“WHIPPING UP HYSTERIA”: U.S., Russia Clash Sharply Over Ukraine at U.N. Meeting

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Russia angrily denounced the United States Monday for “whipping up hysteria” over Ukraine, saying it had brought “pure Nazis” to power on Russia’s border and wanted to make “heroes out of those peoples who fought on the side of Hitler.”

In a blistering attack at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya said the United States itself was “provoking escalation” of the situation by falsely charging Moscow with preparing to invade Ukraine. “You’re waiting for it to happen, as if you want your words to become a reality,” Nebenzya said in remarks directed toward U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

The confrontation was one of the sharpest in years in the international forum. Nebenzya’s comments followed a charge by Thomas-Greenfield that Russia was “attempting, without any factual basis, to paint Ukraine and Western countries as the aggressors to fabricate a pretext for attack” by more than 100,000 heavily armed troops it has amassed on Ukraine’s border.

Russia, which has demanded a Western commitment to exclude Ukraine from its security umbrella, “has threatened to take military action should its demands not be met,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “If Russia further invades Ukraine, none of us will be able to say we didn’t see it coming. And the consequences will be horrific, which is why this meeting is so important today.”

With the support of only China, the Russians forced a vote at the beginning of the U.S.-called meeting on whether to hold the session behind closed doors. Calling for the continuation of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, Chinese Amb. Zhang Jun said that “what we urgently need now is quiet diplomacy, but not microphone diplomacy.”

But the majority of the 15-member council voted to proceed with the public session, which President Joe Biden, in a statement issued by the White House, called “a critical step in rallying the world to speak out in one voice.”

Beyond the Security Council, world leaders continued applying diplomatic pressure on Russia across several fronts in an effort to head off what they have said is an invasion that is possibly only days or weeks away.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin later Monday, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will speak again this week, a senior State Department official said, after earlier efforts by the top diplomats to reach a resolution were unsuccessful.

In London, speaking to reporters on Monday before his call with Putin, Johnson said: “What I will say to President Putin, as I have said before, is that I think we really all need to step back from the brink . . . I think Russia needs to step back from the brink. I think that an invasion of Ukraine, any incursion into Ukraine beyond the territory that Russia has already taken in 2014, would be an absolute disaster for the world and, above all, it would be a disaster for Russia.”

In Moscow, Russia’s military announced that thousands of troops from southern and western military bases were returning to barracks after military exercises, as the Kremlin again accused the United States of fanning hysteria over Ukraine.

It was too early to determine whether Russia’s move to send 6,000 troops of the Southern Military District and 3,000 others from the Western Military District back to barracks presaged a de-escalation of military tensions near Ukraine’s border. Military commanders in Belarus announced last week that Russian forces would leave that country after a massive joint military exercise with Russian and Belarusian forces due to begin next week. Thomas-Greenfield said at the Council meeting that “we’ve seen evidence” Russia intends to expand its troop presence in Belarus to “more than 30,000.”

The Russian navy also announced that 20 warships and other naval vessels from its Black Sea fleet had returned to port after live firing exercises.

The import of all the activity and talk remained uncertain, with no breakthrough in sight that might relieve the tension and fear of an invasion, which would likely trigger non-military punitive measures by the west and countermeasures by Moscow.

“We’ve entered the period in which they could launch an attack on Ukraine,” said Jon Finer, U.S. deputy national security adviser, speaking on NPR, “and I think that has been the case for some time, and it is why we are increasingly concerned about the necessity and the urgency of the diplomatic effort that we’ve been trying to launch.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said it was too soon to judge the meaning of Russia’s announcement on the return to barracks of the troops. “On the whole, distrust persists today toward Russia’s actions and words,” Kuleba told journalists at an online briefing. “It is not enough to just say that ‘We are pulling back someone and something,'” Kuleba added, calling for more clarity and detail from Russia.

Separately, Ukraine’s interior ministry claimed Monday it had detained two people who planned to stage violent protests in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. The ministry said the plan involved “pseudo-activists” provoking violence with police and security officials “in order to undermine and destabilize the situation in Ukraine.” Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky said the group planned to stage injuries, using “fake blood.”

U.S. officials warned earlier in January that Moscow was increasing its use of state media to “fabricate Ukrainian provocations” that the Russians could use as a pretext for military intervention.

