Ukraine’s Kuleba Says Russian Troop Buildup Continues But Diplomacy Still Has A Chance

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)  

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba says the number of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine is growing every day amid mounting concerns that the buildup is the prelude of an invasion by Moscow of its neighbor.

Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, according to Western intelligence, and has been holding a series of land and sea military exercises. Last week, Ukrainian intelligence officials put the number at 127,000.

Kuleba, speaking at a press briefing in Copenhagen on January 27, warned that if Russia, which illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, decided to attack, Kyiv "will fight back" this time.

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Kuleba’s statements come a day after the United States rejected Moscow’s demand to bar Ukraine from joining the NATO military alliance at some point, offering instead a "serious diplomatic path" out of the crisis.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington’s written response, handed over to Russia on January 26, repeated the West’s commitment to maintaining NATO’s "open-door" policy while offering a "principled and pragmatic" evaluation of the concerns that Moscow has raised.

Russia said it would analyze the U.S. response, delivered in coordination with NATO.

The Kremlin, which denies planning to enter Ukraine, has said it sees NATO as a security threat, and is demanding legal guarantees that the Western alliance will not further expand eastward, including to neighboring Ukraine. Washington and NATO have said some of the demands are nonstarters.

Blinken told reporters the United States was open to dialogue, but made it "clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend, including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances."

"There is no change; there will be no change," he said.

Blinken said the letter was fully coordinated with Ukraine and Washington’s European allies and "sets out a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it," as the United States seeks to avert a military escalation against Ukraine.

But he warned Washington was acting "with equal focus" to bolster Ukraine’s defense.

He said he would speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the coming days for its response to the U.S. stance.

Moscow also backs separatist fighters in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.

After meeting in Paris on January 26, advisers to the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany reaffirmed in a joint statement their commitment to uphold a cease-fire agreed in the Minsk accords aimed at putting an end to the conflict in the east.

Although there was no breakthrough in the talks, held under the so-called Normandy format, the countries promised to meet for new talks in two weeks in Berlin, which Kuleba called a sign Russia is likely to remain on a diplomatic path at least for the short term.

"The good news is that advisers agreed to meet in Berlin in two weeks, which means that Russia for the next two weeks is likely to remain on the diplomatic track," he said following a meeting with his Danish counterpart, Jeppe Kofod.

Kuleba’s statements came after French President Emmanuel Macron said he has scheduled a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin for January 28 in which he is expected to seek clarification over Russia’s intentions.

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Late on January 26, Blinken also spoke to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about Ukraine, highlighting the global security and economic risks that could stem from further Russian aggression, the State Department said.

During the call with his Chinese counterpart, Blinken underlined the need for de-escalation, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. "Secretary Blinken…conveyed that de-escalation and diplomacy are the responsible way forward," he said.

Wang for his part called for calm in the Ukrainian crisis, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We call on all parties to stay calm and refrain from doing things that agitate tensions and hype up the crisis," it said.

China and Russia have been stepping up their ties amid tension between Beijing and Washington over a range of issues, from trade to human rights, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China’s maritime claims.

NATO also sent its written response to Russia’s demands to Moscow, which Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said included proposals for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Stoltenberg called on Russia to “immediately de-escalate the situation," but said NATO allies remained "prepared for the worst."

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa

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