US puts pressure on Russia over troop build-up along border with Ukraine

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration is stepping up pressure on Russia over a troop buildup along its border with Ukraine.

As Secretary of State Anthony Blinken prepared to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart in Washington on Wednesday, a senior US diplomat for Europe said the administration was closely monitoring the border situation and would view any escalation with deep concern.

Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told The Associated Press that senior Russian officials were warned of the potential consequences of any growing security threat to Ukraine from what she called “unusual military activity near Ukraine.”

She would not discuss the specific implications for Russia, but administration officials have said in the past that increasing military support for Ukraine is an option. Donfried also said the US will continue to warn Russia against using energy exports as a political weapon against Europe in general and Ukraine in particular.

Donfried was part of a US delegation led by CIA Director William Burns that visited Moscow last week and personally delivered the message to Kremlin officials. After leaving Moscow, Donfried traveled to Kiev to inform Ukrainian officials of the meetings.

“Every time we see unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine, we make it clear that any escalation or aggressive action is of great concern to the United States,” she said. “We are absolutely confident that we support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and that our commitment to this has not changed and is unshakable, and that we will continue to support Ukraine and will condemn any Russian aggression against Ukraine in all its forms.”

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Referring to the meetings in Moscow, which officials said included a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of his most influential advisers, she said, “Director Burns effectively sent messages that he thought would be appropriate.”

“An indication of how they processed the information provided? “The proof will be in the pudding,” as we say, Donfried said. “We will continue to monitor very closely what the Russians are doing on the border with Ukraine.”

The day after Burns and Donfried’s visit to Moscow, Ukraine complained that Russia had kept tens of thousands of soldiers near the country’s border following the war games in an attempt to pressure its former Soviet neighbor.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said last Wednesday that some 90,000 Russian troops are stationed near the border and in rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine. It specifically stated that units of the 41st Russian Army remained in Yelnya, about 160 miles (260 km) north of the border with Ukraine.

Russia supported the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which erupted shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula and killed more than 14,000 people. Russia has repeatedly denied the presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine.

Earlier this year, a massive Russian troop buildup in western Russia raised concerns in Ukraine and the West, fueling fears of an escalation of large-scale fighting.

Russian officials said the troops were deployed for maneuvers as part of measures to counter security threats posed by the deployment of NATO forces near Russian borders. Russia and the alliance also accuse each other of conducting destabilizing military exercises near the borders.

Donfried said Washington, along with its European partners, is not only heightening US concerns about Russian troops, but is also watching with trepidation whether Moscow will deliver on its promises to meet European demand for natural gas, especially in the coming winter months.

“Russia can and should provide additional supplies through Ukraine, which has sufficient throughput, and for this they do not need Nord Stream 2,” she said. “And if Russia does not do this, it is clear that it will damage European energy security and question what Russia’s motives are for cutting off these supplies.”

Concerns about Russia’s potential intentions have intensified with the imminent completion of a new Russia-Germany gas pipeline known as Nord Stream 2, which is opposed by Ukraine and Poland, which bypass the route.

Both countries spoke out sharply about the project and strongly objected to the Biden administration’s decision earlier this year to lift sanctions against the main sponsors of the pipeline.

Donfried said the US continues to warn Russia against using energy exports as a political weapon against Europe, which Moscow has previously been accused of, and urges it to increase the supplies it directs to the West.

“While we are sending this message to Russia, I don’t think anyone will relax and feel confident that Russia will, in fact, increase these supplies,” she said.