Antony Blinken warns Russia over troop buildup, regional aggression

The Biden administration said Wednesday it fears Russian forces may be on the verge of entering Ukraine to “rehash” the chaos that resulted in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, warning the Kremlin that the U.S. and its allies are committed to helping Ukraine defend itself.

The sharp messaging comes days after President Biden dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Moscow for talks with Russian officials in part over its ongoing troop buildup along the Ukrainian border. U.S. officials have yet to specify how they would respond if Russia invades Ukraine. Moscow says it is only responding to a U.S. and NATO buildup of military forces on Russia’s western border.

The region has been a tinderbox with Russia supporting pro-Moscow separatists fighting the Ukrainian government and moving closer to the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as he clashes with his neighbors over human rights and a growing border crisis.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken stopped short of saying the administration is prepared to respond with force, but he stressed at a joint press conference with visiting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday that any further Russian escalation “will be of great concern to the United States.”

“We’re concerned by reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine,” Mr. Blinken told reporters at State Department headquarters.

“We don’t have clarity on Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook,” he said. “Our concern is that Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014, when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked.”

“If there are any provocations that we’re seeing, they’re coming from Russia with these movements of forces that we see along Ukraine’s borders,” the secretary of state added. “Our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, to its independence, to its territorial integrity, is ironclad and the international community will see through any Russian effort to resort to its previous tactics.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby struck a similar note in his Wednesday briefing, saying the U.S. military is monitoring the tensions along the Belarus border “very closely,” a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday.

“We don’t want to see any actions further destabilize what is already a very tense part of the world,” Mr. Kirby told reporters. “We urge Russia to be clear about their intentions and abide by the Minsk agreement.”

The Minsk Protocol was drawn up by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to end fighting in the disputed Donbas region of Ukraine. Although the measure failed to stop the conflict, it remains the basic framework for a resolution.

The buildup of Russian troops is unusual because of its size and scope, Mr. Kirby said. He declined to offer an intelligence estimate of the types of forces being sent to the area near Ukraine’s border. 

Meddlesome policy

The Biden administration’s stepped-up pressure on Moscow comes in response to what U.S. and European analysts describe as President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly meddlesome foreign policy. National security analysts have long warned that Mr. Putin, who has held power in Moscow for more than two decades, is pursuing a revanchist foreign policy aimed at reclaiming the Kremlin’s influence over former Soviet states such as Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.

Many in Western Europe are warning that Mr. Putin seeks to exploit Minsk’s growing isolation to establish a base for sowing chaos in the region by expanding destabilization operations against the democracy-oriented powers of the European Union.

EU officials on Wednesday accused Belarus of engaging in an evolving “hybrid attack” by luring desperate migrants to the country’s border with Poland. Many are now stuck in makeshift camps in freezing weather. Polish authorities estimate that 3,000 to 4,000 migrants have gathered along its border with Belarus — the edge of the border with the EU — in recent weeks.

The West has accused Mr. Lukashenko of encouraging migrants from the Middle East to travel to his country and sending them to EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia as a way to retaliate against the bloc for sanctions on the authoritarian regime for its crackdown on internal dissent since a disputed election in 2020.

Many in the region say the developments involving migrants, as well as a widening energy crisis across Western Europe, can be traced back to Moscow, which denies it is exploiting its dominance over natural gas and oil markets as a political tool to exert influence over the region.

Ukraine in particular has been vocal about the need for clear signs of support from Washington and the EU to counter what it says is a multifaceted pressure campaign orchestrated by Moscow.

“We should all understand that what is unfolding in Europe now is a very complicated game with many elements in it: energy crisis, propaganda efforts, disinformation, cyberattacks, military buildups, an attempt of Russia to digest Belarus [and] elements of [a] migration crisis,” Mr. Kuleba said Wednesday.

“We have to remain vigilant,” the Ukrainian foreign minister said. “We have to be resilient.”

The Biden administration’s approach has centered heavily on Ukraine, which has long been a friction point between the West and post-Soviet Russia and whose battles with corruption have become interwoven with U.S. domestic politics in recent years.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the White House in September, completing a circle of politics and intrigue spanning three U.S. administrations.

It was an infamous phone call with Mr. Zelenskyy in July 2019 in which President Trump pressed him to investigate Biden family corruption in Ukraine that led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment. The episode also brought the far-flung business dealings of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter Biden into the spotlight.

Biden administration officials have sought to refocus U.S.-Ukrainian ties on security cooperation. During the September meeting, the White House issued a statement announcing “a new $60 million security assistance package, including additional Javelin anti-armor systems and other defensive lethal and non-lethal capabilities, to enable Ukraine to more effectively defend itself against Russian aggression.”

Ukraine has more recently claimed about 90,000 Russian troops are stationed not far from the Ukrainian border — a buildup that has stirred fears that Moscow may be trying to amp up its support for the separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s east that erupted shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Russia has repeatedly denied any presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine, where clashes between rebels and U.S.-backed Ukrainian military forces have left more than 14,000 people dead over the past seven years.

Despite the Biden administration’s heightened rhetoric, it remains to be seen how the White House will ultimately respond if Russia invades Ukraine.

Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Karen Donfried said senior Russian officials have been warned of potential consequences for any increased threat to Ukraine’s security. While she would not discuss specifics, administration officials have suggested that boosting military support for Ukraine is one option. Ms. Donfried was part of Mr. Burns’ delegation to Moscow last week.

“Any time we see unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine, we make clear that any escalatory or aggressive action is of great concern to the United States,” she told The Associated Press. “We’re very clear that we support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that our commitment to that has not changed … and we will condemn any Russian aggression against Ukraine in all its forms.”

With Mr. Blinken echoing those statements, Mr. Kuleba said, Ukrainian officials are “grateful for the readiness of the United States to expand cooperation with Ukraine.”

“The best way to deter aggressive Russia,” he said, “is to make it clear for the Kremlin that Ukraine is strong, but also that it has strong allies that will not leave it on its own in the face of Moscow’s ever-increasing aggressiveness.”

S.A. Miller, Mike Glenn and Jeff Mordock contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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