MOSCOW — 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 tough 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.
U.S. President Joe Biden warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a video call Tuesday that the West will 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.
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.”
Russia’s 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.
“If it continues like that, the logic of developments could lead to us to suddenly waking up to something like that,” Ryabkov said.