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White House alarmism over Russia strains Ukraine-US partnership

The diverging viewpoints brought into the open the stark
disagreement between Ukraine and its key partner over how to assess the threat
posed by Russia, which has massed about 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s border in
what US officials are calling a grave threat to global peace and stability.

The tensions, which have simmered in the background for
weeks, have surfaced at a particularly delicate moment, as President Vladimir
Putin of Russia reviews the US response to his demands for addressing Russian
security concerns in Eastern Europe.

“They keep supporting this theme, this topic,’’ President
Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said of the repeated warnings by US officials.
“And they make it as acute and burning as possible. In my opinion, this is a
mistake.”

Zelenskyy voiced his displeasure just hours before top US
military officials issued another dire appraisal of Ukraine’s predicament,
saying that Russia has deployed sufficient troops and military hardware to
invade all of Ukraine, far beyond a limited incursion into only the border
regions.

“I think you’d have to go back quite a while to the Cold War
days to see something of this magnitude,” Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference at the Pentagon.

Prospects for a negotiated end to the crisis remained
uncertain at best Friday. After a videoconference between Putin and President
Emmanuel Macron of France, the Kremlin said in a statement that “the principal
concerns of Russia went unaddressed’’ in the US response, even as Macron advocated
a conciliatory approach to achieve a diplomatic solution.

Moscow has threatened a “military-technical response” should
its concerns not be met.

Behind the scenes, the US is planning to impose severe
sanctions on some of the largest state banks and financial institutions in
Russia — penalties that the United States says would far exceed previous
Western sanctions.

As they have done throughout the crisis, Russian officials
sent mixed messages about the state of negotiations with the West. Russia’s
foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said in a radio interview that Washington’s
written response this week contained “a kernel of rationality” on some matters.

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Those include missile deployments and military exercises in
Eastern Europe, although Lavrov also said that neither the United States nor
NATO was seriously addressing the most pressing Kremlin concerns. Russia has
demanded that the West scale back its military presence in Eastern Europe to
early post-Cold War levels and guarantee that Ukraine never join NATO.

A glimmer of hope came in the form of European-led
negotiations this week along a separate diplomatic track, known as the Normandy
Format, a grouping that includes France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. Its
meetings centre on the cease-fire agreement that the countries brokered in
eastern Ukraine in 2015 but also offer a path to a broader settlement.

After Putin and Macron spoke Friday, a senior official in
the French presidency said the two leaders had agreed that their countries
should pursue talks through that group. The countries will continue discussions
in two weeks in Berlin.

Macron and Putin agreed on the need for continued dialogue
and “de-escalation,” and Putin said he had “no offensive plans” in eastern
Ukraine, according to the French presidency.

As the West awaited Putin’s next step, Ukrainian officials
expressed increasing annoyance with the Biden administration as they stepped up
their calls for calm.

Speaking just a day after a phone call with President Joe
Biden, Mr Zelenskyy said that while he, too, saw grave risk in the Russian
buildup, the US policy of publicising intelligence and risk assessments around
the Russian threat was unnerving Ukrainians and harming the economy at a time
when he said he would like to see “quiet military preparation and quiet
diplomacy.”

“There is military support, financial support, we are
grateful for the support,” Zelenskyy said at a news conference for foreign
media, according to a Ukrainian government translation. “But I cannot be like
other politicians who are grateful to the United States just for being the
United States.”

His complaints were echoed by his top security official,
Oleksii Danilov, who said that “panic is the sister of failure.”

“That’s why we are saying to our partners, ‘Don’t shout so
much,’” he said. “Do you see a threat? Give us 10 jets every day. Not one, 10.
And the threat will disappear.”

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It is not clear what the long-term ramifications of the rift
might be. It is unlikely that Zelenksyy’s statements would have any effect on
arms shipments or diplomacy as the West tries to deter Putin from military
action. But further divergence between the two countries could induce Ukraine
to pursue a separate path to a settlement, one that it has been exploring in
the European-led talks underway now. It could also sow distrust that Putin
could try to exploit.

Last fall, it was the United States that first raised the
alarm about the growing Russian troop presence on the border with Ukraine, and
since then Zelenskyy’s government has often appeared reluctant to fully embrace
the Biden administration’s sense of urgency.

On Thursday, the Pentagon, which has ordered 8,500 US troops
to be on “high alert” for deployment to Eastern Europe, said that Russia had
continued to build up “credible combat forces” over the last 24 hours.

The United States’ new, more ominous assessment of Russia’s
readiness for a full-scale invasion followed Friday.

Officials and analysts see a variety of reasons for the
disconnect between Ukrainian and US approaches to publicising the threat. For
eight years, Ukraine has been engaged in a war that ebbs and flows with
Russian-backed separatists in two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine.
Periods of intense fighting and escalation have followed long stretches of
calm. Ukrainians, officials say, view the Russian threat as part of their daily
existence.

Zelenskyy is also primarily concerned about the effects on
the economy and domestic stability, but there are other dangers, said Maria
Zolkina, a political analyst with the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a
Kyiv-based research group.

“The more serious the expectation when it comes to
aggression, the more Ukraine could be pressured into making a range of
concessions to Russia in order to lower the tensions,” she said.

Another divergence between Ukraine and its Western allies,
Zolkina said, could be the weight they give to certain types of intelligence.
The US and British intelligence services might have superior access to
information about troop movements and even classified decision making within
the Kremlin, she said, but the Ukrainians look at that intelligence with a
deeper understanding of the context.

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In his remarks, Zelenskyy echoed this sentiment.

“If you look only at the satellites you will see the
increase in troops, and you can’t assess whether this is just a threat of
attack or just a simple rotation,” he said. “Our professional people look deep
into it.”

Ukrainian officials have also been sharply critical of the
decision by the United States, Britain and others to withdraw nonessential
staff from embassies in Kyiv, calling it premature. Zelenskyy noted that Greece
had not even removed diplomats from a consulate near the front lines in the
east, “where you can hear the cannons firing.”

Diplomats, he added, “are the last who should be leaving the
ship, and I don’t think we have a Titanic here.”

The rift was exacerbated just over a week ago when Biden
suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russian forces into Ukraine, rather than
a full-fledged invasion, might not elicit the same forceful response the White
House has been promising.

Zelenskyy responded on Twitter: “We want to remind the great
powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations,” he wrote. His
posting angered the White House and Ukraine’s allies on Capitol Hill. “We are
quite exasperated,” one congressional Democrat said, speaking on condition of
anonymity, suggesting the Ukrainian president had not been getting the best
advice on how to navigate Washington.

The Kremlin has taken notice of the discord, too.

“Now, the Americans have started to so blatantly and
cynically use Ukraine against Russia that even the regime in Kyiv has become
alarmed,” Lavrov said earlier Friday, commenting on the breach even before
Zelenskyy spoke. “They are saying, ‘There’s no need to ramp up the discussion,
to use military rhetoric, why are you evacuating diplomats?’”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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