Russia upped the ante Monday in its dangerous standoff with Ukraine, openly warning of military action if President Biden and America’s NATO allies ignore a list of demands Moscow announced late last week — a far-reaching list that some key U.S. lawmakers have dubbed a “pretext to war.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said his country is fully prepared to respond through “military-technical means” if Western powers fail to address those demands. He said NATO must not expand to include Ukraine or Georgia and the U.S. must not base additional military assets in former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Most of Moscow’s proposed security guarantees seemingly have little chance of becoming a reality. Still, some foreign policy specialists warn that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use their rejection to justify a major land invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s proposal and the direct threat of military action put renewed pressure on the White House to defuse a crisis that seems to be nearing the boiling point.
U.S. officials have said Mr. Putin’s list of demands is unrealistic but could be the starting point for easing tensions in Ukraine and letting diplomacy take the place of saber-rattling. At the same time, the U.S. and the European Union say they are preparing unprecedented sanctions on Moscow if the Kremlin moves militarily against Kyiv.
How much of what Russia has sought is bluster and how much is non-negotiable are the big questions. Some of Mr. Putin’s key advisers are doing little to ease the tensions.
“I said that we would find forms to respond, including by military and military-technical means,” Mr. Ryabkov said, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency. “I reaffirm this. We will have to balance the activities that are of concern to us because they increase the risks with our countermeasures.”
He did not elaborate on what those actions might be, but Russia’s military posture offers unmistakable clues.
Nearly 100,000 Russian troops are stationed near the country’s border with Ukraine. The Russian military buildup has stoked fears that Mr. Putin is prepared to seize another portion of its smaller and weaker neighbor by force, just as he did with the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Russia also backs separatists who have been battling the Ukrainian military since 2014 in the country’s disputed Donbas region.
It’s not clear whether Mr. Putin is willing to endure the casualties and the economic blowback that would result from a long-term ground war in Ukraine, but some Western governments are growing increasingly worried that military action is on the horizon.
The British Daily Star reported Monday that intelligence officials privately warned U.K. officials that Russia might launch an invasion on Christmas Eve. U.S. intelligence analysts have said Russia’s buildup could give it an invasion force by early next year but Mr. Putin has not decided whether to invade or stand down.
In another sign of uneasiness in the region, the State Department issued a new travel warning for Ukraine. It specifically cited reports that war may be in the offing in the former Soviet republic.
“U.S. citizens should be aware of reports that Russia is planning for significant military action against Ukraine,” the State Department said in its travel advisory. “U.S. citizens choosing to travel to Ukraine should be aware that Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine would severely impact the U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide consular services, including assistance to U.S. citizens in departing Ukraine.”
Further complicating Washington’s task is the hard-line stance of many smaller countries that border Russia with a long history of pressure and intimidation from Moscow.
The leaders of Poland and Lithuania met Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They called for even tougher sanctions on Russia and rejected any compromise in the face of Moscow’s security demands.
“Everything must be done” to prevent Russian military aggression against Ukraine, Polish President Andrzej Duda told reporters in the Ukrainian village of Huta. It is “absolutely undesirable to yield to such an ultimatum, to such blackmail.”
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called Russia’s attempts to unilaterally lay down security red lines “unacceptable in Europe in the 21st century.”
The Biden administration has doubled down on finding a diplomatic solution. Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin spoke via video conference earlier this month. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with his Russian counterpart by phone Monday and “indicated U.S. readiness to engage in diplomacy through multiple channels, including bilateral engagement” and in other forums, according to a readout of the call.
State Department officials, meanwhile, tried to strike a balance between keeping the door open for negotiations with Moscow and taking a hard line against the Kremlin’s aggression.
“Any dialogue, any diplomacy has to be based on the principles of reciprocity,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters. “We are having this discussion in the context of Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, but in some ways this is bigger than any one country.
“No country has the right to dictate borders, to bully smaller countries, to intimidate, to coerce, to pursue their own interests,” he said. “That is not something the United States, that is not something our partners or allies will stand for.”
Russia’s demands ostensibly are about protecting national security. That includes preventing a military alliance formed to contain it — NATO — from bringing troops and arms to states along Russia’s western border. Still, many of the specifics are aimed at a much broader goal long advocated by Mr. Putin: establishing new limits on American military activities around the world.
One section of Moscow’s proposal states: “The parties shall refrain from deploying their armed forces and armaments … in the areas where such deployment could be perceived by the other party as a threat to its national security, with the exception of such deployment within the national territories of the parties.
“The parties shall refrain from flying heavy bombers equipped for nuclear or non-nuclear armaments or deploying surface warships of any type, including in the framework of international organizations, military alliances or coalitions, in the areas outside national airspace and national territorial waters respectively, from where they can attack targets in the territory of the other party,” it says.
Such an agreement would directly impact America’s military posture in Europe and elsewhere around the world.
Although the U.S. isn’t seriously entertaining such proposals, some lawmakers say Mr. Putin has a more sinister aim: creating the threat of a crisis in order to extract concessions from NATO and the U.S.
“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. These are not security agreements, but a list of concessions the United States and NATO must make to appease Putin,” Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican and ranking member on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement over the weekend. “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.”