Russia has dismissed a report that Moscow withdrew diplomatic personnel from missions in Ukraine ahead of international talks on Ukraine’s reinforcement of Russian troops, amid growing concerns over President Vladimir Putin’s intentions towards his neighbour.
Quoting an unnamed senior Ukrainian security official, The New York Times (NYT) reported that on January 5, 18 people, mostly from families of Russian diplomats, left Kyiv and returned to Russia by bus.
Over the next few days, another 30 staff reportedly followed, some returning from the Russian consulate in Lviv, western Ukraine, on NYT reported.
Last week, talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna between NATO, US and Russian officials over Ukraine’s Moscow military presence ended in an impasse.
However, in a statement to Russian news agencies, the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the NYTinsisting that the embassy in Kiev was “functioning normally”.
Moscow’s statement, which makes no mention of its consulate in Lviv, is unlikely to ease tensions amid reports that train convoys with tanks, missiles and troops are pushing west to across Russia.
The significance of the alleged reduction in embassy staff is unclear. This could send a message about the seriousness of Moscow’s demands for a guarantee that Ukraine never joins the alliance. It could also suggest that an imminent attack was possible, which was the message coming from Washington, DC and other capitals.
Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said US intelligence was pointing the finger at Russia as a pretext for a “false flag” attack for an invasion, which Moscow repeated to many times will not happen.
A cyberattack on Ukrainian government websites has upped the ante, something Kiev has blamed Moscow for.
Meanwhile, former US ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor said he believed there was nearly a “50%” chance that the current tensions could lead to a “major war”.
It comes as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reiterated his support for Putin, announcing on Monday that Russian forces and equipment had started arriving in western Belarus.
Joint military exercises would be held on the borders of NATO members Poland and Lithuania as part of Operation Allied Resolve from February, Belarusian state news agency Belta reported.
Raising the prospect that a Belarusian role was part of Russia’s reckoning, Lukashenko said “the drills should perfect plans to confront the western powers – the Baltics and Poland, and the south – Ukraine.”
A senior Ukrainian official told the NYT that Kiev believes that Russian troops deployed in Belarus would remain in place indefinitely, leaving Ukraine vulnerable to attacks from the north, east and south.
Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said “unfortunately, war is more likely. We are in a real stalemate, the Russian and American positions are irreconcilable.”
However, she said US intelligence expected more Russian troops at this point, and the mild winter means the ground is not frozen, limiting the ability to move tanks easily.
Full-scale war remains “a real option,” Haring said in an analysis last week, but “it’s more likely that Putin will hit Ukraine in a way that doesn’t result in a war that twists the Europe but will stop before unleashing its tough sanctions package.”
Newsweek contacted the White House for comment.