The Pentagon is flatly rejecting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s claim that American military contractors are smuggling chemicals into eastern Ukraine to incite a “provocation.”
Shoigu’s comments came during a meeting in Moscow on Tuesday with the country’s top military officials and President Vladimir Putin, who issued new threats against NATO if the alliance continues with unspecified “aggressive steps.”
The suggestion that U.S. contractors were smuggling “tanks with unidentified chemical components” into Ukraine’s Donetsk region was met with a swift response from the Pentagon, where spokesperson John Kirby said “those statements by Minister Shoigu are completely false.”
The rhetoric coming out of Moscow has been increasingly aggressive, and it appears meant to portray a sense of helplessness in Russia in the face of NATO expansion. In recent months, Russia has massed about 100,000 troops, along with advanced artillery, logistics and support elements that could support a major thrust over the border into Ukraine.
“What the U.S. is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep,” Putin said, “and they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly? If the aggressive line of our Western colleagues continues, we will take adequate military-technical response measures and react harshly to unfriendly steps.”
Putin’s tough talk builds on Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s comments this month that Moscow might consider deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. The minister cited vague indications that the U.S. was considering doing the same in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019.
The treaty banned missiles with ranges between 310 miles to 3,417 miles.
Russia has viewed November’s re-activation of the U.S. Army’s 56th Artillery Command in Germany as an indication the U.S. would again base intermediate-range weapons in Europe. The command, which operated from 1986 to 1991, was inactivated as a result of the INF Treaty, which banned the missiles.
With new Russian military units continuing to deploy along Ukraine’s northeastern and southern borders, the rhetoric coming out of Moscow has created pressure in Washington to backstop Ukraine with more military aid.
The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign in the coming days, provides $300 million in military assistance for Ukraine with at least $75 million of that earmarked for lethal assistance.
The Obama administration refused to send any lethal assistance after Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, a policy reversed by the Trump team, which sent Javelin anti-armor missiles. The Biden administration has also supplied Javelins, along with small arms ammunition and several Coast Guard patrol vessels.
A bill introduced this month by a group of Republican senators led by Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, calls for Washington to increase military assistance to $450 million annually and start shipping anti-armor, anti-ship and anti-air weapons to Ukraine.
A team from the Pentagon recently returned from a trip to Ukraine to assess the country’s air, sea and cyber defense needs. New air and missile defense systems have long been at the top of Ukraine’s wish list, but Washington and European allies have been reluctant to send the advanced weapons to the country.
A top U.S. diplomat suggested Tuesday that a fresh round of bilateral talks could take place between the U.S. and Russia as soon as next month.
Speaking by phone with reporters after wrapping up a trip to Kyiv, Moscow and NATO headquarters in Brussels, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried said U.S. diplomats are planning talks with their Russian counterparts as soon as next month.
“We will decide on a date together with Russia, and we believe that that will take place in January,” said Donfried, adding that Washington will work with its European allies before making any decisions or forging any potential agreement with Moscow.
“We are poised to move in a dramatic way if Russia does undertake further military aggression against Ukraine,” she warned, saying Washington is ready to provide defensive military equipment “above and beyond” what it has already given Kyiv.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his year-end press conference, seemed to pour cold water on the notion that Biden and Putin would meet again soon, or at least not until tensions are dialed down.
“I think we have to see if, in the first instance, there’s any progress diplomatically,” before the leaders speak again.
The Russian government published a list of demands late last week, calling for NATO to stop all troop movements and new basing agreements in Eastern Europe and remove military infrastructure built in former Soviet satellite states since 1997. Those proposals are a no-go for NATO.
The draft treaty went far beyond anything Western leaders have indicated they would agree to, including a request that NATO not ask Ukraine to join.
Blinken also rejected out of hand some of Moscow’s requests in the document. “There are some very obvious non-starters and things that the Russians have put on the table,” he said. “There may be other issues that are appropriate for discussion and conversation just as there are things that we will put on the table that Russia needs to respond to.”
The demands, and the quick rejection by European and American officials, have played into Russia’s narrative of being a victim of Western arrogance.
“What’s happening now, the tension developing in Europe, is their fault,” Putin said Tuesday. “At every step Russia was forced to somehow respond. At every step the situation grew increasingly worse.”