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Interview'Rest assured we have a lot to discuss'

Russian envoy: Our talks with Israelis don’t focus on Ukraine tensions

Anatoly Viktorov decries ‘hysterical’ speculations around expected Russian invasion; blames US and Europe for arming Kyiv and stoking tensions

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, November 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, November 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

With tensions in Europe continuing to rise, Russia’s ambassador to Israel told the Times of Israel on Wednesday that conversations with Israeli officials have not focused on Ukraine.

“We prefer to focus on the bilateral and regional agenda as well as other issues, which can contribute to the further development of Russian–Israeli friendly relations for the benefit of the peoples of our countries,” said Anatoly Viktorov. “Rest assured we have a lot to discuss.”

Israel’s close relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin are often seen as linked to the two countries’ close military coordination in Syria, in particular when the Israel Defense Forces is alleged to carry out strikes on sites within Syria, where hundreds of Russian troops are deployed.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a warm relationship with Putin, which seems to have continued with the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government. Still, Israel is in somewhat of an awkward spot as the US, its closest ally, prepares for the possibility of war in Ukraine.

Viktorov emphasized that Western speculation around an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine is needlessly creating tensions.

“We see the purpose of this hysterical campaign in creating an information cover for preparing potential large-scale provocations, which could inevitably lead to the most tragic consequences for regional and global security,” he warned, indicating that Kyiv was determined to “totally sabotage” the Minsk Agreements designed to bring fighting in eastern Ukraine to an end.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on October 22, 2021. (Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Many officials in Western countries disagree. On Wednesday, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the US believes Putin remains poised to use force against Ukraine at some point in the coming three weeks.

“I have no idea whether he’s made the ultimate decision, but we certainly see every indication that he is going to use military force some time, perhaps (between) now and the middle of February,” she said.

In a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Thursday, US President Joe Biden also raised the “distinct possibility” that the Russians invade in February.

The US embassy in Ukraine has urged its citizens in the ex-Soviet country to “consider departing now” as fears grow over a possible Russian invasion.

Ukrainian officials have sought to put out a message of calm.  Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters that troops posed “a threat to Ukraine” but they were “insufficient for a full-scale offensive.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a parade marking Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, on May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

But Russia says it is Ukraine that is threatening ethnic Russians in the Donbas region, and taking actions that could lead to a dangerous escalation.

“The human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating” in southeastern Ukraine, Viktorov said. He accused Ukraine of passing laws that make a settlement more difficult, including a National Resistance Law that went into effect on January 1, empowering Ukrainian civilians to take part in a potential conflict with separatists or with Russia.

Viktorov also stressed that “the way neo-Nazi movements are evolving in Ukraine is assuming a terrifying dimension,” which should concern Israel.

‘Russia-bashing’

Russia has put pressure on Ukraine since the 2014 uprising that overthrew a pro-Russian government. Moscow seized the Crimean peninsula and a few weeks later a pro-Russian insurgency broke out in eastern Ukraine that has since claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Now, the United States and its NATO allies are alarmed at the massing of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s border and a series of Russian 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.

Illustrative: A Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman watches through a spyglass in a dugout on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Gorlivka, Donetsk region on January 23, 2022. (Anatolii Stepanov / AFP)

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 Eastern Europe. Western nations have also sent planeloads of weapons to help Ukraine strengthen its defenses.

Viktorov accused the US and NATO countries of “carrying on with their military assistance to Kyiv and encouraging its aggressive militaristic rhetoric.”

He pointed at the UK sending lethal weapons including anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, dramatically increasing the prospect of Russian casualties, Western instructors training Ukrainian soldiers, and the deployment of Canadian special forces to Ukraine.

On Saturday, the UK alleged that it had information Moscow was “looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv.” London said it had seen evidence that several former Ukrainian politicians had maintained links with Russian intelligence services, and that former MP Yevgen Murayev was being considered as a potential leader.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, center, participates in a media conference with Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, left, and Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde, right, at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (AP/Olivier Matthys)

A US official called the alleged plot “deeply concerning.”

“No facts, just Russia-bashing,” said Viktorov, brushing aside the allegations.

He singled out the US as the most destabilizing international actor, especially with the more than $2.7 billion in security assistance it has sent to Ukraine since the 2014 Donbas conflict.

