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Ukraine crisis: 'The stakes could not be higher', US ambassador tells UN Security Council

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By Euronews  with AP, AFP
A Ukrainian serviceman, seen through a camouflage mesh, stands at a frontline position in the Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine
A Ukrainian serviceman, seen through a camouflage mesh, stands at a frontline position in the Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

The UN Security Council met on Monday for the first time to discuss Russia's build-up of troops near Ukraine's border.

You can watch the meeting in the video player above.

The meeting, called at the US' request, comes amid warnings that Moscow is planning to invade the former Soviet state.

US President Joe Biden announced over the weekend that American troops "will be moved" to Eastern European NATO countries “in the near term” as Russian officials repeatedly stated that it would not start a war in Ukraine.

Moscow argued that the US and NATO have ignored its demands and left little room for compromise in the crisis, with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accusing the North Atlantic military alliance of acting in an offensive manner.

Russia has repeatedly denied any plans to invade but says the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO threatens its national security.

Prior to the adoption of the meeting's agenda, Russia's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, called the US request for the UN session "unacceptable interference in internal matters" based on "unfounded accusations that we have refuted frequently and consistently."

Nebenzya labelled the open format proposed by the US "on an extremely sensitive topic ... a classic example of ‘megaphone diplomacy’". The purpose of the meeting, according to Nebenzya, was to "whip up hysterics regarding the so-called act of Russian aggression".

He also reminded the Council of the Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenskyy's statement on how Ukraine does not "need this panic".

"We had numerous meetings both with Russian officials and Western colleagues — all of them have been in private and we believe it is now time to have this discussion in public," US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield replied.

She reiterated that the troop build-up is not just an internal matter, since the troops are "close to their neighbour's border... a neighbour (which was) invaded before and has Russia occupying parts of their territory."

"Imagine how uncomfortable you’d be having hundreds of thousands of troops sitting next to your border," Thomas-Greenfield said.

“This is not about antics, not about rhetoric” or US and Russia, she noted, “this is about peace and security of one of our member states.”

The UN Security Council adopted the agenda with 10 votes in favour, two against and three abstentions.

Session turns tense as arguments are exchanged

Harsh words were exchanged during the session, too, with Thomas-Greenfield speaking first.

"The situation we’re facing in Europe is urgent and dangerous and stakes could not be higher," she said.

"This is as clear and consequential threat as anyone can imagine," Thomas-Greenfield added, calling the Russian military build-up "the largest mobilisation of troops in Europe in a decade".

"We seek the path of peace, the path of dialogue. But our actions will be decisive, swift and united should Russia further invade Ukraine," she emphasised.

Nebenzya responded by first thanking the countries who “conducted themselves and deemed it possible to vote against and abstain from the US proposal to discuss this today”.

He called the matter “an unusual situation” and a “sham tension”.

There is no proof “confirming such a serious accusation” that invasion is imminent, Nebenzya exclaimed, accusing the US and the West of "provoking escalation".

“You are almost calling for this, it’s as if you’re waiting for this to happen. It’s as if you want your words to become a reality,” he said.

He reiterated that Russia is not planning on invading Ukraine, claiming that Russia seeks peaceful relations with its western neighbour.

“This crisis has just one dimension — it’s domestic Ukrainian. Changing the situation and improving it can only be done through Kyiv implementing … the Minsk agreement that stipulates direct dialogue with Donetsk and Luhansk.”

Your actions will speak for themselves, US warns Russia

Other countries in the Council participated in a tense discussion, with most members expressing their concern over the military presence near Ukraine's border and Moscow "using military violence as means to achieving its political goals", as Albanian Ambassador Ferit Hoxha pointed out.

Chinese Ambassador Chen Xu was less inclined to criticise Russia, pondering "what is the basis for concerns to insist that there may be a war" instead.

He insisted that “quiet diplomacy, not microphone diplomacy” is needed amid claims that NATO is "the product of the Cold War" and that its expansion "legitimises group politics".

"We believe that the security of one country cannot be achieved through the security of other countries," he said.

“China’s position is consistent — to solve this issue we need to return to implementing the Minsk agreement.”

US and Russian representatives responded once again, with Thomas-Greenfield asking Moscow to consider solving its issues through diplomatic means.

“I will tell Russia only this: your actions will speak for themselves,” she said.

“The US is looking at this from a completely different angle,” the Russian ambassador replied, reiterating the importance of the Minsk agreement in the eyes of Russia prior to leaving the session for another meeting.

