Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised the alarm on Thursday, after Ukraine’s commander-in-chief accused Moscow of building up forces near their shared border and claimed that pro-Russian separatists were systematically violating a ceasefire in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbass.
Lavrov stressed that most of Ukraine’s military appeared to understand the danger of a “hot conflict” in Donbass, and said, “I very much hope that they will not be incited by politicians, who in turn will be incited by the West, led by the United States.”
“Russian President Putin said this not long ago, but this statement is still relevant today, that those who would try to start a new war in Donbass, will destroy Ukraine,” Lavrov added.
The Kremlin said earlier in the day that recent Russian troop and military hardware movements near Russia’s borders with Ukraine were aimed at ensuring Moscow’s own security and posed “no threat” to anyone.
“There is increased activity on the perimeter of Russia’s borders by NATO, other alliances, individual countries – it all obliges us to be vigilant,” the Kremlin underlined.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also said on Thursday that he had spoken to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors the effects of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, about Russia’s “systemic aggravation” of the security situation in Ukraine and Crimea.
Moreover, a NATO official claimed that Moscow was undermining peace efforts in the restive Ukrainian region.
“Allies shared their concerns about Russia’s recent large scale military activities in and around Ukraine. Allies are also concerned about Russian violations of the July 2020 ceasefire that led to the death of four Ukrainian soldiers last week,” the NATO official told Reuters.
“Russia’s destabilizing actions undermine efforts to de-escalate tensions.”
Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame in recent weeks for a spike in violence in the Russian-speaking eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian forces have fought a conflict that has killed 14,000 people since 2014 by Ukraine’s estimate.
The armed confrontations began when a wave of protests in Ukraine overthrew a democratically-elected pro-Russia government and replaced it with a pro-West administration. The majority in those areas refused to endorse the new administration.
That new government then began a crackdown on the mainly ethnic Russians in the east, who in turn took up arms and turned the two regions of Donetsk and Lugansk — collectively known as the Donbass — into self-proclaimed republics.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse Moscow of having a hand in the crisis. Moscow, however, denies the allegations.
Relations between Moscow and Kiev further deteriorated when the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea rejoined Russia following a referendum in 2014. More than 90 percent of the participants in the referendum voted in favor of that unification.
Later in 2015, the two sides signed a ceasefire deal in the Belarus capital Minsk with French and German support, but both parties have on numerous occasions accused each other of violating the ceasefire.
‘US suspends visa services at consulate in Russia’
In another development on Thursday, the US ambassador to Russia announced that his country was suspending its visa and citizen services at the US consulate in the far eastern city of Vladivostok in Russia and would make the services available only at its embassy in the capital, Moscow, following a safety and security review of its operations.
Ambassador John Sullivan said the US consulate in Vladivostok would remain open but would no longer issue visas or offer services to US citizens as of Thursday, meaning all visa applications from Russia will be processed by the embassy in Moscow.
The move comes after the United States halted work at two consulates in Russia last year, citing safety and security issues at the facilities where operations had been curtailed over COVID-19.
Last month, Russia recalled its ambassador to the United States back to Moscow for consultation on the future of US-Russia ties.
Over the past years, relations between the US and Russia have turned sour over a number of contentious issues, including Syria, Ukraine, allegations of Russian interference in US presidential elections, and the case of Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
Washington is set to impose fresh sanctions against Moscow after US President Joe Biden said his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin would “pay a price” for allegedly directing efforts to meddle in the November 2020 US presidential election.
Biden recently authorized the release of a 15-page declassified report that accuses Putin of having likely directed efforts to try to manipulate the 2020 presidential election to benefit the then-incumbent president and Republican candidate Donald Trump.
The Russian Embassy in the US described the report as “another set of baseless accusations against our country for interfering in American domestic political processes.”
Similar allegations had been brought forth about Russia in 2016.
Nord Stream warns of security risks to pipeline
Meanwhile, the consortium behind the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – led by Russian gas giant Gazprom – warned on Thursday about security risks to the project from warships and planes as the link is nearing completion.
Andrey Minin, a senior official at the Nord Stream 2 AG consortium, told the Interfax news agency that the project’s fleet has been the target of “regular provocations by the foreign civil and military vessels.”
Minin said an unidentified submarine had emerged near the pipe-laying vessel Fortuna on March 28 less than a mile away.
Citing several incidents with other vessels, he also said that the number of cases of low-flying “foreign planes” over the Nord Stream 2’s vessels had increased in the second half of March.
In an emailed comment to Reuters, Nord Stream 2 AG said it could confirm Minin’s statement, which “underlines the necessity to abide by the requirements of marine security.”
According to Nord Stream 2 AG, the pipeline is 95% complete and around 121 kilometer is left to be built.
Russia restarted construction of the politically-delicate pipeline to Germany in December after the construction work on the $11.6 billion pipeline, which will bypass Poland and Ukraine, was put on a halt for a year over Washington’s threat of sanctions.
The pipeline, which the US claims compromises European energy security, has turned into a flashpoint in relations between Moscow and the West that have seriously declined to post-Cold War lows with the Kremlin dismissing the US sanctions as “unfair competition.”