“As [Foreign] Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed out, everyone knows that reaching an agreement mainly depends on the United States,” Viktorov said.

Biden, who spoke with European leaders by video conference this week, has said that any Russian military attack on Ukraine would trigger “enormous consequences” and could even “change the world.”

Potential US sanctions are expected to include new restrictions on US technology exports to Russia and Biden indicated that the US would also personally target Putin.

“We constantly call on the West and international organizations to stop ignoring destructive processes in Ukraine and take the necessary steps to put Kyiv on the path to fulfilling the Minsk agreements aimed at a peaceful solution to the intra-Ukrainian conflict,” Viktorov said.

Russia insists that it is not a party to the conflict or to the Minsk-2 agreement, which does not mention Russia but is signed by its envoy to Ukraine. Moscow has used the omission “to shirk responsibility for implementation and maintain the fiction that it is a disinterested arbiter,” contends Duncan Allan of Chatham House.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (L) and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (R) attend security talks on soaring tensions over Ukraine, at the US permanent Mission, in Geneva, on January 10, 2022 (Denis Balibouse / Pool / AFP)

“We are talking about the intra-Ukrainian conflict and not anything else,” Viktorov emphasized. “The main negotiating format for its settlement is the Contact Group, which includes the parties to the conflict – Kyiv, Donetsk and Luhansk, and mediators – Russia and the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe].”

He stressed Moscow’s firm position that Ukraine must open a direct dialogue with the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and that Ukraine can only regain control over the border with Russia after it grants special status to the Donbas region and allows local elections.

Many Western observers and pro-Western Ukrainians see these demands as a way for Russia to control the semi-autonomous regions of Ukraine, thus increasing its influence over internal Ukrainian politics and destabilizing the country.

Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Viktorov called on the West “to stop the aggressive anti-Russian information campaign, to stop contributing to the militarization of Ukraine by dragging it into NATO, but to apply direct efforts to encourage Kyiv to comply with the international obligations it has undertaken.”

He stressed that Russia is seeking a treaty with the US on security guarantees and a Russia-NATO agreement, both of which would be “aimed at precluding absolutely any further eastward movement of NATO and the deployment of threatening weapon systems near Russian borders.”

“Russia needs legally binding guarantees and is waiting for Western colleagues to provide their answers in writing, just as the Russian side did with its proposals, to get a specific comment on each point in both documents – which of them are acceptable, which are not and why,” he continued. “If something needs to be added, they could formulate amendments. These issues are the key to preventing negative developments in the European region.”

Later on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced they had responded to Russia’s demands in separate written documents. They told reporters that they held firm to the alliance’s open-door policy for membership, rejected a demand to permanently ban Ukraine from joining, and said allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are nonnegotiable.

Seeking de-escalation

Talks in Paris on Wednesday were the latest attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the mounting standoff following inconclusive discussions between Russian, US, European and NATO diplomats in previous weeks.

The main focus so far has been on separate negotiations between Russia and the United States to discuss the Kremlin’s security demands in Europe, including that Ukraine should never become a member of the US-led NATO military alliance.

Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned in an address to lawmakers Wednesday that Moscow would take “all necessary measures” if the West continued its “aggressive policy.”

Illustrative: US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman addresses a press conference following a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 12, 2022. (John Thys / AFP)

Western analysts see a limited scope for compromise in areas such as arms control or military exercises.

France’s “de-escalation” plan, as detailed by an aide to French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, would mean Russia and Ukraine agreeing to take steps to build confidence.

Ukraine’s government has made the first move envisaged by the French by withdrawing a bill in parliament this week governing the status of Russian-backed separatist provinces in the east of the country, which Moscow saw as violating previous commitments.

Paris is hoping that Russia will agree to some “humanitarian measures” such as prisoner exchanges in eastern Ukraine and the opening of checkpoints manned by the separatists.

Georgian activists hold posters as they gather in support of Ukraine in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia on Jan. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)

France is also pushing for “a public statement from the Russians about their intentions that reassures everyone,” the aide said.

One major possible area of discord is France’s backing for talks between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the east — something  Zelensky has refused to do.

Senior diplomatic advisors from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany — known as the Normandy Format — last spoke by video conference in September last year, according to Macron’s office.

The leaders last met for a four-way summit in Paris in December 2019.

AP and AFP contributed to this report. 

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