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Russia threatens retaliation if West continues ‘aggressive course’ on Ukraine

Foreign Minister Lavrov says top officials will advise Putin on next steps when it gets US response to demands, but West still concerned Moscow planning to invade

In this photo provided by Vayar Military Agency, January 25, 2022, Belarusian military vehicles gather preparing to attend Belarusian and Russian joint military drills in Belarus. (Vayar Military Agency Agency via AP)
In this photo provided by Vayar Military Agency, January 25, 2022, Belarusian military vehicles gather preparing to attend Belarusian and Russian joint military drills in Belarus. (Vayar Military Agency Agency via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia warned Wednesday it would quickly take “retaliatory measures” if the US and its allies reject its security demands and continue their “aggressive” policies, ratcheting up pressure on the West amid concerns that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine.

Russia has repeatedly denied it has any such designs, but the United States and its NATO allies are worried because Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border and launched a series of war games in the region.

At the heart of the standoff are questions about Ukraine’s future: Russia has demanded guarantees that NATO will never admit the country and other ex-Soviet nations as members and that the alliance will roll back troop deployments in other former Soviet bloc countries. Some of these, like the membership pledge, are nonstarters for NATO, creating a seemingly intractable stalemate that many fear can only end in a war.

Speaking to lawmakers Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he and other top officials will advise President Vladimir Putin on the next steps after receiving written replies from the United States to the demands. Those answers are expected this week — even though the US and its allies have already made clear they will reject the top Russian demands.

“If the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures,” he said.

While Russia is currently waiting for the American reply, Lavrov indicated it wouldn’t wait forever: “We won’t allow our proposals to be drowned in endless discussions,” he said.

Ukrainian servicemen greet each other as they patrol a street in Verkhnotoretske village in Yasynuvata district, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, January 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko, File)

Asked by lawmakers if Russia could expand military cooperation with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, Lavrov responded that Moscow has close ties with those countries. Earlier this month, Lavrov’s deputy pointedly refused to rule out the deployment of Russian military assets to Cuba and Venezuela — far closer to the US than Ukraine — if Moscow’s security demands aren’t met.

NATO said this week it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region and the US ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to Europe. Western nations have also sent planeloads of weapons to help Ukraine strengthen its defenses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Amid the escalating tensions, Ukrainian officials have sought to calm nerves.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday that while the concentration of Russian troops near Ukraine poses a threat, “their number is now insufficient for a large-scale offensive.”

“They are still missing some key military elements and systems to mount a big, full-scale offensive,” Kuleba told reporters.

As others have, he noted that causing alarm could be an end in itself. Russia, he said, hopes to destabilize Ukraine by “spreading panic, raising pressure on Ukraine’s financial system and launching cyberattacks.”

“President Putin would be happy to see that plan succeed so that he doesn’t even need to turn to military force to put Ukraine in a vulnerable position,” he said.

His comments were latest from Ukrainian officials who have sought to reassure their citizens. Speaking late Tuesday in the second televised speech to the nation in as many days, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine was “strong enough to keep everything under control and derail any attempts at destabilization.”

Several rounds of high-stakes diplomacy have failed to yield any breakthroughs in the standoff, but another attempt was going forward Wednesday.

In this photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on January 25, 2022, a Russian fires a mortar as he attends a military exercising at a training ground in Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Presidential advisers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany are set to meet in Paris to discuss ways to revive a stalled peace agreement for eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, following the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement have stalled.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow expects a “good frank” talk at the Paris meeting.

In addition to the military moves, the US and its allies have threatened sanctions like never before if Moscow sends its troops into Ukraine, but they have given few details, saying it’s best to keep Putin guessing.

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden told reporters that Putin “continues to build forces along Ukraine’s border,” and an attack “would be the largest invasion since World War II. It would change the world.” He warned that there would be serious economic consequences for Putin, including personal sanctions, in the event of an invasion.

In this image provided by the US Air Force, Airman 1st Class Stephen Knotts, 436th Aerial Port Squadron ramp services apprentice, drives a cargo loader with palletized ammunition, weapons and other equipment bound for Ukraine during a foreign military sales mission at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware on January 24, 2022. (Roland Balik/U.S. Air Force via AP)

Asked to comment on Biden’s statement, Peskov pointed out that the Russian president and other top officials don’t have assets in the West but reaffirmed that such US sanctions would be “politically destructive” for bilateral ties.

Britain is also promising sanctions, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has urged European nations to do more to support Ukraine.

The UK has sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, though it has ruled out sending combat troops.

“We’ll be legislating to toughen up our sanctions regime and make sure we are fully able to hit both individuals and companies and banks in Russia in the event of an incursion,” she told the BBC. “What’s important is that all of our allies do the same.”

Amid the soaring tensions, the US, Britain, Australia, Germany and Canada have also moved to withdraw some of their diplomats and dependents from Kyiv.

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