KYIV - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that Russia could launch a new attack on Ukraine at "very short notice" as he met the country's president on the first leg of a new diplomatic push to avert war.
Russia said tension around Ukraine was increasing and it was still waiting for a written U.S. response to its sweeping demands for security guarantees from the West.
The pessimistic statements highlighted the gulf between Washington and Moscow as Blinken gears up for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday that a Russian foreign policy analyst called "probably the last stop before the train wreck".
Blinken told diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv that a Russian build-up of tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border was taking place with "no provocation, no reason."
"We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine," Blinken said.
Russia has also moved troops to Belarus for what it calls joint military exercises, giving it the option of attacking neighbouring Ukraine from the north, east and south.
But it continues to deny any such intention. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Western weapons deliveries to Ukraine, military manoeuvres and NATO aircraft flights were to blame for rising tension around Ukraine.
"HOPES ARE DIM"
The United States says Russia is threatening its post-Soviet neighbour and may be poised for a new invasion, eight years after it seized Crimea from Ukraine and backed separatist forces who took control of large parts of the east of the country.
Russia says it feels menaced by Kyiv's growing ties with the West and wants to impose "red lines" to prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO and to get the alliance to pull back troops and weapons from eastern Europe. Washington says these demands are "non-starters".
Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who is now a foreign policy analyst, said Moscow would not be appeased by a U.S. and NATO offer of arms control talks and was pursuing a much more sweeping rearrangement of the European security order.
"The Lavrov-Blinken meet is probably the last stop before the train wreck. But hopes are dim, the positions are incompatible," he said.
Describing Russia's military deployment in Belarus as a "huge escalation", Frolov gave a dire assessment of the crisis.
"I think barring a U.S. surrender and their delivering Ukraine to Russia, some kind of a military option is all but inevitable now."
The geopolitical tensions have started to be felt in Moscow, where the rouble edged upwards on Wednesday after hitting a nearly two-week low against the U.S. dollar and Russian stocks made a slight recovery after several sessions of sharp losses. Ukrainian sovereign dollar bonds are in distress territory.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Blinken in Kyiv: "I would like to thank you personally and President Biden and the U.S. administration for military support for Ukraine, for increasing this assistance."
President Joe Biden's administration last month approved the provision of an additional $200 million 9 in defensive security assistance to Ukraine and gave more such aid last year than at any point since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
On Monday, Britain said it had begun supplying Ukraine with anti-tank weapons to help it defend itself.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called on the West on Wednesday to stop supplying Ukraine with weapons and described the situation around European security as "critical", the Interfax news agency reported.
Russia held three rounds of talks last week with the United States, NATO and the 57-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) but the discussions produced no breakthrough.
Lithuania's defence minister said the arrival of Russian troops in Belarus posed a direct threat to the Baltic country.
Arvydas Anusauskas wrote on Facebook: "In the current situation, we consider the entry of Russian military forces into Belarus not only as a destabilising factor of the security situation, but also as an even greater direct threat to Lithuania."
r (Additional reporting by Matthias Williams in Kyiv, Tom Balmforth and Dmitry Antonov in Moscow; Writing by Mark Trevelyan, Editing by Timothy Heritage) ((firstname.lastname@example.org;))