White House warnings on Russia strain Ukraine-US partnership

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials on Friday sharply criticized the Biden administration for its ominous warnings of an impending Russian attack, saying they had unnecessarily raised alarm bells, even as a new Pentagon assessment said Russia was now able to go beyond a limited incursion and invade all of Ukraine.

The differing views exposed the deep disagreement between Ukraine and its key partner over how to assess the threat posed by Russia, which has massed around 130,000 troops on the Ukrainian border in what US officials pose a serious threat to world peace and stability.

The tensions, which have simmered in the background for weeks, have surfaced at a particularly delicate time, as Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the US response to his demands to address Russian security concerns in Eastern Europe. .

“They continue to support this theme, this subject,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said of repeated warnings from US officials. “And they make it as high-pitched and searing as possible. In my opinion, this is a mistake. »

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Zelenskyy expressed his displeasure just hours before senior US military officials released another dire assessment of Ukraine’s predicament, saying Russia had deployed enough troops and military equipment to invade all of Ukraine, well beyond a limited incursion into the border regions alone.

“I think you’d have to go back far enough to the Cold War era to see something of this magnitude,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a conference in press at the Pentagon.

The prospects for a negotiated exit from the crisis remained uncertain at best on Friday. After a videoconference between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, the Kremlin said in a statement that “Russia’s main concerns were not taken into account” in the American response, even as Macron advocated a conciliatory approach to reach a diplomatic solution.

Moscow has threatened a “military-technical response” if its concerns are not met.

Behind the scenes, the United States plans to impose tough sanctions on some of Russia’s largest state banks and financial institutions — sanctions that the United States says would far exceed previous Western sanctions.

As they have throughout the crisis, Russian officials have sent mixed messages about the state of negotiations with the West. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a radio interview that Washington’s written response this week contained “a kernel of rationality” on some issues.

These include missile deployments and military exercises in Eastern Europe, although Lavrov also said that neither the United States nor NATO were seriously addressing the Kremlin’s most pressing concerns. Russia has demanded that the West bring its military presence in Eastern Europe back to early post-Cold War levels and guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.

A silver lining emerged this week in the form of European-led negotiations along a separate diplomatic track, known as the Normandy Format, a grouping that includes France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. Its meetings focus on the ceasefire agreement the countries brokered in eastern Ukraine in 2015, but also offer the way to a broader settlement.

After Putin and Macron spoke on Friday, a senior French presidential official said the two leaders agreed their countries should continue talks through the group. The countries will continue discussions in two weeks in Berlin.

Macron and Putin agreed on the need to continue dialogue and “de-escalate”, and Putin said he had “no offensive plans” in eastern Ukraine, according to the French presidency.

As the West waited for Putin’s next step, Ukrainian officials expressed growing dissatisfaction with the Biden administration as they stepped up calls for calm.

Speaking just a day after a phone call with President Joe Biden, Zelenskyy said while he too saw a serious risk in Russia’s buildup, the US policy of releasing intelligence and risk assessments around of the Russian threat was pissing off Ukrainians and hurting the economy at a time when he said he would like to see “silent military preparedness and silent diplomacy”.

“There is military support, financial support, we are grateful for this support,” Zelenskyy told a press conference for foreign media, according to a Ukrainian government translation. “But I can’t be like other politicians who are grateful to the United States just for being the United States.”

His complaints were echoed by his top security official, Oleksii Danilov, who said “panic is the sister of failure”.

“That’s why we tell our partners, ‘Don’t shout so much,'” he said. “Do you see a threat? Give us 10 squirts every day. Not a single one, 10. And the threat will disappear.

It’s unclear what the long-term ramifications of the breakup might be. Zelenskyy’s statements are unlikely to have any effect on arms deliveries or diplomacy as the West tries to dissuade Putin from military action. But new differences between the two countries could prompt Ukraine to follow a separate path to a settlement, a path it has explored in ongoing European-led talks. It could also sow mistrust that Putin might try to exploit.

Last fall, it was the United States that first sounded the alarm about the growing presence of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, and since then Zelenskyy’s government has often seemed reluctant to fully embrace the Biden administration’s sense of urgency.

On Thursday, the Pentagon, which has ordered 8,500 US troops to be on “high alert” for deployment in Eastern Europe, said Russia had continued to build “credible combat forces” over the past few years. last 24 hours.

The new, more ominous assessment by the United States of Russia’s readiness for a full-scale invasion followed on Friday.

Officials and analysts see various reasons for the disconnect between Ukrainian and American approaches to publicizing the threat. For eight years, Ukraine has been engaged in an on-and-off war with Russian-backed separatists in two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine. Periods of intense fighting and escalation followed long periods of calm. Ukrainians, officials say, see the Russian threat as part of their daily existence.

Zelenskyy is also primarily concerned about the effects on the economy and domestic stability, but there are other dangers, said Maria Zolkina, political analyst at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kyiv-based research group.

“The more serious the expectations for aggression, the more pressure Ukraine could come under to make a series of concessions to Russia to reduce tensions,” she said.

Another divergence between Ukraine and its Western allies, Zolkina said, could be the weight they place on certain types of intelligence. US and UK intelligence might have superior access to information on troop movements and even classified decision-making within the Kremlin, she said, but Ukrainians are looking at that intelligence with a deeper understanding of the situation. context.

In his remarks, Zelenskyy echoed that sentiment.

“If you just look at the satellites, you’ll see the increase in troops, and you can’t assess whether it’s just a threat of attack or just a rotation,” he said. declared. “Our professionals look into it in depth.”

Ukrainian officials have also strongly criticized the decision by the United States, Britain and others to withdraw non-essential staff from embassies in Kyiv, calling it premature. Zelenskyy noted that Greece had not even withdrawn diplomats from a consulate near the eastern front lines, “where you can hear the guns firing.”

The diplomats, he added, “are the last to jump ship, and I don’t think we have a Titanic here.”

The rift deepened just over a week ago when Biden suggested that a ‘minor incursion’ by Russian forces into Ukraine, rather than a full-blown invasion, might not elicit the same forceful response. that the White House promised.

Zelenskyy replied on Twitter: “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” he wrote. His assignment angered the White House and Ukraine’s allies on Capitol Hill. “We’re pretty exasperated,” said a congressional Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggesting the Ukrainian president hadn’t been given the best advice on how to navigate Washington.

The Kremlin also took note of the discord.

“Now the Americans have started using Ukraine so blatantly and cynically against Russia that even the Kiev regime has become alarmed,” Lavrov said earlier on Friday, commenting on the violation before Zelensky even spoke. “They say, ‘There is no need to escalate the discussion, to use military rhetoric, why are you evacuating diplomats?'”

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