The Kremlin has voiced concerns about a possible escalation of fighting in a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine as the US issued a strong warning to Russia to stay away from the area.
Ukrainian and Western officials have expressed concerns about a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, fearing it could herald an invasion.
But Moscow has insisted it has no such intention and accused Ukraine and its Western supporters of making up the claims to cover up their own allegedly aggressive designs.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken warned Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at their meeting in Stockholm on Thursday that “if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences”, adding that “the best way to avert a crisis is through diplomacy”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow that “the Ukrainian authorities’ aggressive and increasingly intensive provocative action on the line of contact” gave grounds for concern about a possible flare-up of hostilities.
He said that recent statements from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials indicated that “the Ukrainian leadership doesn’t exclude a forceful scenario”.
“The probability of hostilities in Ukraine still remains high,” Mr Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed separatist republic in Donetsk, said on Russian state television that he could turn to Moscow for military assistance if the region faced a Ukrainian attack.
Ukrainian officials have denied an intention to reclaim the rebel regions by force.
Russia’s top domestic security agency, the FSB, announced on Thursday that it had arrested three Ukrainian men accused of spying and plotting an explosion.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted after meeting with Mr Blinken in Stockholm that “we are closely working together on developing a comprehensive deterrence package, including severe economic sanctions, to demotivate Russia from further aggressive moves”.
Mr Kuleba also talked with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell about “the need to deter Russia and speed up work on specific economic restrictions which will be able to hit the Russian economy should Moscow decide to launch a new stage of aggression against Ukraine”.
The top Ukrainian diplomat noted that the EU Council had approved 31 million euros (£26 million) in material and technical assistance for strengthening the Ukrainian armed forces’ capability in the spheres of medicine, engineering, demining activities, mobility, logistics and cybersecurity.
“We highly appreciate this step which reaffirms the strategic Ukraine/EU relations,” he said.
Ex-Soviet neighbours Russia and Ukraine have remained locked in a tense tug-of-war since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 following the removal of the country’s Kremlin-friendly president and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas. More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has warned Nato against deploying its troops and weapons to Ukraine, saying it represented a red line for Russia and would trigger a strong response.
It takes two to tango, and if – if our Russian friends are prepared to implement their commitments under (the) Minsk (agreement) and our Ukrainian friends are as well, we will fully support that, and that is the best way to avert a renewed crisis in UkraineUS secretary of state Antony Blinken
He said on Wednesday that Moscow would seek Western guarantees precluding any further Nato expansion and deployment of its weapons near Russia’s borders.
Mr Blinken said “we have deep concerns about Russia’s plans for renewed aggression against Ukraine”, adding that “it’s a concern that is shared by many in Europe”.
He was speaking during a meeting with Mr Lavrov on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm.
Mr Blinken reaffirmed that the US had “a strong, ironclad commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
Referring to a 2015 peace agreement for eastern Ukraine brokered by France and Germany and signed in Minsk, Belarus, Mr Blinken called for a “full implementation of the Minsk agreements with Russia pulling back its forces”.
Addressing the OSCE meeting, Mr Blinken urged Russia “to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to de-escalate, reverse the recent troop buildup, return forces to normal peaceful positions, and to implement the Minsk commitments”.
“It takes two to tango, and if – if our Russian friends are prepared to implement their commitments under Minsk and our Ukrainian friends are as well, we will fully support that, and that is the best way to avert a renewed crisis in Ukraine,” Mr Blinken said.
I want to make it crystal clear: turning our neighbours into a bridgehead for confrontation with Russia, the deployment of Nato forces in the regions strategically important for our security is categorically unacceptableRussian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov
Moscow said it was not a party to the deal between Ukraine and self-proclaimed separatist regions, and denied Ukrainian and Western assertions of sending its troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine.
In his speech at the OSCE meeting, Mr Lavrov urged Ukraine to abide by its obligation with the Minsk agreement that envisaged a broad autonomy for the rebel regions, warning that Kyiv’s refusal to honour it was a “way toward a catastrophe”.
He also warned Mr Biden at their meeting that “any further Nato expansion eastward undoubtedly compromises our core security interests”.
The top Russian diplomat charged that the West was “playing with fire” when it argued that Russia did not have a say in Nato’s expansion plans.
“I want to make it crystal clear: turning our neighbours into a bridgehead for confrontation with Russia, the deployment of Nato forces in the regions strategically important for our security is categorically unacceptable,” he said.
Mr Lavrov followed up on Mr Putin’s call for a new security arrangement, stating that reaching an agreement on a set of “long-term and legally binding security guarantees is imperative to prevent sliding into a confrontational scenario”.