaty” demanding that U.S. and Western European members of NATO withdraw their forces from NATO member states in Central and Eastern Europe.
“The Russian government’s publication of ‘proposals’ for the United States and NATO is an insult to diplomacy and seeks to extort us into ending a crisis Russia itself created,” Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Saturday. “The Russian Federation made these demands with the full understanding they are impossible to accept ... Russia is clearly trying to create a pretext for war.”
Russian officials hinted at the prospect of military conflict through a variety of signals in different venues. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov underscored the threat posed to Ukraine by holding meetings with officials from South Ossetia and Abkhazia — client territories that Moscow recognized as independent countries after the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, a conflict that is widely perceived as a model for Russia’s destabilization of eastern Ukraine.
“The moment of truth has arrived,” Konstantin Gavrilov, head of the Russian Delegation in Vienna on Arms Control, told state media. "There must be a serious discussion, and everybody in NATO is well aware that however strong the alliance may be, it is necessary to take concrete political action, because Russia’s military-technical and military response will be the sole alternative.”
Biden’s team has sought to defang the “draft treaty” by agreeing to discuss at least some of the Russian demands. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned his counterpart that “substantive progress can only occur in an environment of de-escalation rather than escalation” and underscored that the talks must “take place in full coordination with our European Allies and partners,” but Moscow doesn’t want the European Union involved.
“We respect the opinion of other parties, but our idea is bilateral talks with U.S. only,” Ryabkov was quoted Monday as saying.
🇺🇸🇷🇺 Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov on Borrell's statement that EU would like to take part in dialogue on security guarantees: “We respect the opinion of other parties, but our idea is bilateral talks with US only.” The EU 🇪🇺 is not a player in this league. #Geopolitics— Velina Tchakarova (@vtchakarova) December 20, 2021
Lavrov has implied that the military buildup represented an effort to induce Germany and France to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to make concessions to Putin in the course of negotiating an end to the antecedent war in Ukraine. The more recent surge in tensions has encompassed a broader array of disputes, though Ryabkov kept Ukraine at center stage.
“Ukraine is in the focus of this policy,” Ryabkov told Interfax. “And the possibility of Ukraine eventually joining NATO, which some Ukrainian officials keep talking about, is categorically unacceptable to us. We will do our best to prevent this.”
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have endorsed the Biden administration’s threat to impose crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy, in addition to military aid to the Ukrainians.
“We support the accelerated distribution of additional lethal and nonlethal military equipment to Ukraine and remain steadfast in our commitment to the security of our NATO allies, especially those in Eastern Europe that face the threat posed by Putin’s Russia every day,” South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson and Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Sunday.
Ryabkov, for his part, declared that NATO must renounce a statement adopted in 2008 that opened the door to Ukraine and Georgia’s eventual membership in the alliance and added that Moscow would regard this concession as “a small, not comprehensive, but small step in the right direction.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s team has signaled that Putin should plan to hear a laundry list of NATO complaints in any future meeting.
“Russia ... has put on the table its concerns, its stated concerns, with American and with NATO activities,” Price said Monday. “We’re going to put on the table our concerns with Russian activities that we believe are harmful to our collective interests and our collective values, collective with our European allies and partners.”
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Ryabkov said that "the situation will remain extremely difficult and tense” if NATO allies do not evince a “dramatic change” in their view of the draft treaty proposal.
“No one should underestimate Moscow’s resolve to defend its national security interests,” he said. “No one should treat lightly our statements regarding the dangerous nature of current developments.”