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Kremlin blasts U.S. for deploying troops to NATO’s eastern flank, even as Russia continues buildup around Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier walks through a trench at the front line in eastern Ukraine on Feb. 2. (Stanislav Kozliuk/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Russia assailed the United States for deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops to NATO’s eastern flank to bolster alliance defenses, even as Moscow continued a buildup of Russian forces and materiel around Ukraine that has stoked fears in Washington of a new, large-scale war in Europe.

The Kremlin said Thursday that Russia would be “absolutely justified” if it chooses to respond to the Pentagon’s deployment, announced this week, of an additional 3,000 U.S. troops to Poland, Romania and Germany.

“We keep asking our U.S. counterparts to stop escalating tensions on the European continent,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Regretfully, the Americans are continuing to do so.”

Hours later, the Biden administration accused Moscow of hatching plans to fabricate a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine. One of the options the Russian government is considering is filming a staged attack by Ukrainian forces against Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine or on Russian territory itself, top administration officials said in briefings and media appearances Thursday.

The footage would include graphic images of a false explosion with corpses while actors depicted mourners, and the attack might be blamed on weaponry supplied to Ukraine by NATO member countries, the officials said. The disinformation effort, they said, is being planned with Russian intelligence and could give Russian President Vladimir Putin the justification he needs to initiate military operations.

“They have used [these] sorts of pretexts in the past to justify military action, and we think it will make it much more difficult to claim after the fact they had to do whatever they decided to do,” White House principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said in an interview on MSNBC.

Peskov dismissed the accusation in subsequent comments to the Russian news agency Tass. He said the United States had made similar allegations before and nothing had come of them.

The back and forth between Moscow and Washington came as the Russian government ordered the closure of German state-funded broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s office in Moscow. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday it was canceling the accreditation of Deutsche Welle’s staff there.

A day earlier, Germany’s media regulator banned the German-language channel of the Russian state television network RT, arguing that the channel lacked a license that was “legitimate” under European law. Russia said it also plans to bar German government officials responsible for the RT ban. Peskov said the German move infringed on “freedom of speech.”

Soldiers are on high alert at Ukraine’s northeastern border, near Kharkiv, amid a build-up of Russian troops on the other side. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post, Photo: Serhiy Morgunov/The Washington Post)

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Thursday, making him the latest NATO leader to show up in support of Ukraine.

The two leaders signed several trade and technology agreements, and Erdogan repeated his offer to host peace talks in Turkey.

“We continue to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including in Crimea,” Erdogan said after the signing.

Erdogan’s backing for Kyiv is complicated by his complex, hot-and-cold relationship with Moscow. Turkey and Russia have been at odds over hot spots in the Middle East and Central Asia. But Erdogan also tempered his criticism of Russia after it invaded Georgia in 2008, and he refused to join Western sanctions of Moscow after it annexed Crimea six years later.

Putin, who is angry about Turkey’s sale of unmanned aircraft to Ukraine, rebuffed Erdogan’s offer to broker talks. But the Kremlin did announce Thursday that Putin would pay a visit to Turkey, perhaps by the end of the month.

Ukraine is open to talks in a third-party country, said Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.

“Ukraine stands ready for negotiations in Istanbul, as well as in Geneva, Vienna or any other place that is impartial and doesn’t depend on one of the sides, namely Russia,” Reznikov said Thursday, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

The international diplomacy has failed to stop a continued buildup of Russian military activities around Ukraine. Putin has accused the United States and its European allies of ignoring his key demands to bar Ukraine from joining NATO, rule out putting offensive strike weapons on Russia’s borders and roll back the NATO’s weaponry and force posture to its 1997 boundaries.

The Biden administration briefed lawmakers Thursday on Capitol Hill about the threat to Ukraine posed by Russian forces. Some senators expressed dismay that the United States is not imposing sanctions on Russia already, ahead of any potential invasion, because of the current destabilization. The White House has said it is preparing devastating sanctions against Moscow that will go into effect if Russia launches an attack on Ukraine.

Senators came out of the meeting saying that there was still no firm indication from intelligence briefers about whether Putin will press ahead with an invasion. “There’s only one person who really, truly knows whether they’re going to invade another country, probably throw Europe into the biggest national security crisis since World War II. And that’s Vladimir Putin,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).

Meanwhile, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the Belarusian city of Brest on the border with Poland to observe the initial phase of joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus.

The Russian military has been moving thousands of troops, in addition to missiles, air defense batteries and aircraft, into Belarus in recent weeks in advance of the drills. The second stage of the exercises is slated to take place from Feb. 10 to 20. The United States views the deployment as creating a potential front on Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus in a Russian invasion plan.

At a diplomatic ceremony in Minsk, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko blamed Western countries for the rising tensions in the region, which he said were reminiscent of the lead-up to World War II.

“The situation today strongly resembles the situation in the late 1930s, early 1940s,” Lukashenko said. “It is dangerous due to its unpredictability and could flare up at any moment.”

Lukashenko said Belarus has been “forced to strengthen our border with Ukraine,” asserting that Kyiv was threatening his country and echoing Moscow’s claims that the West is using Ukraine to threaten Russia.

European leaders continued efforts to avert a full-scale war. French President Emmanuel Macron indicated he may visit Moscow soon, after speaking to Putin by telephone for the second time in less than a week.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has been accused of not doing enough to respond to Russian aggression, is due to arrive in Washington in the coming days and said Wednesday that he will travel “soon” to visit Putin in Moscow, without setting a date. Some Ukrainian activists criticized the decision to visit Russia ahead of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s muscular approach to the Ukraine crisis — viewed by his backers as a sign of the newly assertive, unshackled “Global Britain” post-Brexit — continued to attract the ire of the Kremlin, with a Russian official describing British diplomacy as “absolutely worthless.”

Hendrix reported from Kyiv and Pannett from Sydney. Mike DeBonis in Washington, Robyn Dixon in Moscow, Alex Horton in Chernihiv, Ukraine, and Loveday Morris in Sassnitz, Germany, contributed to this report.