US worried about ‘dramatic acceleration’ in Russian buildup around Ukraine, despite conciliatory Russian statements
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US was temporarily closing its embassy in Kiev "due to the dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces," and it was moving its diplomatic operations to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine.
Also, on Monday, Russia signaled that it was open to continued diplomatic talks. US officials responded that they would welcome such discussions.
The US response was muted, however, amid the ongoing Russian troop buildup and concern that the seemingly conciliatory Russian statements were a ruse, meant to buy time for their military buildup.
On three occasions on Monday, senior Russian officials indicated that they sought to defuse the Ukraine crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and they held a carefully staged exchange, which was broadcast on Russian state television.
Sitting far from Putin because of COVID concerns, Lavrov, speaking of talks with the US, said, "I believe that our possibilities are far from being exhausted," The Moscow Times reported.
But Lavrov also added that such discussions "certainly shouldn't continue indefinitely."
Putin held a separate and similar meeting with the Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, which was also broadcast on state television.
Although Russia's military exercises in Belarus will continue through Feb. 20, Shoigu told Putin that a number of other Russian military and naval exercises "are ending and others will be over in the near future."
Later in the day, Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesperson, appeared on CNN and said that Putin is "willing to negotiate." He added, somewhat cryptically, "Ukraine is just a part" of "the bigger problem of security guarantees for Russia."
However, Peskov explained little of the nature of the broader security guarantees that Moscow is seeking.
Russian Forces Increasing
The US response to the relatively conciliatory Russian statements was muted because of the continuing buildup of Russian forces.
It was as if Moscow were saying one thing—i.e., let's talk, while preparing for the opposite—i.e., military action. Thus, there was significant skepticism in Washington that the Russian statements should be taken at face value and some concern that they were, instead, a cover to allow Moscow to complete its military preparations.
Russian troops around Ukraine have increased to 105 battalion tactical groups, an increase of 22 such groups, up from 83 earlier in February. There are also 500 Russian combat aircraft near Ukraine, and 40 combat ships in the Black Sea, as The Wall Street Journal reported.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby affirmed that "at least half a dozen" of those ships "are LSTs."
"They're landing ships with one purpose," Kirby explained, "and that's to put troops to shore."
However, Kirby generally declined to provide specific numbers regarding the Russian force buildup. Rather, he described it in general terms, which suggested that it was inconsistent with the seemingly more moderate tone that Russian officials adopted on Monday.
"Over the last 24 to 48 [hours], over the course of the weekend," Kirby said, Russia "has added military capability" along its "border with Ukraine and in Belarus."
He also repeated the same warning that he had expressed last week: "Military action could happen any day."