US presses Russia over troop buildup along Ukraine border

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hold a news conference following the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Dialogue talks at the State Department in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is stepping up pressure on Russia over a buildup of troops along its frontier with Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Washington on Wednesday that the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity is “ironclad” and will not change. He said any Russian escalation along the border would be viewed with “grave concern.”

“We’re concerned by reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine,” Blinken said at the conclusion of a U.S.-Ukraine strategic dialogue meeting. “Any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of grave concern to the United States.”

Blinken said the U.S. did not know Russia’s intentions but said Moscow’s “playbook” has been in the past to invent provocations along its border to justify military intervention. “We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook,” he said. “If there are any provocations that we’re seeing, they’re coming from Russia.”

Kuleba, whose country was at the center of former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, thanked Blinken for U.S. support. He said the key to deterring Russian aggression is not only for Ukraine to remain strong but for its allies to speak out firmly in support of Kyiv.

“What is unfolding in Europe now is a very complicated thing with many elements to it,” the Ukrainian foreign minister said, noting cyberattacks, the spread of misinformation and disinformation aimed at destabilizing democracies, the use of migrant populations to foster unrest and the movement of troops. “In this complicated game, we have to remain vigilant, we have to be resilient.”

Earlier, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe told The Associated Press that senior Russian officials had been warned of potential consequences for any increased threat to Ukraine’s security.

Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, would not discuss specific consequences for Russia, but administration officials have in the past said boosting military support for Ukraine is one option. She also said the U.S. would continue to warn Russia against using energy exports as a political weapon against Europe generally and Ukraine specifically.

Donfried was part of a U.S. delegation led by CIA Director William Burns that visited Moscow last week and delivered that message personally to Kremlin officials. After leaving Moscow, Donfried traveled to Kyiv to brief Ukrainian officials on the meetings.

Speaking of the Moscow meetings, which officials have said included a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of his most influential advisers, she said, "Director Burns was effective in sending the messages that he thought it was appropriate to send.”

A day after Burns and Donfried visited Moscow, Ukraine said Russia has kept tens of thousands of troops not far from the countries’ border after war games, as part of an attempt to exert pressure on its ex-Soviet neighbor.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry said last week that about 90,000 Russian troops are stationed not far from the border and in rebel-controlled areas in Ukraine’s east. It said specifically that units of the Russian 41st army have remained in Yelnya, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) north of the Ukrainian border.

Russia has cast its weight behind a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s east that erupted shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and has left more than 14,000 people dead. Russia has repeatedly denied any presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine.

Earlier this year, a massive buildup of Russian troops in the Russia’s west raised concern in Ukraine and in the West, fueling fears of an escalation of large-scale hostilities.

Russian officials said the troops were deployed for maneuvers, casting them as part of measures to counter security threats posed by the deployment of NATO forces near Russian borders. Russia and the alliance also have blamed each other for conducting destabilizing military exercises near the borders.

In addition to amplifying U.S. concerns about the Russian troops, Blinken and Donfried said Washington, along with its European partners, is watching with trepidation to see if Moscow follows through on pledges to meet European demand for natural gas, particularly in the upcoming winter months.

“Russia can and should provide additional supplies through Ukraine, which has sufficient pipeline capacity and they don’t need Nord Stream 2 for that,” Donfried said. “And, if Russia fails to do that, obviously it’s going to hurt European energy security and bring into question what Russia’s motives are for withholding those supplies.”

Fears of Russia's potential intentions have increased with the imminent completion of a new Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, that is bitterly opposed by Ukraine and Poland, which are bypassed by the route.

Both nations have spoken out about the project vehemently and took sharp exception to the Biden administration's decision earlier this year to waive sanctions against the pipeline's main backers.

Donfried said the U.S. is continuing to warn Russia against using energy exports as a political weapon against Europe, something that Moscow has been accused of before, and encouraging it to increase the supplies it sends west.

“While we’re sending that message to Russia, I don’t think anyone is going to relax and feel confident that Russia will, in fact, be increasing those supplies,” she said.