By DASHA LITVINOVA and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s top military officer on Thursday sternly warned neighboring Ukraine against trying to reclaim control over separatist areas by force, saying that Moscow will “suppress” any such attempt.
The statement by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, comes amid soaring tensions over a Russian troop buildup near the border with Ukraine that stoked Ukrainian and Western fears of a possible invasion.
A senior Russian diplomat doubled down on Gerasimov’s warning by saying that the failure to stem the mounting tensions could push Russia and the West to a redux of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that put the world on the verge of a nuclear war.
Tension briefly rose later Thursday when Russia’s Federal Security Service said a Ukrainian navy ship was heading toward the Kerch Strait between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, ignoring Russian coast guard vessels’ signals. The FSB charged that maneuvering by the Ukrainian ship Donbas jeopardized navigation safety. The agency reported later that the ship changed course and sailed away from the Kerch Strait.
The Ukrainian military dismissed the Russian claims, saying the Donbas didn’t come anywhere close to any “sensitive” areas and was now heading back to its base. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov denounced the Russian report as “manipulations,” expressing surprise that Moscow saw the unarmed vessel as a threat.
Moscow demands that all ships passing through the narrow strait that separates the Russia-annexed Crimea from Russia’s Taman Peninsula notify Russian authorities, citing the need to ensure the safety of navigation.
In November 2018, Russian coast guard ships opened fire on three Ukrainian ships near the strait and then seized them. Ukraine insisted the vessels were in international waters when Russia intercepted them.
U.S. President Joe Biden warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a video call Tuesday that the West would respond with bruising economic sanctions that would inflict acute pain on Moscow if it invades Ukraine. At the same time, Biden made it clear Wednesday that U.S. troops wouldn’t be sent to Ukraine to confront the Russians, and announced future talks between the U.S., its top NATO allies and Russia to address some of Moscow’s security concerns.
Russia has rejected Ukrainian and Western claims of plotting an attack and described them as a cover-up for a possible attempt by Ukraine to retake the rebel-held areas. Ukraine has denied such plans.
On Thursday, Gerasimov reinforced Moscow’s warning to Ukraine not to try to use force to reclaim control of the east, saying that “any provocations by Ukrainian authorities to settle the Donbas problems by force will be suppressed.”
U.S. intelligence officials say Russia has stationed about 70,000 troops near its border with Ukraine and has begun planning for a possible invasion as soon as early next year.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told a press briefing in Stockholm that “President Putin would face a severe economic response, a severe diplomatic response from the international community” if he launches an attack on Ukraine. “I don’t think Russia wants those consequences, I don’t think it will help everyone, especially at this time with COVID, for these things to play out,” he added.
Speaking to foreign military attaches, Gerasimov dismissed Western concerns about the Russian military buildup, arguing that Moscow is free to deploy its troops wherever it likes on its territory and calling the claim of a possible Russian invasion “a lie.”
He charged that Ukraine is to blame for escalating tensions in its war-torn eastern industrial heartland, known as Donbas, by deploying new weapons there, including U.S.-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish drones.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter tug-of-war since 2014, when Moscow annexed the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula and threw its support behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 14,000 people. Ukraine and the West accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to back the separatists, which Moscow has repeatedly denied.
Gerasimov complained about NATO’s growing presence near Russian borders and the increasing number and scope of drills by alliance troops. He particularly noted an increase in patrol flights by U.S. strategic bombers near Russian territory, saying they practiced launching cruise missiles at targets in Russia.
In remarks that followed up on Putin’s push for Western security guarantees to preclude NATO’s expansion to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet neighbors, Gerasimov said Moscow is open to discussions on European and global security to “de-escalate tensions and increase the level of mutual trust.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also voiced hope that the U.S. and its NATO allies would listen to Moscow’s security concerns and engage in meaningful discussions.
“It primarily refers to refraining from military activities near our borders and the development of military and military-technical presence in those territories,” Ryabkov said during a panel discussion on international affairs.
He emphasized that Russia wants legally-binding guarantees of its security, noting that Western powers broke verbal promises — given to Moscow in the early 1990s — that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward.
“There is a deep crisis in the Euro-Atlantic region that is fraught with a potential conflict,” Ryabkov said, adding that a controversy similar in scope to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis between the U.S. and the Soviet Union couldn’t be excluded.
The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted when the Soviet Union deployed its missiles to Cuba and the U.S. imposed a naval blockade of the island. U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to defuse tensions by making a deal for Moscow to withdraw its missiles in exchange for Washington’s pledge not to invade Cuba and the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey.
“If the other side doesn’t get it and it continues like it goes now, the logic of developments could lead us to suddenly waking up to something like that,” Ryabkov. “It may easily come to that. It would represent the failure of diplomacy, but there is still time to try to reach agreements based on common sense.”
Pan Pylas in London contributed to this report.