West accuses Moscow of 'escalation' at Ukraine border ahead of talks

Francesco Fontemaggi - Agence France-Presse
West accuses Moscow of 'escalation' at Ukraine border ahead of talks
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu tour a military gear exhibition before the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow on December 21, 2021.

WASHINGTON, United States -- Several western countries on Wednesday accused Russia of "escalating" the tense situation at the border with Ukraine, and promised to present a united front when talks with Moscow begin in January. 

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she was "greatly concerned" after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country was prepared to take military steps.

Baerbock said her concern was heightened because the comments came ahead of "further troop movements on the border" with Ukraine and that the "major crisis" could only be resolved through dialogue.

Asked about the new troop movements, the US State Department told AFP that Washington and its allies are "closely" monitoring the situation.

"Russia continues escalating and has not reversed its troop buildup" at the border, a State Department spokesperson said.

Western allies are accusing Moscow of amassing tens of thousands of troops at the Ukrainian border in preparation for a potential invasion, while the Kremlin maintains that Washington and other NATO countries are the aggressors thanks to their military and political support of Kiev.

"Any further aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and would carry a severe price," the State Department official added, repeating earlier unprecedented warnings about new sanctions from the US and its allies. 

"We strongly urge Russia to de-escalate by pulling back troops from its border with Ukraine," the State Department spokesperson added. 

"Our goal is de-escalation through diplomacy; the US is ready to engage in diplomacy in January through multiple channels." 

2022 talks 

Both groups -- Russia and the West -- have oscillated as an agreement for early 2022 talks approaches. 

The discussions are set to take place on a parallel track between Russia and the United States as well as NATO and Russia and at the level of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Washington, Moscow and Kiev are all members.

"It has been agreed that at the very beginning of next year, the first round (of talks) should be bilateral contact between our negotiators and American ones," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Russian state-funded news network RT. 

He added that NATO discussions would also begin in January, while Washington has indicated a similar timeline.

Speaking Tuesday with reporters, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki emphasized "an open line of diplomatic discussion and engagement that is happening and that we expect to continue, that we hope to continue." 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top European diplomat Josep Borrell spoke about the situation Wednesday during a telephone conversation.

"They agreed that any discussion about European security will happen in coordination and with participation of the European Union," Brussels said in a statement.

President Joe Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said last week that the United States was "fundamentally prepared for dialogue" and would coordinate closely with European allies.

But even with the upcoming dialogue, Putin struck a resolute tone Tuesday.

Russia "will react toughly to unfriendly steps," he said, adding that he wanted to underscore that "we have every right to do so."

The White House downplayed the Russian leader's rhetoric.

"President Putin has his own audience. It is not the United States of America," Psaki said Wednesday.

"NATO is a defensive alliance. We don't have aggressive intent with Russia," she continued.

"The aggression we've seen at the Ukrainian border, that bellicose rhetoric has been coming from one side... and I think anybody can see that pretty clear as day."

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