By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin on Friday rebuffed allegations that a buildup of its troops near Ukraine reflects Moscow’s aggressive intentions, saying Russia needs to ensure its security in response to alleged NATO threats.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed Western media reports that Moscow has intentions to invade Ukraine as a “hollow and unfounded attempt to incite tensions.”
“Russia doesn’t threaten anyone,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. “The movement of troops on our territory shouldn’t be a cause for anyone’s concern.”
Ukraine complained last week that Russia has kept tens of thousands of troops not far from the two countries’ borders after conducting war games in an attempt to exert further pressure on its ex-Soviet neighbor. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has supported a separatist insurgency that broke out that year in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry claimed that about 90,000 Russian troops are stationed not far from the border and in rebel-controlled areas in Ukraine’s east. It said units of the Russian 41st army have remained in Yelnya, a town about 260 kilometers (about 160 miles) north of the Ukrainian border.
The commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Lt. Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, said Friday that Russia has about 2,100 military personnel in the rebel-controlled areas, noting that Russian military officers hold all commanding positions in the separatist forces.
Russia has cast its weight behind the separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s east that has left more than 14,000 dead. But Moscow has repeatedly denied any presence of its troops in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, in Washington this week that the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity is “ironclad.”
On Friday, Blinken pointed at Russia’s previous aggressive actions against Ukraine. “From what they’ve done the past, we have real concerns about what we’re seeing in the present,” he said.
“We don’t know Russia’s intentions,” Blinken told reporters in Washington. “But we do know that we’ve seen in the past: Russia mass forces on Ukraine’s borders, claim some kind of provocation by Ukraine, and then invade. That’s what they did in 2014.”
Blinken said the U.S. was “in very close consultation with European allies and partners on this.”
Asked Thursday if Russia planned to invade Ukraine, Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, replied that it “never planned, never did, and (is) never going to do it unless we’re provoked by Ukraine, or by somebody else.” He cited what he called many threats from Ukraine and allegedly provocative actions by U.S. warships in the Black Sea.
Peskov similarly emphasized Friday that Russia needs to protect its security amid what he described as “increasing provocations” near its borders. He pointed at the U.S. naval deployment to the Black Sea and increasingly frequent U.S. and NATO intelligence flights.
“We take measures to ensure our security when our opponents take defiant action near our borders,” Peskov said. “We can’t stay indifferent to that; we must be on our guard.”
The Russian Defense Ministry described the deployment of the U.S. warships USS Mount Whitney and USS Porter, which sailed into the Black Sea last week, as a “threat to regional security and strategic stability.”
“The real goal behind the U.S. activities in the Black Sea region is exploring the theater of operations in case of Kyiv’s attempts to settle the conflict in the southeast by force,” the ministry said in a statement.
The reported Russian military buildup near Ukraine also raised concern in the European Union.
After discussing the issue with U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said EU officials “fully support the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
European Commission spokesman Peter Stano told reporters Friday that the bloc is discussing the situation with partners, including the U.S. and United Kingdom, adding that “the information we gathered so far is rather worrying.”
French foreign and defense ministers expressed their concerns about the situation in Ukraine during Friday talks with their Russian counterparts in Paris.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defense Minister Florence Parly “clearly warned of the serious consequences of any further possible damage to the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the meeting.
French President Emmanuel Macron said later Friday he will speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the “coming days” about the situation in Ukraine and Belarus.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington, Angela Charlton and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.
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