Notably, the Ukrainian envoy rejected the statements from his Russian counterpart, stating that they should not be trusted. He also criticised Nebenzya for speaking in the name of Ukraine.

"It is important that my country has a voice in the Security Council today… And (that) it is not lost in translation when the position of my country has been delivered by the Russian ambassador in a foreign language.

“My leadership speaks its language, has its own ambassadors and spokespersons, so there is no need to interpret the voice of Ukrainian officials in a foreign language,” he addressed Nebenzya's deputy.

“Especially if it’s done the way Humpty Dumpty… spoke of the meaning of the words, even if Lewis Carroll appears to be a favourite writer of the Russian top diplomats.”

Lavrov: NATO expansion is a threat

Russia's foreign minister claimed on Sunday 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, Lavrov also challenged NATO's claim to be a purely defensive structure.

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.”

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," Lavrov said. "Do not forget that they [...] invaded Libya, violating the U.N. Security Council resolution, and how they behaved in Afghanistan.”

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.

Ukraine has sought membership in the alliance for years, but any prospects of joining appear far off as the country struggles to find political stability and attack corruption.

The US and NATO have 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 an agreement, though he also says Russia doesn't want war.

The head of Russia's Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, also 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 moves planned exercise near Ireland

Russia said on Saturday night it will relocate naval exercises off the coast of Ireland after Dublin raised concerns about them.

The 3-8 February exercises were to be held 240 kilometres off the coast of southwestern Ireland — in international waters but within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.

Earlier last week, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney objected to the war games, saying, “This isn’t a time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what’s happening with and in Ukraine."

"The fact that they are choosing to do it on the western borders, if you like, of the EU, off the Irish coast, is something that in our view is simply not welcome.”

Russia’s embassy in Ireland on Saturday posted a letter on Facebook from Ambassador Yuriy Filatov saying the exercises would be relocated outside of the Irish economic zone ”with the aim not to hinder fishing activities" — a rare concession amid the tensions.

Zelenskyy: ‘Ukraine is not the Titanic’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on the West to remain calm over the tensions with Russia, in spite of the suspicions that it plans to invade his country.

"There are no tanks in the streets. But media give the impression, if one is not here, that we have a war, that we have army in the streets... That's not the case,” the Ukrainian leader said during a news conference for foreign media on Friday afternoon.

"We don't need this panic,” Zelenskyy exclaimed, “We need to stabilise the economy.”

He was speaking as diplomatic efforts continued to defuse the crisis brought by the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine's borders.

The temperature has been cranked up a notch since Wednesday when Washington and NATO both rejected Moscow's demands for security guarantees in Europe.

"The probability of the attack exists, it has not disappeared and it was not less serious in 2021," but "we do not see a higher escalation than the one which existed last year," Zelenskyy said.

The president chided international media and "even respected heads of state", who would have people believe that there was already a war all over the country, "that there are troops advancing on the roads. But that's not the case," he added.

West 'ignores Russia's fundamental concerns', says Putin

"The responses of the United States and NATO have not taken account of Russia's fundamental concerns," the Kremlin said following an hour-long phone call on Friday between Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

"The key question has been ignored, namely how the US and their allies count on... putting into practice the principle according to which no-one should reinforce its security to the detriment of other countries," the Russian president said, according to the Kremlin statement.

It added that Russia will "decide on its reaction" after studying the detail of the replies from its geopolitical rivals.

The Elysée Palace put a positive gloss on the call, saying that Macron and Putin agreed on the "necessity for a de-escalation" and for "dialogue" to continue over the Ukraine crisis.

"President Putin expressed no offensive intention... he said very clearly that he was not looking for confrontation," Macron's office said.

The French president was also due to speak to his Ukrainian counterpart on Friday evening.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the West to remain calm over the tensions with Russia, in spite of the suspicions that it plans to invade his country.

"We don't need this panic" because "we need to stabilise the economy" of the former Soviet republic, the Ukrainian leader said during a news conference for foreign media on Friday afternoon.

Despite the messages coming out of Moscow playing down the prospect of war, the Belarusian leader said his country would fight alongside Russia in the event of conflict.

Alexander Lukashenko said he would welcome "hundreds of thousands" of Russian soldiers into his country if either Belarus or Russia were attacked, to "defend this land".

Pentagon: Putin has 'multiple options'

The Pentagon said on Friday that the Russian leader had total flexibility when it came to military options.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Putin could use any portion of his force of an estimated 100,000 troops to seize Ukrainian cities and “significant territories” or launch actions short of a full-scale invasion.

