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Russia signals little optimism on resolving crisis as the West races to shore up support for Ukraine

Russian service members gather near armored vehicles during drills held by the armed forces of the Southern Military District at the Kadamovsky range in the Rostov region on Jan. 27 (Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters)
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MOSCOW — The Kremlin signaled scant optimism about a swift end to the standoff over Ukraine on Thursday, as Russian officials reviewed U.S. and NATO counterproposals on security that dismissed Moscow’s central demands.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the government of President Vladimir Putin would respond promptly to a pair of U.S. and NATO missives, submitted this week in answer to Russia’s earlier demands to limit NATO military activity in the former Soviet sphere.

His statement opened the door to continued diplomacy even as Western nations rush military to Ukraine ahead of a possible Russian attack. Beijing expressed support for Moscow on Thursday, and President Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — the two leaders’ third conversation in recent weeks.

U.S. officials acknowledged they cannot say whether Putin will accept anything short of the grand bargain he is seeking in terms of checking NATO’s influence. Peskov, who said NATO was “loud and clear” in its rejection of Russia’s key demands, said Putin was consulting fellow Russian leaders.

In Washington, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said the ball was in Russia’s court, with the West standing united and ready for any outcome. Western officials have warned that a Russian invasion, potentially similar to its 2014 annexation of Crimea, could come at any time.

“This is a moment for diplomacy, and for cool heads to prevail. That’s what we want,” Nuland told reporters at the State Department. “However, if President Putin rejects the peaceful negotiated path that we have offered, we must and we will be prepared.”

Zelensky, in a Twitter message following the call with Biden, said the two leaders discussed possible financial support to Ukraine and “agreed on joint actions for the future.”

Biden “reaffirmed the readiness of the United States along with its allies and partners to respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.

On train to Ukraine's east, Russia looms large

Russia has repeatedly denied that its massive buildup of troops and military equipment around Ukraine, along with a wave of military exercises, is a precursor to a renewed assault.

But analysts have warned that Putin, should he spurn further dialogue, could unleash a shock-and-awe campaign to destroy Ukraine’s military and install a more friendly regime. For the Kremlin, Ukraine remains an outstanding threat to due to its Western ties and its aspirations to join the NATO alliance. In Putin’s view, Ukraine and Russia are “one people.”

U.S. and Russian officials accused each other of bringing Europe closer to war — an outcome President Biden said would have “enormous consequences worldwide.” (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

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The United States and NATO have been categorical in rejecting Russian demands, put forward in two draft treaties last month, that would halt NATO’s eastward expansion, remove NATO forces from former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries, and bar nations like Ukraine from joining the military bloc.

Officials hope the exchange of papers can forestall further military action. The written responses, coordinated with Ukraine, set “out a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday.

Blinken’s counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said the U.S. and NATO proposals contained “some positive elements,” but only on issues of secondary concern to Moscow.

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Peskov said the Western counterproposal to negotiate on intermediate and shorter-range missiles “would hardly be viable,” except as part of Russia’s demands for sweeping changes to NATO’s posture in Europe.

He said that Russia would not delay its response to the proposals but that it would be foolish to expect it the next day.

Moscow is getting important backing from Beijing, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi telling Blinken in a call this week that the security of one country “cannot come at the cost of harming another country’s security, and regional security cannot be ensured by strengthening, or even expanding, a military bloc.” The comments, reported in a Chinese readout, echoed Russian rhetoric.

U.S. and NATO officials have expressed alarm over a buildup of Russian troops in Belarus, north of Ukraine, ahead of major military exercises next month. The chief of the Belarusian armed forces’ general staff, Viktor Gulevich, said Thursday that Russian forces would leave the Moscow-aligned country once the exercise was over.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said the crisis, for Russia, was not just about Ukraine.

“It is politically about Russia heightening their voice, bringing the Americans to the table … making very strong signals about how [Putin] sees the security architecture in Europe,” he said in an interview during a visit to Washington, where he met with Biden. “And I think we in the West should not be afraid of talking about that, if we stay firm with our principles.”

U.S. officials are also working with countries and companies around the world to shore up alternative energy supplies for Europe, which relies on Russian natural gas exports, in the event Moscow responds to potential sanctions by cutting off supplies. The White House has acknowledged there are limits to any contingency measures, as the industry grapples with logistical and capacity constraints.

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The Western debate over how to restrain Russia is also complicated by differences among European countries about how directly the Kremlin should be confronted.

Germany has emerged as an object of scorn in Kyiv after saying it would supply 5,000 military helmets to help with Ukraine’s self-defense — as the United States and other NATO members send lethal weapons, including tons of arms and antitank missiles.

“The behavior of the German government leaves me speechless,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the German tabloid Bild. “What kind of support will Germany send next, pillows?”

A majority of Germans support the government’s stance, according to a YouGov survey carried out on behalf of the German news agency DPA. Ukrainian officials have also criticized Germany for so far barring Estonia from dispatching German-made howitzers to Ukraine, a move that would requires German permission.

Although officials have not detailed potential punitive measures against Moscow, a controversial target would be the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany when it is activated. Many European allies, like the United States, oppose the pipeline, which deepens Berlin’s ties to Moscow.

Here’s what you need to know about Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine

Nuland on Thursday expressed certainty that the pipeline would be abandoned in the event of a Russian invasion, an assertion that goes further than what the German government has said.

Also on Thursday, the Pentagon for the first time identified several units who have troops among the 8,500 personnel now on high alert ahead of possible deployment to Eastern Europe. They include elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and XVIII Airborne Corps of Fort Bragg, N.C., the 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 4th Infantry Division of Fort Carson, Colo.

Press secretary John Kirby said other troops have been put on a heightened alert status at Fort Hood, Tex., Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Fort Polk, La., and Davis-Monthan Force Base, Ariz. Troops from those units could provide medical, aviation and logistics, in addition to combat power.

On a Jan. 26 train ride from Kyiv to Kharkiv, in the east of the country, Ukrainians gave voice to their anxiety over a possible conflict with Russia. (Video: Whitney Shefte, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

In Ukraine, many residents are preparing for a return to the violence and unrest of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. If a diplomatic solution fails, they are hoping for solidarity from other European nations.

“If terrible things may happen, I just want the whole world to support us, and to be aware, to accept us if we ask them,” said Alena Krichko, who lives with her two children in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which is less than 30 miles from the Russian border.

Pannett reported from Sydney. Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Christian Shepherd in Taipei, Whitney Shefte in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Loveday Morris in Berlin and Dan Lamothe, Shane Harris and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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