Russia has reacted angrily to the United States’ plan to send additional troops to Europe to protect Nato allies, despite ongoing worries of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow called it a “destructive” move that heightened tensions and narrowed the window for a political settlement.
According to the Pentagon, 2,000 US troops will be dispatched from North Carolina to Poland and Germany, with another 1,000 already stationed in Germany being dispatched to Romania.
Russia has 100,000 troops stationed near Ukraine. It denies any intention of invading.
Eight years ago, Russia grabbed Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula and backed a deadly rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area, causing tensions.
Moscow accuses Kiev of failing to follow the Minsk Pact, an international agreement aimed at restoring peace in Ukraine’s east, where Russian-backed separatists hold large swaths of land and at least 14,000 people have been dead since 2014.
Responding to US President Joe Biden’s decision to deploy extra troops to Europe this week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said it was a “destructive” and an “unjustified” step.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Grushko added that it would “delight” the Ukrainian authorities, who would continue sabotaging the Minsk agreement “with impunity”.
The Pentagon earlier said the American troops being deployed would not fight in Ukraine – but would ensure the defence of Washington’s allies.
Their deployment is in addition to the 8,500 troops the Pentagon put on alert last month to be ready to deploy to Europe if needed.
“It’s important that we send a strong signal to Mr Putin and, frankly, to the world that Nato matters to the United States and it matters to our allies,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.
But on the question of alleged invasion plans by Mr Putin, he said: “We still don’t believe he’s made a decision to further invade Ukraine.”
He also said a US proposal “leaked to a European news outlet” was genuine. He appeared to be referring to a story in Spain’s El País newspaper about a US offer of talks with Russia on cutting back on nuclear weaponry and trust-building measures in exchange for reducing tensions over Ukraine.
Meanwhile, urgent diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the situation persisted, amid worries that it could devolve into a full-fledged European war.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson about Ukraine.
Mr Johnson told Mr Putin “all European democracies have a right to aspire to Nato membership”, a Downing Street statement said. Russia opposes Ukraine joining the security alliance.
Mr Putin drew attention to Nato’s reluctance to respond appropriately to Russia’s justified concerns”, the Kremlin said in a statement (in Russian).
The Russian president earlier accused the US of trying to draw his country into a war in Ukraine. He said America’s goal was to use a confrontation as a pretext to impose more sanctions on Russia.
Separately, President Biden and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron “affirmed their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the White House said in a statement.
In a phone call, they reviewed “ongoing co-ordination on both diplomacy and preparations to impose swift and severe economic costs on Russia should it further invade Ukraine,” the statement said.