Russian Foreign Minister Levels New Warning on Ukraine

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, warned on Friday that the Kremlin perceives the United States and its allies as stoking the war in eastern Ukraine, a shift in tone from Moscow just hours after another Russian official had said the Kremlin was satisfied with a phone call between the leaders of the two countries.

“The civil war in Ukraine, ongoing for eight years, is far from over,” Mr. Lavrov said, in remarks carried by the Russian Information Agency. “The country’s authorities don’t intend to resolve the conflict” through diplomacy, he added.

“Unfortunately, we see the United States and other NATO nations supporting the militaristic intentions of Kyiv, provisioning Ukraine with weapons and sending military specialists,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Amid high-stakes diplomatic talks over what the United States has described as a serious Russian military threat to Ukraine, Mr. Lavrov’s remarks were the latest in a series of conflicting commentary from the Kremlin that has seesawed between ominous and conciliatory, sometimes within the space of a few days. Earlier in December, Mr. Putin said Moscow might resort to “military technical” means, referring to the use of force, if talks failed.

But after President Biden and Mr. Putin of Russia spoke for about 50 minutes on Thursday, Yuri V. Ushakov, Mr. Putin’s foreign policy adviser, declined to say whether a specific threat of military action had come up. Though the call ended without clarity on the Kremlin’s intentions after massing about 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, both sides said it had been constructive.

The call was seen as an effort by both sides to shape the diplomatic landscape before talks on the Ukraine crisis that will begin in Geneva on Jan. 10 and then move to Brussels and Vienna later in the week, according to Russian and American officials who briefed journalists. Russia has issued demands for NATO and the United States to pull back forces in the region and pledge not to admit new Eastern European members to the alliance.

Ukrainian reservists during an exercise near Kyiv on Christmas Day.Credit…Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the call, according to American officials, Mr. Biden made clear that Western countries would impose harsh sanctions if Russia stepped up military activities along the Ukrainian border. Mr. Putin warned that imposing new sanctions could lead to a “complete rupture” in relations.

Still, officials in both countries assessed the conversation positively. “In principle, we are satisfied with the contact, the negotiations, because they have an open, substantive, concrete character,” Mr. Ushakov told journalists in a briefing early Friday in Moscow.

Mr. Lavrov’s comments later in the day, in contrast, revived a more confrontational tone. Mr. Ushakov had also said concerns about U.S. weaponry provided to Ukraine had come up in the call, but emphasized the respectful tone between the two leaders.

After Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border over the fall, officials in Moscow repeatedly characterized the eastern Ukraine conflict as a pressing security concern for Russia, though it has been simmering for eight years now between Ukraine’s central government and Russia-backed separatists. Analysts have viewed these statements with alarm, as Russian justifications for invading Ukraine.

Russian diplomats call the conflict a “civil war,” something Ukraine and Western countries reject as Russian soldiers and special forces fomented the uprising in 2014 and continue to fight on the anti-government side, while Moscow arms and finances what Ukrainians refer to as a combined separatist and Russian force.

A Russian soldier during a training exercise in Russia’s Rostov region, which borders Ukraine, on Dec. 22.Credit…Associated Press

American officials have declined to discuss the substance of the talks so far, insisting that, unlike the Russians, they would not negotiate in public. Russia in December published two draft treaties the foreign ministry said it would like the United States and NATO to sign, publicly staking out positions before even talks had commenced.

Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine

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A brewing conflict. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, annexing Crimea and whipping up a rebellion in the east. A tenuous cease-fire was reached in 2015, but peace has been elusive.

A spike in hostilities. Russia has recently been building up forces near its border with Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s rhetoric toward its neighbor has hardened. Concern grew in late October, when Ukraine used an armed drone to attack a howitzer operated by Russian-backed separatists.

Ominous warnings. Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the cease-fire agreement, raising fears of a new intervention in Ukraine that could draw the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.

The Kremlin’s position. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s military buildup was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.

A measured approach. President Biden has said he is seeking a stable relationship with Russia. So far, his administration is focusing on maintaining a dialogue with Moscow, while seeking to develop deterrence measures in concert with European countries.

A former Ukrainian official and a member of Parliament in Kyiv said, speaking on condition of anonymity, that they worry the Biden administration, which has been focused on China as a principal foreign policy concern, is overly wary of antagonizing Russia.

That was a dynamic evident in Thursday’s call. Mr. Putin’s threatening of a breach in relations in retaliation for Western sanctions may suggest that the Kremlin has ascertained that Washington is more interested than Moscow in a stable bilateral relationship.

Mr. Biden has attempted a two-track approach, trying to deter Russia with unusually specific warnings about imposing a series of sanctions that would go far beyond what the West agreed upon in 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, while simultaneously pursuing the diplomatic negotiations.

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