Russia raises stakes with the West over Ukraine

Russia has sharply raised the stakes in a showdown with the West over Ukraine, with a top diplomat saying he would not exclude a Russian military deployment to Cuba and Venezuela if tensions with the United States mount.

Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation in Monday’s talks with the US in Geneva, said in televised remarks that he would neither confirm nor exclude the possibility that Russia could send military assets to Cuba and Venezuela.

The negotiations in Geneva and Wednesday’s Nato-Russia meeting in Vienna failed to narrow the gap on Moscow’s security demands amid a build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine.

While Moscow demanded a halt to Nato expansion, Washington and its allies firmly rejected them as a non-starter.

US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, left, and Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov attend security talks at the United States Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday
US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman and Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov attend security talks at the United States Mission in Geneva on Monday (Denis Balibouse/Pool via AP)

Mr Ryabkov said a refusal by the US and its allies to consider the key Russian demand for guarantees against the alliance’s expansion to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations raises doubts about continuing the talks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted “some positive elements and nuances” during the talks, but described them as “unsuccessful” because of stark disagreements on Russia’s key demands.

“The talks were initiated to receive specific answers to concrete principal issues that were raised, and disagreements remained on those principal issues, which is bad,” he said in a conference call with reporters.

Mr Peskov warned of a complete rupture in US-Russian relations if proposed sanctions targeting Mr Putin and other top civilian and military leaders are adopted.

The measures, proposed by Senate Democrats, would also target leading Russian financial institutions if Moscow sends troops into Ukraine.

Mr Peskov criticised the proposals as an attempt to up the pressure on Moscow during the talks, saying it would not work.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov likewise denounced the proposed sanctions as a reflection of US “arrogance”, adding that Moscow expects a written response to its demands from the US and Nato next week in order to mull further steps.

The talks come as an estimated 100,000 combat-ready Russian troops, tanks and heavy military equipment are massed near Ukraine’s eastern border.

The build-up has caused deep concerns in Kyiv and the West that Moscow is preparing for an invasion.

Russia denies that it is pondering an invasion and in turn accuses the West of threatening its security by positioning military personnel and equipment in Central and Eastern Europe.

Mr Peskov rebuffed the West’s calls for Russia to help de-escalate tensions by pulling back troops from areas near Ukraine, noting that the country is free to move them wherever it deems necessary on its own territory.

“It’s hardly possible for Nato to dictate to us where we should move our armed forces on the Russian territory,” he said.

Mr Peskov underscored that Russia is ready to continue the talks but wants them to produce results.

“There will be no deficit of a political will to continue the negotiations,” he said.

Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau, who assumed the position of the OSCE chairman-in-office, noted in his opening speech that “the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than ever before in the last 30 years”.

“For several weeks, we have been faced with the possibility of a major military escalation in Eastern Europe,” he said.

“We have recently heard a demand for security guarantees related to an important part of the OSCE area and the renewed discourse about spheres of influence. All these aspects require a serious international assessment and a proper reaction.”

Mr Rau emphasised the need to “focus on a peaceful resolution of a conflict in and around Ukraine … in full respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”.

In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after the ousting of its Moscow-friendly leader and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the country’s east, where more than 14,000 people have been killed in more than seven years of fighting.

The tensions over Ukraine also figured high on the agenda of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brest, France.

Danish foreign minister Jeppe Kofod said it was important “for Putin to understand that the military threats, the game he’s playing, the way he’s trying to take us back to the darkest days of the Cold War, is totally unacceptable”.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reiterated that “any further aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs for Russia”, saying that the 27-country bloc is providing 31 million euros (£26 million) in logistical assistance to the Ukrainian army and is preparing to send a mission to help the country counter cyberattacks.

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