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US warns Russia as Kremlin talks about threat of war in Ukraine

MOSCOW – The Kremlin on Thursday voiced concern over the potential escalation of fighting in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine as the United States issued a strong warning to Russia to stay away from Ukraine.

Ukrainian and Western officials have been worried about Russia accumulating troops near Ukraine, fearing it could herald an invasion. However, Moscow insists it has no such intention and accuses Ukraine and its Western supporters of making statements to cover up their alleged aggressive designs.

US 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 “increasing and vigorous provocation by the Ukrainian authorities on the lines of communication” provides the basis for concerns about the possibility of an outbreak of hostilities. He said that recent statements by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials indicate that “Ukrainian leadership does not rule out a coercive scenario.”

“The possibility of a conflict in Ukraine remains high,” Peskov told a meeting with reporters.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed separatist republic in Donetsk, said on Russian state TV that he could turn to Moscow for military support if the region faced a Ukrainian attack. .

Ukrainian officials have rejected the idea of ​​recapturing rebel-held areas by force.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted after meeting Mr Blinken in Stockholm that “we are working closely to develop a comprehensive deterrence package, including severe economic sanctions, to limit restrain Russia from further aggression.”

The two former Soviet neighbors remain locked in a tense war after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 after the country’s Kremlin-friendly president was ousted and exerted weight. for the separatist uprising in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as Donbas. More than 14,000 people died in the fighting.

President Vladimir Putin has warned NATO against deploying troops and weapons to Ukraine, saying the country represents a red line for Russia and will provoke a strong response. He said on Wednesday that Moscow would seek guarantees from the West to prevent NATO expansion and weapons deployment near Russia’s borders.

“We are deeply concerned about Russia’s plans to re-invade Ukraine,” said Blinken, adding that “it is a concern shared by many in Europe.” He was speaking during a meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Stockholm.

Blinken reaffirmed that the United States has “a strong, unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Referring to a 2015 peace agreement for eastern Ukraine brokered by France and Germany and signed in Minsk, Belarus, Blinken called for “full implementation of the Minsk agreements with Russia withdrawing its forces.” “.

Moscow says it is not a party to the agreement between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed breakaway regions, and rejects claims by Ukraine and the West to send their troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine.

In his speech at the OSCE meeting, Foreign Minister Lavrov called on Ukraine to comply with its obligations under the Minsk agreement, which provides for broad autonomy for rebel regions, and warned that Kyiv’s departure Refusing to respect it is a “way to a disaster.”

He also warned Biden at their meeting that “any further NATO expansion eastward will inevitably harm our core security interests.”

Russia’s top diplomat accused the West of “playing with fire” by arguing that Russia has no say in NATO’s expansion plans.

He said at the OSCE meeting: “I want to make it clear: turning our neighbors into a bridgehead to confront Russia, the deployment of NATO forces in strategically important areas to Russia. to our security is unacceptable.”

Foreign Minister Lavrov followed Putin’s call for a new security agreement, saying that reaching an agreement on a set of “long-term and legally binding security guarantees is imperative to prevent fall into a confrontational scenario.”

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Jan M. Olsen contributed to this report from Copenhagen, Denmark

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