There was also the possibility of “coercive acts or provocative political acts" like the recognition of breakaway territories inside Ukraine.

“While we don't believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine, he clearly now has the capability. And there are multiple options available to him,” Austin told a Pentagon news conference, urging the Russian leader to de-escalate the tensions.

On Thursday, US President Joe Biden told Zelenskyy in a phone call there was "a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February," according to White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne.

She reiterated Biden's recent warnings as tensions mount over Russia's buildup of troops on Ukraine's border.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday that the response from the US — and a similar one from NATO — left “little ground for optimism”.

But he added that “there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue, it’s in the interests of both us and the Americans”.

Ukraine has 'no objections' to US stance

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv had seen the US response before it was delivered to Russia and had no objections. He tweeted it was “important that the US remains in close contact with Ukraine before and after all contacts with Russia”.

On a visit to Denmark, Kuleba emphasised his country’s need to strengthen its defences.

“This crisis is a moment of truth, and this is why we speak about weapons,” he said. “This is why we speak about economic sanctions. This is why we speak about the consolidated position of all of us, so that President Putin sees that there are no weak links in our defensive chain.”

Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during a parliamentary debate on Ukraine that her government is closely coordinating its policy with allies and considering a range of options that could include the new Nord Stream 2 Russian gas pipeline to Germany.

Russia has launched a series of military drills involving motorised infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers in Belarus.

NATO said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region, and the US ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to Europe.

Biden and Scholz to meet

President Joe Biden and new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will discuss Russian aggression toward Ukraine during a February 7 meeting in Washington, the White House announced on Thursday.

The one-on-one session will be Scholz's first Oval Office meeting since he took over leadership of his country in December following the 16-year tenure of Angela Merkel.

Tensions have soared in recent weeks as the United States and its NATO partners express growing concern that a buildup of about 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine means that Moscow plans to invade its neighbour. Russia denies such intentions.

Germany’s refusal to join the US and other NATO members in providing weapons to Ukraine has annoyed some allies and raised questions about Berlin’s resolve in standing up to Russia.

Experts say Germany’s position is partly rooted in its history of aggression during the 20th century. Germany’s own militarisation in Europe during two World Wars has led German leaders through the years to view any military response as a last resort.

Germany mulls howitzer decision amid gas flow concerns

A decision had not yet been reached on whether to approve Estonia’s request to transfer artillery guns to Ukraine, German government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit said.

Germany originally owned the howitzers and sold them to Finland which then sold them to Estonia.

Hebestreit on Friday warned against I'm pursuing what he called a “military logic” amid demands for German approval to deliver the howitzers to Ukraine.

“When push comes to shove that wouldn’t be a real solution either,” Hebestreit said. “That’s no game changer now.”

Hebestreit also addressed concerns that Russia might cut natural gas supplies to Europe, saying that Russia remains a reliable natural gas supplier, but the country is still preparing for all scenarios.

“In our view the Russian gas supply contracts are being fulfilled everywhere so far and we strongly assume that this will remain the case,” Hebestreit said.

“At the same time it’s clear that one needs to prepare for all eventualities, and this is what the German government is doing,” he added.

Meanwhile, German officials also expressed regret that Russia has suspended mutual military inspections at a time of heightened tensions.

They are intended as confidence-building measures among members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Russia recently announced it would suspend the inspections until the end of February, citing the spread of the omicron variant.

“Because of this an inspection on Russian territory in the border region of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, which Russia had previously agreed to, won’t currently be possible,” spokesman Christofer Burger said.

“We expressly regret this step because particularly in the current situation anything which creates greater transparency would help reduce tensions,” he stated.

Burger said Russia also cancelled inspections it was due to conduct in Germany.

Accusations of hybrid warfare continue

In a break from the past, the US and its allies are increasingly revealing their intelligence findings, looking to expose Putin’s plans on Ukraine and deflect his efforts to shape world opinion.

The White House in recent weeks publicised what it said was a Russian “false-flag” operation to create a pretext for an invasion.

Britain named Ukrainians it accused of having ties to Russian intelligence officers plotting to overthrow Zelenskyy.

The US also released a map of Russian military positions and detailed how officials believe Russia will try to attack Ukraine with as many as 175,000 troops.

But the release of information is not without risks. Intelligence assessments carry varying degrees of certainty, and beyond offering photos of troop movements, the US and its allies have provided little other proof.

Moscow has invoked past American intelligence failures, including false information put forward about Iraq’s weapons programs.