This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
France has added its voice to concerns expressed by the United States and the European Union over Russia’s reported military movements in the vicinity of Ukraine and warned Moscow that any aggressive actions would have “serious consequences.”
The warning came during talks which French Defense Minister Florence Parly and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held talks in Paris on November 12 with Russian counterparts Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov.
According to a French Foreign Ministry statement, Le Drian and Parly told Lavrov and Shoigu that they were worried about the deterioration of security in border regions.
The statement said the French ministers reminded the visiting Russians of Moscow’s obligations regarding “the transparency of military activities” on the border with Ukraine.
They also urged Russia to use its links with the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to bring an end to a migrant crisis on Belarus’s border with European Union members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
They accused Lukashenka of “irresponsible and unacceptable behavior” in using “migratory flows to target several countries of the European Union.”
The Kremlin has vowed to safeguard its borders in the face of actions by countries that it says are trying to “contain” Russia.
Lavrov said after the Paris talks that he had raised the issue of increased numbers of NATO forces in the Black Sea region, charging that NATO had recently been aggressive toward Russia.
Lavrov also said his delegation had told the French ministers they should start looking for ways out of a “dead end” in Russia-EU relations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier on November 12 reiterated Washington’s concern about Russia’s actions and warned Moscow against an invasion.
“We’re very concerned about some of the irregular movements of forces that we see on Ukraine’s borders,” Blinken told reporters.
“It would be a serious mistake for Russia to engage in a repeat of what it did in 2014,” Blinken said, reiterating a warning made earlier in the week during a meeting in Washington with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, when he also said the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity was “ironclad.”
On November 12, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Lieutenant General Valeriy Zaluzhny, said Russia had massed some 2,100 military personnel in the separatist-controlled areas, adding that Russian military officers hold all commanding positions in the separatist forces.
Relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated sharply since Russian military forces seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Moscow illegally annexed the territory through a hastily organized referendum that has been widely condemned as bogus.
Moscow-backed separatists continue to control wide swaths of eastern Ukraine in a seven-year conflict that followed Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Periodic buildups of Russian troops in the area have set off alarms in Kyiv and Western capitals.
More recently, there has been increased Russian involvement in the standoff between Lukashenka and the European Union, with surprise joint military drills by Russian and Belarusian paratroopers likely to further ratchet up tensions.
In Brussels, EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano told journalists that the bloc was alarmed by Russia’s military activities close to Ukraine’s border.
“We continue to watch the situation and the information we gathered so far is rather worrying,” Stano said.
He said the 27-member bloc was monitoring the situation with partners including the United States and Britain and “we are open to look at further steps as necessary.”
Brussels also accuses Minsk of “weaponizing” thousands of migrants who are camped out at Belarus’s borders with the EU.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen also discussed the situation around Ukraine with U.S. President Joe Biden during a visit to Washington this week.
Russia has insistently denied having any aggressive intentions, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying Moscow “does not pose a threat to anyone,” but it needs to ensure its security in response to alleged increasing “provocative actions” by NATO.
“We mind our own affairs and take measures to ensure our security if necessary, if there are provocative actions of our opponents near our borders,” Peskov said.
Moscow this week launched a military show of support for the embattled Lukashenka by flying Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers over Belarus in an operation that Minsk says will continue on a regular basis.
Lukashenka said this week that Minsk “must respond” if the EU takes new punitive measures and raised the possibility of cutting off transit through a pipeline that carries Russian natural gas through Belarus to Poland and farther into Europe.
But Peskov sought to reassure Russia’s gas customers on November 12 by citing a previous presidential statement saying Russia, a major supplier of gas to the region, has always met its contractual commitments to European customers.