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NATO-Russia clash over Ukraine gets nastier

The tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine are escalating as the two sides build up their forces in a clash that threatens to spin out of control as the wheels of diplomacy grind to a halt.

(CN) — The United States and the United Kingdom are evacuating staff from their embassies in Kyiv, citing fears of a Russian invasion. Russia's Defense Ministry readies for an Ukrainian offensive against Russian separatists in Donbas. British diplomats issue accusations that the Kremlin is planning a coup in Ukraine. The Kremlin calls London's rhetoric the “overheated” nonsense of a weakened nation with declining credibility on the international stage.

All the while, weapons and troops continue flowing towards the borderlands between Russia and NATO's allies in Ukraine, the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

This weekend saw a sharp escalation of tensions between Russia and NATO after Friday talks in Geneva between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to only further deepen a sense that Europe is in the midst of a new Cold War three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in hopes that democracy and peace would flourish across a continent long racked by war and tyrants.

With the embattled leaders in Moscow, Washington, London and Kyiv all facing domestic struggles of their own, the risk that the tense foreign standoff over Ukraine's unresolved territorial conflicts might become a dangerously ill-advised armed conflict appear to be lurching towards a dangerous climax.

On Monday, the U.K. joined the U.S. in saying it was evacuating staff from its embassy in Kyiv out of fear of an imminent invasion by Russia.

“The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the border of Ukraine,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told journalists on Monday. “The plan for a lightning war that could take out Kyiv is one that everybody can see. We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin that that would be a disastrous step.”

On Saturday, London claimed its intelligence sources uncovered a plot by the Kremlin to install a “puppet” government in Kyiv in a coup against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as reported by the Daily Telegraph and other British media.

The British Foreign Office took the unusual step of naming individuals, including a former Ukrainian minister of parliament called Yevhen Murayev, as being part of the plot. Last week, Britain said it sent about 30 members of its special operations elite Rangers Regiment to Ukraine along with 2,000 anti-tank missile launchers, media reported. The U.S., meanwhile, said it was planning to boost troop deployments in Eastern Europe.

Johnson said a Russian invasion would be a “painful, violent and bloody business – and I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya.”

Russian diplomats in London called on Johnson's government “to stop foolish rhetorical provocations, which are very dangerous in the current overheated situation,” according to Tass, a Russian news agency.

The Russian embassy in London added that Britain was trying “to play the role of an ideological leader, defending itself from ‘autocrats’ and aiming to ‘free the world.'”

“We see the true professional level of people who, along with these absurd statements, are sending deadly weapons to Ukraine, building up their own military presence near Russian borders and encouraging Kiev to sabotage the Minsk accords,” the Russian embassy said, according to Tass.

Russia said Britain was hindering “real diplomatic efforts” to find an agreement between Russia and NATO over European security.

In December, the Kremlin demanded NATO cease seeking to make Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics, members of a military alliance that was created during the Cold War and served to counter the U.S.S.R's long-defunct Warsaw Pact.

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, train in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Russia is deeply upset over the expansion of NATO following the end of the Cold War onto its doorstep and Putin has called Ukraine's inclusion into NATO a “red line.” Kyiv is asking to become a member.

This week, the U.S. is expected to draw up a response to Russia's demands, but it is likely Washington will reject Putin's protests.

Meanwhile, in Western Europe divisions have begun to appear in the NATO alliance.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed reservations about the hard anti-Russia line being taken by the NATO and said the EU should work with Russia on developing a new European security framework.

Over the weekend, Germany's naval chief, Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach, was forced to step down after he said it was “nonsense” that Russia wanted to invade Ukraine and that Kyiv would never get Crimea back. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, where it has long held a key naval base on the Black Sea, following the 2014 overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president.

“Is Russia really interested in having a tiny strip of Ukrainian soil to integrate into their country?” he said during a public appearance for a think tank in Delhi, India. “No. Putin is putting on pressure because he knows he can do it, he splits the European Union.”

Schonbach said Putin really just wants respect. “On eye level, he wants respect. And my God, giving him respect is low cost, even no cost. It is easy to give him the respect he demands, and probably deserves,” he said, as reported by the Guardian.

The Kremlin has been accused of amassing troops on Ukraine's borders in preparation for an invasion, something it vehemently denies. It is possible the troop buildup that began around November was in reaction to increased Ukrainian attacks against pro-Russian separatists in a simmering war in the eastern regions of Ukraine known as Donbas.

For months, Zelenskyy has talked about the need to reclaim parts of eastern Ukraine seized by pro-Russian forces and to retake Crimea. Zelenskyy, a comedian-turned-politician, was elected in 2019 on a platform advocating a peaceful resolution to the Ukrainian conflict but he has since visited the frontlines in the frozen conflict several times and taken a bellicose anti-Russian position.

Ceasefire talks, known as the Minsk agreements, have collapsed and conflict simmers in Donbas as both sides build up their defenses and dig in. Eastern Ukraine is made up predominantly of Russians, who have felt increasing hostility from Kyiv since the so-called “Maidan Revolution” in 2014, including bans on the use of the Russian language.

On Monday, Tass quoted leaders of the Donbas separatist movement claiming that Ukraine was preparing for a large-scale offensive.

“Ukraine not only continues its attempts to destabilize the situation in Donbas by shelling settlements, and preparations are well underway to resolve the conflict by force,” the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic said in a statement, according to Tass.

Amid the escalating tensions, Josep Borrell, the EU's top diplomat, tried to calm the situation by saying the bloc had no intention of evacuating its diplomats from Kyiv and that there was no sign of an imminent Russian invasion.

“We are not going to do the same thing, because we don't know of any specific reasons to do that,” Borrell said during a meeting where the EU's foreign ministers met with Blinken. “I don't think we have to dramatize as long as negotiations are going on, and they are going on. I don't think we have to leave Ukraine.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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