British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the Ukraine crisis could be the "most dangerous moment" for Europe in many years.
Johnson made the comment Thursday in Moscow as the top diplomats from Britain and Russia held talks about the tension along the Russia-Ukraine border.
Russian forces held military exercises north of Ukraine in Belarus and the Black Sea. The exercises are part of Russia’s deployment of over 100,000 troops that has made the West fear an invasion.
Ukraine also held military exercises at the same time. But leaders on all sides say they hoped diplomacy can still succeed.
In the latest round of diplomacy, Britain's foreign minister debated publicly with Russia's top diplomat at talks in Moscow. Johnson also visited NATO headquarters in Brussels. And officials from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France were set to meet in Berlin to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Russia says it has no plans to invade but wants the West to keep Ukraine out of the NATO alliance. It also wants NATO to stop sending weapons there and remove NATO forces from Eastern Europe. The U.S. and NATO reject the demands.
"I honestly don't think a decision has yet been taken" by Moscow on whether to attack, Johnson said in a news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. "But that doesn't mean that it is impossible that something absolutely disastrous could happen very soon…."
A conversation between ‘deaf and dumb’
Talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss appear to have gone poorly.
Truss restated a call for Russia to pull back its troops. Lavrov rejected the demand and pointed to British and NATO military buildups in Eastern Europe. He rejected the show of concern by the West about the Russian troop buildup as “propaganda.”
Afterwards, Lavrov described the meeting as a “conversation between deaf and dumb.” He said Western politicians were using tensions over Ukraine for political gain at home. Russia has always planned to move back the troops, Lavrov said. And once it does, “the West will … claim that it has forced Russia to de-escalate."
Russia’s buildup includes sending troops to its ally Belarus for joint exercises. The Ukrainian capital is about 75 kilometers south of the border with Belarus.
Ukraine on Thursday also criticized Russian naval exercises in the Black and Azov seas, saying they have interfered with private shipping. Russian answered that the exercises do not violate international law.
As the West warns of an invasion, Ukrainian officials have tried to project calm. There are concerns that fear over war will further damage the country’s weak economy.
“We believe that the concentration of troops near the border is part of psychological pressure from our neighbor,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
Russia and Ukraine have been in a conflict since 2014. At that time a popular uprising ousted Ukraine’s Russia-friendly leader from office. Moscow responded by annexing Crimea and then backing rebel militants in eastern Ukraine. The fighting has killed over 14,000 people.
A 2015 peace deal with help from France and Germany helped end much of the fighting. But smaller disputes have continued, and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have slowed.
Foreign policy advisers from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine are holding more talks Thursday in Berlin. They are trying to reach a common interpretation of the 2015 agreement and plan further steps.
The talks are part of new diplomatic efforts to resolve the biggest security crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met Lavrov in Geneva, while French President Emmanuel Macron met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow before heading to Kyiv this week.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz plans to visit to Kyiv and Moscow early next week. He met Monday with American President Joe Biden. Biden promised that the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline would be blocked in the event of an invasion.
I’m Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this for VOA Learning English from reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
absolutely— adv. completely or totally
escalate — v. to become worse or to make worse or more severe
psychological — adj. of or relating to the mind
annex –v. to take control of a territory or place
interpret — v. to explain the meaning of