By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia accused the West on Thursday of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine and disguising its alleged intentions by fomenting concerns about Moscow planning aggressive military action in the neighboring country.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged that Ukrainian and Western claims of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine were a “cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character.”
“They may have extremely tragic consequences for the regional and global security,” Zakharova said.
She pointed to the delivery of weapons to Ukraine by British military transport planes in recent days, claiming that Ukraine perceives Western military assistance as a “carte blanche for a military operation in Donbas.”
Donbas, located in eastern Ukraine, is under control of Russia-backed separatists who have fought Ukrainian forces for nearly eight years, a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.
Ukraine said earlier this week that it has taken the delivery of anti-tank missiles from the U.K. It has rejected Moscow’s claims that it plans an offensive to reclaim control of separatist-held areas in the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
Ukraine’s government, the U.S. and its NATO allies have expressed intensifying concerns in recent weeks over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine.
The concentration of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine has fueled Western fears that Moscow is poised to attack its neighbor. U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday he thinks Russia will invade Ukraine and warned President Vladimir Putin that his country would pay a “dear price” in lives lost and a possible cutoff from the global banking system if it does.
Moscow has repeatedly denied having plans to launch an offensive. But it has sought a set of security guarantees from the West that would exclude NATO’s expansion to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations and the deployment of alliance weapons there.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the U.S. threat to cut off Russia from the global banking system could encourage hawkish forces in Ukraine to use force to reclaim control of the rebel east.
“It may implant false hopes in the hotheads of some representatives of the Ukrainian leadership who may decide to quietly restart a civil war in their country,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
Washington and its allies firmly rejected Moscow’s demands in security talks last week but kept the door open to possible further talks on arms control and confidence-building measures to reduce the potential for hostilities.
Amid the tensions, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ukraine Wednesday to reassure it of Western support. He traveled to Berlin on Thursday to meet with his British, French and German counterparts to discuss Ukraine and other security matters.
Blinken is set to deliver a speech on the Ukraine crisis later Thursday in the German capital before flying on to Geneva, where he will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is scheduled to arrive Thursday in Poland, which has long supported Ukraine’s efforts to integrate more closely into the West.
Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said in a Thursday morning radio interview that Poland is offering its political and diplomatic support to Ukraine, but he would not say whether military aid would be extended amid the Russian troop buildup.
The head of the European Union’s executive arm,European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reiterated Thursday that the EU “will respond with massive economic and financial sanctions” if Russia invades Ukraine. She said the EU is by far Russia’s biggest trading partner, as well as the biggest investor in the country.
“We hope an attack won’t happen, but if it does, we are prepared,” von der Leyen said during an online speech to the Davos business forum. “Our difficulties are not with Russia or with its people. Our difficulties are with the dangerous policies of the Kremlin.”
In a move that further beefs up forces near Ukraine, Russia has sent an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to its ally Belarus, which shares a border with Ukraine, for major war games that run through Feb. 20. Ukrainian officials have said that Moscow could use Belarusian territory to launch a potential multi-pronged invasion.
On Thursday, Russia also announced sweeping naval drills that would involve 140 warships and more than 60 aircraft. The Russian Defense Ministry said that the exercise that will run through February will be conducted in both littoral waters and some more distant areas that are “operationally important,” including the Mediterranean, northeastern Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean.
Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, and Lorne Cook in Brussels, contributed to this report.
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