On Friday, Russian officials claimed that recent troop buildups near Ukraine's border and on the occupied Crimean Peninsula were a reaction to provocations from Kyiv.
Kremlin and Foreign Ministry spokespeople cited fears of a civil war or even the possibility of a genocidal attack on Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine as well as "provocative actions" by Kyiv as motivation for the unusual troop movements.
"The Kremlin has fears that a civil war could resume in Ukraine," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday, reacting to statements by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. "If a civil war — a full-scale military action — resumes near our borders that would threaten the Russian Federation's security," he said.
Peskov also repeated a common Kremlin response on the issue of its troop presence near Ukraine's border: that Russia has the right to move troops within its borders however it sees fit.
In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, Merkel had "called for the removal of these troop reinforcements in order to achieve a deescalation of the situation."
What are Ukraine and the West worried about?
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also held consultations with fellow foreign ministers Heiko Maas of Germany and Jean-Yves Le Drian of France on Friday, according to the US State Department.
In separate calls, Blinken and Le Drian, "discussed the need for Russia to end its dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric, its military buildup in occupied Crimea and along Ukraine's borders," said State Department Spokesman Ned Price; while Blinken and Maas, "emphasized the importance of supporting Ukraine against unilateral Russian provocations."
When asked about a statement in which Dmitry Kozak — Russia's top negotiator with Kyiv — expressed fears of a massacre like the one that took place in Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian War, Peskov claimed nationalist rhetoric in Ukraine was inflaming hatred against the Russian-speaking population of the east.
Officials in Ukraine and in the West have raised concerns in recent weeks about increasingly frequent ceasefire violations in the Donbass region — where much of the fighting has taken place since 2014. Though combat has decreased in recent years, more than 14,000 people have died in the conflict and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have proved unfruitful.
Why are the US and Turkey involved?
The United States has notified the Turkish Foreign Ministry that it will be sending two warships through the Bosporus to the Black Sea next week to monitor the situation. The US vessels will enter the region on April 14-15 and leave on May 4-5 as per the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits and seeks to demilitarize the Black Sea by limiting the presence of foreign warships to 21 days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to preserve the Montreux agreement. The request would not appear to have any bearing on next week's US ship movements but rather on the future access to the Black Sea.
At issue are Turkish plans to build a controversial new canal to alleviate traffic on the Bosporus, which is notoriously congested. The canal, however, would not fall under the existing agreement: "In view of the Turkish plans to build the Istanbul Canal, the Russian side emphasized the importance of preserving the existing regime of the Black Sea straits in accordance with the provisions of the Montreux Convention of 1936 in order to ensure regional stability and security," the Kremlin said in a statement released after the Friday call.
The US ship activity is not unusual, yet Moscow has long been perturbed by Ukraine's attempts to bolster ties with the West since the 2014 change of government, as well as its stated desire to join the NATO military alliance.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that joining NATO, "would not only lead to a massive escalation of the situation in the southeast but could also entail irreversible consequences for the Ukrainian state."
js/msh (AFP, AP)