Russia’s massing of troops and equipment near Ukraine, coupled with multiple military exercises, has escalated tensions between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, with Moscow demanding an end to NATO expansion, barring Ukraine from ever joining the alliance. U.S. officials have warned that a Russian attack on Ukraine could happen at any time and have called on Russia to de-escalate. Moscow officials deny any plan to attack.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday accused the United States of fanning hysteria over Ukraine and charged that U.S. media have spread “unreliable, false and provocative information about the situation in Ukraine and around Ukraine.”

“We consistently criticize this line and call on Washington and its allies on the European continent to drop this line and take a calm, balanced and constructive position,” Peskov said.

Peskov said the warnings from U.S. officials were frightening Ukrainians.

“The hysterics fanned by Washington indeed lead to hysterics in Ukraine – people are practically packing go bags there,” he said “And this is the reverse side, very harmful side of the campaign which Washington is pursuing now.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior officials in Ukraine have played down the threat of an invasion and warned that panic could harm Ukraine’s economy.

The U.N. Security Council session is seen by Washington as a forum to pressure Moscow, since Russia’s Security Council veto effectively rules out any concrete action over its military escalation. China, another of the five permanent Security Council members, also has a veto and has backed Russia’s pressure for an end to NATO’s expansion.

“Our voices are unified in calling for the Russians to explain themselves,” Thomas-Greenfield said of the United States and its allies on the 15-member U.N. security body during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

A diplomatic resolution to the crisis would need to include “Russia making the decision to pull their troops back and to come to the diplomatic table and talk with the United States, with the Ukrainians, with our NATO allies, about their security concerns,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

In Washington, key U.S. lawmakers say they could soon have a deal on sanctions meant to deter Russia from invading Ukraine and severely punish Moscow if it does – punitive measures that have found support on both sides of the political aisle. Britain will introduce legislation Monday paving the way for tougher sanctions that, according to officials, could include seizures of property in London owned by Russian oligarchs.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed optimism Sunday during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” that some sanctions could be approved before any Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the committee’s top Republican, said the two parties hit a sticking point over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany when it is activated and is one of the more controversial sanctions targets, but he indicated that the differences were surmountable.

The Biden administration will brief all senators in a classified setting on the crisis in Ukraine on Thursday, a Senate aide said.

Meanwhile, Biden is set to host Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, at the White House on Monday afternoon as U.S. officials work to shore up alternative energy sources for Europe, which relies on Russian natural gas exports, in the event that Moscow responds to potential sanctions by cutting off supplies.

Even as officials seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis, many are planning for the worst. Canada announced Sunday it was withdrawing all nonessential employees and remaining dependents from its embassy in Ukraine, following similar moves in the past week by the United States, Britain and Australia.

Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand arrived in Ukraine on Sunday. She warned that Russia would face “severe sanctions and consequences” if it doesn’t de-escalate the situation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Senior officials from Britain, France, Germany and Poland are also expected to visit the country in the coming days.

Russia has repeatedly denied that its massive buildup of troops and military equipment around Ukraine, along with a wave of military exercises, is a precursor to a renewed assault.

“We do not want war. We don’t need it at all. Those who are pushing toward it, especially those from the West, they are pursuing some self-serving false goals of their own,” the head of Russia’s security council, Nikolai Patrushev, said Sunday.

Russia has long taken issue with NATO granting membership to countries in the former Soviet sphere. Moscow is reviewing U.S. and NATO counterproposals on security, submitted last week in answer to Russia’s earlier demands that NATO roll back its forces and promise that Ukraine would never join the alliance, whose members vow to come to one another’s aid in the event of an attack.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday the alliance has no intention of sending its troops into Ukraine if Russia invades.

“We have no plans to deploy NATO combat troops to Ukraine. . . . We are focusing on providing support,” Stoltenberg told the BBC. “There is a difference between being a NATO member and being a strong and highly valued partner as Ukraine.”

Still, he said there would be a “high price to pay” if Russia’s aggression escalates. “The more aggressive they are, the more NATO they will get at the borders.”

Western officials have warned that a Russian invasion, potentially one similar to its 2014 annexation of Crimea, could come at any time.

Britain announced Saturday that it would offer more forces, including jets, warships and military specialists, to support NATO’s eastern flank. Biden said Friday that he planned to send some U.S. troops to Eastern Europe to bolster NATO allies, describing the number as “not too many.” The U.S. military has issued “prepare to deploy” orders to 8,500 personnel.

(c) 2022, The Washington Post · Robyn Dixon, William Booth, Karen DeYoung, Rachel Pannett 



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