MOSCOW: Russia’s foreign minister claims that NATO wants to pull Ukraine into the alliance, amid escalating tensions over NATO expansion and fears that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine.
In comments on state television Sunday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also challenged NATO’s claim to be a purely defensive structure.
Russia’s massing of an estimated 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine has brought increasingly strong warnings from the West that Moscow intends to invade. Russia in turn demands that NATO promise never to allow Ukraine to join the alliance, and to stop the deployment of NATO weapons near Russian borders and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.
The head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, on Sunday rejected Western warnings about a planned invasion.
“At this time, they’re saying that Russia threatens Ukraine — that’s completely ridiculous,” he was quoted as saying by state news agency Tass. “We don’t want war and we don’t need it at all.”
Russia has long resented NATO’s granting membership to countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or were in its sphere of influence as members of the Warsaw Pact.
NATO “has already come close to Ukraine. They also want to drag this country there,” Lavrov said. “Although everyone understands that Ukraine is not ready and could make no contribution to strengthening NATO security.”
Ukraine has sought NATO membership for years, but any prospects of joining appear far off as the country struggles to find political stability and attack corruption.
Lavrov also underlined Russia’s contention that NATO expansion is a threat because it has engaged in offensive actions outside its member countries.
“It is difficult to call it defensive. Do not forget that they bombed Yugoslavia for almost three months, invaded Libya, violating the U.N. Security Council resolution, and how they behaved in Afghanistan,” he said.
The U.S. and NATO has formally rejected Russia’s demands about halting NATO expansion, although Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope that there could be a way to avoid war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no public remarks about the Western response. Lavrov has said it leaves little chance for reaching agreement, though he also says Russia doesn’t want war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday that Putin could use any portion of his force to seize Ukrainian cities and “significant territories” or to carry out “coercive acts or provocative political acts” like the recognition of breakaway territories inside Ukraine.
Two territories in eastern Ukraine have been under the control of Russia-backed rebels since 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.