Relations between the U.S. and Russia, which are already tense, took another turn for the worse Wednesday after Russia said it was ordering U.S. embassy staff who have been in Moscow for more than three years to fly home by the end of January.
It said it had resorted to “retaliatory measures” after the Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said that 27 Russian diplomats and their families would have to leave the U.S. on Jan. 30, and another 27 diplomats would need to leave by June, because their visas have not been extended by the American authorities.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that Moscow regarded the departure of Russian diplomats from the U.S. as an act of expulsion and said “our American partners have forced this sort of game upon us.”
“We view the U.S. demand as an act of expulsion and intend to resort to retaliatory measures,” she said. “Members of the U.S. Embassy in Russia, who have been on their mission here for more than three years, must leave Russia before January 31, 2022,” Russian news agency TASS reported.
The news comes amid uncertainty around the details of a much-vaunted meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin as fears mount that Russia could be preparing to invade Ukraine.
The White House’s press secretary Jen Psaki stated Tuesday that she had no new details regarding a possible meeting between the two leaders, who last met in Switzerland this summer.
Psaki’s comments came after Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said Monday that preparation for a summit between Putin and Biden was at an “advanced stage” but that the discussions would most likely not take place in person, news agency TASS reported.
The Biden administration has more pressing concerns regarding Russia at the moment, with Psaki saying it remains “deeply concerned” about heightened rhetoric around a reported Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border.
There have been reports of a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s border for weeks, prompting widespread concerns that Russia is preparing to invade its neighbor, which used to be part of the Soviet Union before its dissolution in 1991.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has been accused of sending troops and weapons to support pro-Russian uprisings in two self-proclaimed republics in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, although it denies this.
Now, many close watchers of Russia believe Putin is planning on launching some kind of military action against Ukraine, given the movement of troops and rhetoric out of Moscow, but Russia denies such notions. Putin, himself, has called them “alarmist.”
Prepare for the worst
NATO is also worried, however, with the military alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warning Tuesday that NATO members should prepare for the worst when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.
“You can discuss whether the likelihood for an incursion is 20% or 80%, it doesn’t matter. We need to be prepared for the worst,” Stoltenberg told reporters after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia.
“There is no certainty, no clarity about exactly what are the Russian intentions, and they may actually evolve and change,” the NATO chief added, noting “they’ve done it before” referring to Crimea.
“We need to convey a message to Russia that they should not conduct a military incursion into Ukraine. They have done it before. They continue to support the separatists in Donbass. And we should deter, send the message, that they should not do that again. And hopefully they will not do it. But as I said, we also need to be prepared for the other scenario, that Russia actually, once again, use military force,” he said.
Stoltenberg reiterated a warning to Russia that ”any future Russian aggression against Ukraine would come at a high price and have serious political and economic consequences for Russia.” The U.S. and EU have also warned Russia against attacking Ukraine, and Russia is already under international sanctions for its annexing of Crimea.
While it aspires to membership, Ukraine is not a member of either the EU or NATO, however, and NATO is under no obligation to defend the country. As such, just how far the U.S. and EU might go to defend the country is uncertain. Stoltenberg referred to the issue on Tuesday, noting that it was “important to distinguish between NATO allies and partner Ukraine.”
Ukraine has reportedly urged NATO to prepare economic sanctions on Russia and boost military cooperation with Kyiv, with the country’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba telling reporters that “we will call on the allies to join Ukraine in putting together a deterrence package” as he arrived for ongoing talks with his NATO counterparts in Riga on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Russia’s ‘red lines’
For Russia’s part, Putin has said that NATO countries who deploy weapons or soldiers to Ukraine would cross a “red line” for Moscow, and could trigger a strong response.
Putin was asked about Russia’s “red lines” when it came to Ukraine as he spoke at VTB Capital’s investment conference on Tuesday.
He responded by saying that red lines would “probably be threats emanating from that territory [Ukraine] … if they station and deploy attack systems on Ukrainian soil the flight time to Moscow would be 5-7 minutes …. and we would have to respond with something similar, against those who are menacing us and we can do that, we’re capable.”
He said Russia was concerned about military exercises he claimed were being carried out near Russian borders, saying these posed a threat to Moscow.
“The Russian Federation is concerned to an extent over major military exercises carried out near its borders, including in the Black Sea just recently, when strategic bombers were flying just 20 kilometers away from our border, armed with precision weapons and potentially even nuclear weapons, definitely we would regard that as a threat to us,” Putin said. He then complained about the expansion of NATO and military infrastructure, missile defense systems, that are positioned in Poland and Romania.
Russia said Wednesday it had started regular winter military drills in its southern military district, parts of which border Ukraine, and that 10,000 troops had relocated to training grounds across the area, Reuters reported.
Speaking to CNBC Wednesday, Andrey Kostin, president and chairman of VTB Bank, responded to reports of the troop buildup on the Ukrainian border.
“Whatever movements we are making within the country, it’s within our territory, while, for example, we have NATO ships, including American ships, roaming the Black Sea which is only 20 or 30 kilometers away from the Russian border … We are living under conditions where a NATO missile could reach our territory in seven minutes, so we’re under a much bigger threat, we believe, than NATO countries or America,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe.”
Noting the poor state of relations between Russia and the West, Kostin said that the absence of trust was “a great threat to Russia,” although he hoped relations could improve.
“We very much believe that sooner or later the relationship will become better, we expect some announcement on the possible meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Biden so we very much expect that here will be some positive changes.”