According to AP, the Kremlin voiced concern Thursday about a possible escalation of fighting in a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine as the U.S. issued a strong warning to Russia to stay away from Ukraine.
Ukrainian and Western officials have worried about a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, fearing it could herald an invasion. But Moscow has insisted it has no such intention and accused Ukraine and its Western backers of making up the claims to cover up their own allegedly aggressive designs.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at their meeting in Stockholm on Thursday that “if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences,” adding that “the best way to avert a crisis is through diplomacy.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow that “the Ukrainian authorities’ aggressive and increasingly intensive provocative action on the line of contact” gives grounds for concern about a possible flare-up of hostilities. He said that recent statements from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials indicate that “the Ukrainian leadership doesn’t exclude a forceful scenario.”
“The probability of hostilities in Ukraine still remains high,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed separatist republic in Donetsk, said on Russian state television that he could turn to Moscow for military assistance if the region faces a Ukrainian attack.
Ukrainian officials have denied an intention to reclaim the rebel regions by force.
Russia’s top domestic security agency, the FSB, announced Thursday it has arrested three Ukrainian men accused of spying and plotting an explosion.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted after meeting with Blinken in Stockholm that “we are closely working together on developing a comprehensive deterrence package, including severe economic sanctions, to demotivate Russia from further aggressive moves.”
Kuleba also talked with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell about “the need to deter Russia and speed up work on specific economic restrictions which will be able to hit the Russian economy should Moscow decide to launch a new stage of aggression against Ukraine.”
The top Ukrainian diplomat noted that the EU Council has approved €31 million in material and technical assistance for strengthening the Ukrainian armed forces’ capability in the spheres of medicine, engineering, demining activities, mobility, logistics and cybersecurity. “We highly appreciate this step which reaffirms the strategic Ukraine-EU relations,” he said.
Ex-Soviet neighbors Russia and Ukraine have remained locked in a tense tug-of-war since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 following the ouster of the country’s Kremlin-friendly president and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas. More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting.