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U.S., Russia clash sharply over Ukraine at U.N. meeting

Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzya said at a meeting on Jan. 31 that there was “no proof” of Russian military action against Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)
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Russia and the United States clashed head to head at the United Nations on Monday over the situation in Ukraine, as each charged the other with lying about their intentions and promoting panic and hysteria to serve their own ends.

In a blistering attack, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya said the United States was “provoking escalation” by falsely charging Moscow with preparing to invade Ukraine. “You’re waiting for it to happen, as if you want your words to become a reality,” he said in remarks directed toward U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

His remarks followed charges by Thomas-Greenfield that Russia was “attempting, without any factual basis, to paint Ukraine and Western countries as the aggressors to fabricate a pretext for attack” by positioning more than 100,000 heavily armed troops it has amassed on Ukraine’s border.

The verbal confrontation, one of the sharpest in years in an international forum, was rife with historical references dating back to the end of World War II, the accumulated grievances of the Cold War and two decades of often-tenuous peace that followed. While both sides said the way out was through diplomacy, neither indicated an intention to yield.

Nebenzya accused the West of bringing “pure Nazis” to power on Russia’s borders, and “making heroes out of those peoples who fought on the side of Hitler.” The U.S. aim, he said, is “to weaken Russia and create an arc of instability around it.”

Thomas-Greenfield reminded the council of “the pattern of aggression we’ve seen from Russia again and again,” including its 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. “What would it mean for the world if former empires had license to start reclaiming territory by force?” she asked.

Russia, which has demanded a Western commitment to exclude Ukraine from its security umbrella and the removal of NATO forces and equipment from Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, “has threatened to take military action should its demands not be met,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “If Russia further invades Ukraine, none of us will be able to say we didn’t see it coming. And the consequences will be horrific, which is why this meeting is so important today.”

Nebenzya, denying any planned invasion, said Russia was within its rights to station troops anywhere within its own territory. “Not a single Russian politician, not a single public figure, not a single person said that we are planning to attack Ukraine,” he said.

With the support of only China, the Russians forced a vote at the beginning of the U.S.-called meeting on whether to hold the session behind closed doors. “What we urgently need now is quiet diplomacy, but not microphone diplomacy,” Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun said.

But the majority of the 15-member council voted to proceed with the public session, which President Biden, in a statement issued by the White House, called “a critical step in rallying the world to speak out in one voice.”

U.S. and allies debate the intelligence on how quickly Putin will order an invasion of Ukraine

Beyond the Security Council, a U.S. official said the Russian government has delivered a written response to the U.S. proposal aimed at de-escalating the Ukraine crisis sent to Moscow last week.

“We can confirm we received a written follow-up from Russia,” the official said, speaking on the condition on anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy. “It would be unproductive to negotiate in public, so we’ll leave it up to Russia if they want to discuss their response. We remain fully committed to dialogue to address these issues and will continue to consult closely with our allies and partners, including Ukraine.”

The United States offered proposals on arms control and limiting military exercises in Eastern Europe, officials said, but offered no concession on NATO’s “open-door” policy, which Moscow wants shut for Ukraine.

In a statement after receiving the U.S. document last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed it as nonresponsive to Moscow’s main demand. “The main question is our clear message that we consider further NATO expansion to the East and weapons deployment, which can threaten the Russian Federation, unacceptable.”

World leaders continued applying diplomatic pressure on Russia across several fronts in an effort to head off what they have said is an invasion that is possibly only days or weeks away.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he planned to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an expected call that “Russia needs to step back from the brink.” In a statement to Parliament, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the government was preparing to introduce sanctions that “will go further than ever before” in targeting Russian figures and freezing their assets, including what officials said could be seizure of property owned by Russian oligarchs in London.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin spoke for the second time since Friday to discuss the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s demands for security guarantees, and they agreed to consider an in-person meeting, according to the Kremlin. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov will speak again, a senior State Department official said, after earlier efforts by the top diplomats to reach a resolution were unsuccessful.

In Moscow, Russia’s military announced that about 9,000 troops from southern and western military bases were returning to barracks after military exercises, but it was unclear whether those moves presaged a de-escalation. The Russian navy also announced that 20 warships and other naval vessels from its Black Sea fleet had returned to port after live firing exercises.

Military commanders in Belarus announced last week that Russian forces would leave that country after a massive joint military exercise with Russian and Belarusian forces in February. Thomas-Greenfield said at the council meeting that “we’ve seen evidence” Russia intends to expand its troop presence in Belarus to “more than 30,000.”

The State Department on Monday ordered family members of U.S. government employees in Belarus to leave the country because of the “unusual and concerning" buildup of Russian military activity near the border with Ukraine. The United States had previously pulled some government staff from Ukraine. “U.S. citizens located in or considering travel to Belarus should be aware that the situation is unpredictable and there is heightened tension in the region,” the department said in a statement.

Speaking during a Washington Post Live event on Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia’s upcoming military exercises in Belarus were grounds for additional concern. “Russia has used military exercises before as a disguise, as a cover,” Stoltenburg said.

Citing “military buildup, exercises, threatening rhetoric and a track record” of Russian military action against Ukraine, he said that “all of that together, of course, make this a serious threat.”

Moscow, which has long taken issue with NATO granting membership to countries in the former Soviet sphere, is reviewing U.S. and NATO counterproposals on security. The documents were transmitted last week in answer to Russia’s earlier demands that NATO roll back its forces and promise that Ukraine would never join the alliance, whose members vow to come to one another’s aid in the event of an attack.

On Monday, Stoltenberg drew a distinction between a “legally binding treaty excluding any enlargement of NATO, because that goes far beyond Ukraine,” and “discussing when Ukraine can be a member of NATO.” That process, should it be initiated, would likely take years, if ever, before Ukraine could meet alliance conditions for membership.

Separately, Ukraine’s interior ministry claimed Monday it had detained two people who planned to organize violent protests in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. The ministry said the plan involved “pseudo-activists” provoking violence with police and security officials “in order to undermine and destabilize the situation in Ukraine.” Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky said the group planned to stage injuries, using “fake blood.”

U.S. officials warned earlier in January that Moscow was increasing its use of state media to “fabricate Ukrainian provocations” that the Russians could use as a pretext for military intervention.

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)

Ukraine’s Zelensky’s message is don’t panic. That’s making the West antsy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior officials in Kyiv have played down the threat of an invasion and warned that panic could harm Ukraine’s economy.

The U.N. Security Council session was seen by Washington as a forum to pressure Moscow without submitting to a vote any substantive action that would be subject to a Russian veto. The timing of the meeting appeared related at least in part to Russia’s ascension to the council’s month-long rotating presidency from Norway, which will take place Tuesday, giving it more agenda-setting powers.

Asked after the meeting if she sensed any diplomatic breakthrough, Thomas-Greenfield told reporters that “Russia heard clearly a united position from the vast majority of the council.” But several countries present, including Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Kenya, avoided harsh condemnation of the Russians, offering measured remarks calling for de-escalation and the pursuit of a peaceful solution.

Four maps that explain the Russia-Ukraine conflict

In Washington, key U.S. lawmakers say they could soon have a deal on actions meant to deter Russia from invading Ukraine and severely punish Moscow if it does — punitive measures that have found support on both sides of the political aisle.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed optimism Sunday during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” that some sanctions could be approved before any Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the committee’s top Republican, said the two parties hit a sticking point over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany when it is activated and is one of the more controversial targets of possible sanctions. But he indicated that the differences were surmountable.

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

Karoun Demirjian, Missy Ryan and Ashley Parker in Washington, William Booth in London and Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.

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