MOSCOW — Russia upped the ante on Thursday in its dispute with the West over Ukraine and NATO expansion when a senior diplomat refused to rule out a military deployment to Cuba and Venezuela if tensions with the United States were getting worse.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said he could ‘neither confirm nor rule out’ the possibility of Russia sending military assets to Latin America if the United States and its allies do not restrict their military activities at the gates of Russia.
“It all depends on the action of our American counterparts,” the minister said in an interview with Russian television channel RTVI, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning that Moscow could take “military-technical measures” not specified if the United States and its allies failed to heed its demands.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan dismissed statements about a possible Russian deployment in Cuba and Venezuela as “bluster in public commentary”.
Ryabkov led a Russian delegation in talks with the United States on Monday. The negotiations in Geneva and a related NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels came in response to a large Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion.
Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, has denied plans to attack the neighboring country. The Kremlin reacted to the suggestion by accusing NATO of threatening its territory and demanding that the military alliance never welcome Ukraine or any other ex-Soviet nation as new members.
Washington and its allies firmly rejected the request this week as a non-starter, but the NATO and Russian delegations agreed to leave the door open for further talks on arms control and other issues designed to reduce the potential for hostilities.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Sullivan said “Allied unity and transatlantic solidarity were and remain on full display” during this week’s talks with Russia, which he described as “frank and direct”.
“We have remained true to our fundamental principle of reciprocity,” the national security adviser said. “We were firm in our principles and clear about where we can improve and where we are yet to get started.”
Sullivan noted that no further discussions were scheduled, but “we stand ready to pursue diplomacy to advance security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.”
“We are also prepared if Russia chooses a different path,” he added. “We continue to coordinate intensively with our partners on tough economic measures in response to a new Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Asked if Ryabkov is keeping the door open to the troop and equipment base in Latin America, Sullivan replied, “I’m not going to respond to the bluster in public comments.”
He noted that the issue had not come up during the talks this week and added that “if Russia were to move in this direction, we would deal with it decisively.”
Last month, Ryabkov compared current tensions over Ukraine with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – when the Soviet Union deployed missiles in Cuba and the United States imposed a naval blockade of the island.
This crisis ended after US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed that Moscow would withdraw its missiles in return for Washington’s commitment not to invade Cuba and the withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey.
Putin, in seeking to reduce Western military activity in Eastern Europe, argued that NATO could use Ukrainian territory to deploy missiles capable of reaching Moscow in just five minutes. He warned that Russia could acquire a similar capability by deploying warships armed with the latest Zircon hypersonic cruise missile in neutral waters.
Shortly after his first election in 2000, Putin ordered the closure of a Soviet-built military surveillance facility in Cuba as he sought to improve ties with Washington. Moscow has stepped up its contacts with Cuba in recent years as tensions with the United States and its allies have risen.
In December 2018, Russia briefly sent a pair of its nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela to show support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro under Western pressure.
Ryabkov said the refusal of the United States and its allies to heed the main Russian demand for guarantees against the expansion of the alliance in Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries makes it difficult to discuss the measures of strengthening of confidence that Washington says it is ready to negotiate.
“The United States wants to conduct a dialogue on certain elements of the security situation (…) to ease tensions and then continue the process of geopolitical and military development of the new territories, by getting closer to Moscow,” he said. said. “We have nowhere to retreat.”
Ryabkov described US and NATO military deployments and exercises near Russian territory as extremely destabilizing. He said US nuclear-capable strategic bombers were flying just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Russian border.
“We are constantly faced with provocative military pressure designed to test our strength,” he said, adding that he wondered how the Americans would react “if our bombers were flying within 15 kilometers of certain American bases on the East Coast or West Coast”.
The high-stakes diplomacy has taken place as around 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and other heavy weaponry are massed near Ukraine’s eastern border. On Thursday, Sullivan reiterated his concerns that Moscow could lay the groundwork for an invasion of Ukraine by fabricating claims that Kiev is preparing to act against Russia.
He said the United States would release some of the reasons for this assessment in the coming days.
Earlier Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rebuffed calls from the West for a troop withdrawal from areas near Ukraine.
“It is hardly possible for NATO to dictate to us where we should move our armed forces on Russian territory,” he said.
Peskov said the talks this week had produced “positive elements and nuances”, but he called them failures overall.
“The talks were launched to receive specific answers to the main concrete issues that were raised, and disagreements remained on these main issues, which is bad,” Peskov said on a conference call with reporters.
He warned of a complete severance of US-Russian relations if proposed sanctions targeting Putin and other top civilian and military leaders are passed. The measures, proposed by Senate Democrats, would also target major Russian financial institutions if Moscow sends troops to Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also slammed the proposed sanctions as a reflection of US “arrogance”, adding that Moscow is waiting for a written response to its demands from the US and NATO later. next week in order to consider further measures.
Tensions around Ukraine and Russia’s demands on the West once again came to the table at a Thursday meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Vienna.
Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, who assumed the post of Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE, noted in his opening speech that “the risk of war in the OSCE area is now greater than never in the last 30 years”.
Russia seized the Crimean peninsula after the ousting of the pro-Moscow Ukrainian leader and in 2014 also backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces.
When asked if he was worried about a possible confrontation, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “it is absolutely essential that the ongoing dialogue find a way to allow a de-escalation of the tension (…) to avoid any type of confrontation which will be a disaster for Europe and for the world.
Lee reported from Washington. Emily Schultheis in Vienna, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.