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Russia Toughens Posture on Ukraine     01/22 09:25

   With tens of thousands of Russian troops positioned near Ukraine, the 
Kremlin has kept the U.S. and its allies guessing about its next moves in the 
worst security crisis to emerge between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

   MOSCOW (AP) -- With tens of thousands of Russian troops positioned near 
Ukraine, the Kremlin has kept the U.S. and its allies guessing about its next 
moves in the worst security crisis to emerge between Moscow and the West since 
the Cold War.

   Amid fears of an imminent attack on Ukraine, Russia has further upped the 
ante by announcing more military drills in the region. It also has refused to 
rule out the possibility of military deployments to the Caribbean, and 
President Vladimir Putin has reached out to leaders opposed to the West.

   The military muscle-flexing reflects a bold attempt by the Kremlin to halt 
decades of NATO expansion after the end of the Cold War. In talks with the 
United States, Russia demands legally binding guarantees that the alliance will 
not embrace Ukraine and other former Soviet nations, or place weapons there. It 
also wants NATO to pull back its forces from countries in Central and Eastern 
Europe that joined the alliance since the 1990s.

   Putin has described NATO membership for Ukraine and the others as well as 
the alliance's weapons deployments there as a red line for Moscow, warning that 
he would order unspecified "military-technical measures" if the demands aren't 

   Putin pointed to NATO drills with the Ukrainian military, increasingly 
frequent visits of the alliance warships in the Black Sea and the flights of 
U.S. bombers near Crimea to emphasize the urgency of Russia's security demands. 
He argued that by creating training centers in Ukraine, Western powers can 
establish a military foothold there even without its joining NATO.

   "We have nowhere to retreat," Putin said. "They have taken it to the point 
where we simply must tell them: 'Stop!'"

   Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, has denied it 
intends to attack its neighbor. Last year, however, Putin issued a stark 
warning that an attempt by Ukraine to reclaim control of the areas in the east 
controlled by Russia-backed separatists would have "grave consequences for 
Ukrainian statehood."

   While Ukrainian authorities denied planning such offensive, U.S. 
intelligence officials concluded that Russia had already deployed operatives to 
carry out acts of sabotage in the rebel east and blame them on Ukraine in a 
"false-flag operation" to create a pretext for possible invasion. Russia has 
rejected the claim as "total disinformation."

   Putin has repeatedly asserted that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people," 
and says large chunks of Ukrainian territory are historic parts of Russia -- 
arbitrarily granted to Ukraine by Communist leaders during Soviet times.

   Over 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting in 
Ukraine's industrial heartland called the Donbas, where the Moscow-supported 
insurgency erupted shortly after the annexation of Crimea. A 2015 peace deal 
brokered by France and Germany helped end large-scale battles, but a political 
settlement has stalled, and frequent skirmishes have continued along the tense 
line of contact.

   In early 2021, a spike in cease-fire violations in the east and a Russian 
troop concentration near Ukraine ignited the invasion fears, but tensions 
abated when Moscow pulled back the bulk of its forces after maneuvers in April.

   The military buildup near Ukraine resumed in the fall, with Ukrainian and 
Western officials warning that the increasing troop concentration could herald 
a multipronged Russian attack.

   Putin noted with satisfaction that Russia has caused a "certain stress" in 
the West. "It's necessary to keep them in that condition for as long as 
possible," he said in November, ordering his diplomats to push for binding 
guarantees against NATO expansion.

   While the U.S. and its allies rejected the Russian demands for a halt to 
NATO expansion, some observers note that Moscow's insistence on a written reply 
may reflect an intention to use it as an argument for a possible escalation.

   "At this stage, the parties don't intend to compromise and want to shift 
responsibility for a potential conflict," said Kirill Rogov, a Moscow-based 
independent analyst.

   Adding to an estimated 100,000 troops deployed near Ukraine, Russia also has 
moved more troops from Siberia and the Far East for joint drills with its ally 
Belarus, which also borders Ukraine. In those exercises, Russian military units 
have moved to areas near Belarus' southern border, which is about 75 kilometers 
(47 miles) from Kyiv.

   Earlier this week, the Russian Defense Ministry also announced a series of 
naval maneuvers in the Black Sea and more distant areas such as the 
Mediterranean, northeastern Atlantic and the Pacific. The exercises that will 
start this month and last through February would involve over 140 ships, dozens 
of aircraft and more than 10,000 personnel.

   Amid the tensions, Putin also worked to strengthen alliances with the 
countries opposed to the West. He has hosted Iran's hard-line president for 
talks on expanding cooperation and is set to travel to the opening of the 
Winter Olympics in Beijing where he will hold talks with Chinese President Xi 

   In recent days, Putin also spoke by phone with the leaders of Nicaragua and 
Venezuela, and a Russian government plane was recently seen cruising between 
Cuba and Venezuela in a possible harbinger of the next Kremlin moves.

   After the U.S. and its allies rejected Russia's demands for a halt to NATO 
expansion, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov kept the door open 
for the deployment of military assets to Cuba and Venezuela.

   While voicing concern that NATO could potentially use Ukrainian territory 
for the deployment of missiles capable of reaching Moscow in just five minutes, 
Putin has warned that Russian warships armed with the latest Zircon hypersonic 
cruise missile would give Russia a similar capability if deployed in neutral 

   Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Russian foreign policy expert, observed that with 
Russia and the West taking intransigent stands in the talks, an escalation 
appears inevitable.

   "Tensions will be high, including demonstrations of force not necessarily 
near or in Ukraine," Lukyanov wrote in a commentary. "Real talks with some room 
for maneuvering and a broader agenda would ideally begin only after the next 
round of escalation in order to ease tensions."

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