Russia's deputy defense minister warned foreign ambassadors of a "high risk" of conflict between the country and its neighbor Ukraine -- one day after President Vladimir Putin threatened "diverse" military and technical responses if the West doesn't address his stated concerns.
These latest messages from Moscow are the kind that have had U.S. and other western officials on edge that Putin will launch an assault on Ukraine, even after President Joe Biden warned him doing so would bring massive penalties.
The Biden administration has repeatedly called for diplomacy with Russia to de-escalate tensions and end the war in Ukraine's eastern provinces, nearly eight years after Russian troops armed separatist forces in a conflict that continues to simmer and claim lives.
But Russia's demands for security guarantees, including that Ukraine be barred from joining NATO, have been called "unacceptable" by U.S. officials -- possibly purposefully so, so that Russia can later claim to have given diplomacy a shot.
Russia has said it has no plans to invade but demanded the U.S., NATO, and Ukraine take seriously its concerns.
"We didn't make the proposals just to see them blocked in terms of the diplomatic process, but for the purpose of reaching a negotiated diplomatic result that would be fixed in legally binding documents. We will aim at this," Putin said Sunday.
His Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin blamed NATO again Monday for provoking conflict by sending warships and reconnaissance planes to back Ukraine. That echoes a statement last week by his boss, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who claimed Ukraine, with U.S. mercenary help, is preparing a chemical weapons attack.
"The alliance has recently switched to the practice of direct provocations accompanied by the high risk of turning into armed confrontation," Fomin said during a meeting that included envoys from 14 NATO countries.
It's the kind of false pretext for an invasion that U.S. officials and analysts have warned Russia may create to justify an invasion.
"Russia is ostensibly outraged by a crisis of their own making," said Mick Mulroy, a senior Trump administration Pentagon official and ABC News national security analyst. "It was Russia that put around 175,000 troops on the border and threatened to invade again if its demands were not met -- 'Do what I ask, or I will attack and occupy a sovereign country against all international norms.'"
The estimated number of Russian troops near Ukraine have ranged from 60,000 to over 100,000, with one leaked U.S. intelligence document warning Russia could be prepared to swiftly deploy as many as 175,000. U.S. officials have cited those troop movements, along with Russian propaganda attacks on Ukraine, which they say have increased tenfold, and bellicose rhetoric as evidence of a possible invasion.
But diplomacy could stave off war. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to hold talks in January to address each side's concerns, along with talks between NATO and Russia and meetings at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, according to U.S. officials. The OSCE, a key security forum, has deployed a war monitor in eastern Ukraine for years as the conflict has taken some 14,000 lives.
After coordinating a meeting between the Ukrainian government and the Russian-controlled separatists last week, the OSCE declared Thursday that both sides showed a "strong determination to fully adhere" to a July 2020 ceasefire agreement. The statement was heralded by Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the State Department, whose spokesperson said, "We hope the resultant peace will create the diplomatic space necessary to de-escalate regional tensions and provide a positive atmosphere for further discussion."
There has been no "resultant peace." Three Ukrainian soldiers were wounded in shelling that last for hours on Sunday. There had been five times more ceasefire violations this month than last December, according to the OSCE.
But there was some notable Russian troop movements, according to state-run Interfax news agency, which reported that more than 10,000 troops pulled back from near Ukraine's borders after military drills. The Kremlin also said Monday that it made sense to engage NATO directly about its security concerns, in addition to the U.S.
Whether that is yet a sign for hope that war can be avoided is unclear. U.S. officials have said it's still unknown whether Putin has decided to invade, with tens of thousands of troops still in the area, including in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Russia invaded and seized in 2014.