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Thu. 8:33 a.m.: US response on Ukraine offers little optimism, Russia says

In this photo taken from video and released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Wednesday, the Russian navy's frigate Admiral Essen prepares to sail off for an exercise in the Black Sea. Russia has launched a series of drills amid the tensions over Ukraine and deployed an estimated 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian territory that fueled Western fears of an invasion. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

MOSCOW (AP) — The U.S. rejection of Russia’s main demands to resolve the crisis over Ukraine left little ground for optimism, the Kremlin said today, while adding that dialogue was still possible.

Tensions have soared in recent weeks, as the United States and its NATO allies expressed concern that a buildup of about 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine signaled that Moscow planned to invade its ex-Soviet neighbor. Russia denies having any such designs — and has laid out a series of demands it says will improve security in Europe.

But as expected, the U.S. and the Western alliance firmly rejected any concessions on Moscow’s main points Wednesday, refusing to permanently ban Ukraine from joining NATO and saying allied deployments of troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe are nonnegotiable. The U.S. did outline areas in which some of Russia’s concerns might be addressed, possibly offering a path to de-escalation.

“There is no change, there will be no change,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, repeating the warning that any Russian incursion into Ukraine would be met with massive consequences and severe economic costs.

All eyes are now on President Vladimir Putin, who will decide how Russia will respond amid fears that Europe could again be plunged into war.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the response from the U.S. — and a similar one from NATO — left “little ground for optimism.”

At the same time, he added that “there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue, it’s in the interests of both us and the Americans.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that the U.S. response contained some elements that could lead to “the start of a serious talk on secondary issues” but emphasized that “the document contains no positive response on the main issue.” Those are the Russian demands for the non-expansion of NATO and the non-deployment of weapons that may threaten Russia.

Lavrov told reporters that top officials will now submit their proposals to Putin, who has the American response, and Peskov said the Russian reaction would come soon.

The evasive official comments reflect the fact that it’s Putin who will single-handedly determine Russia’s next moves. The Russian leader has warned that he would order unspecified “military-technical measures” if the West refuses to heed the demands.

Peskov added that Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden will decide whether they need to have another conversation following two calls last month.

While the diplomacy sputters on, so, too, do maneuvers that have escalated tensions. Russia has launched a series of military drills: Motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia practiced firing live ammunition, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea performed bombing runs, dozens of warships sailed for training exercises in the Black Sea and the Arctic, and Russian fighter jets and paratroopers arrived in Belarus for joint war games.

Meanwhile, NATO said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region, and the U.S. ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert for potential deployment to Europe.

Amid the tensions, thousands of Ukrainians expressed their resolve to stand up to the Russian pressure under the hashtag #UkrainiansWillResist on Twitter and Facebook.

“No one will force Ukrainians to accept the Kremlin ultimatum,” wrote Andrii Levus, who initiated the online campaign.

Beyond the fears of a Russian invasion in Ukraine, there also has been speculation that Moscow’s response could include military deployments to the Western Hemisphere.

While a senior Russian diplomat recently pointedly refused to rule out such deployments to Cuba and Venezuela, a top Putin associate expressed skepticism today at that prospect.

“Cuba and Venezuela are aiming to come out of isolation and restore normal relations with the U.S. to a certain extent, so there can’t be any talk about setting up a base there as happened during the Soviet times,” Dmitry Medvedev, a deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said in an interview with Russian media.

While he charged that the West is using Ukraine as a way to contain Russia, he somberly acknowledged that a Russia-NATO conflict “would be the most dramatic and simply catastrophic scenario, and I hope it will never happen.”

As concerns rise about a possible Russian invasion, another conflict still simmers in Ukraine. In 2014, following the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president in Kyiv, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels has killed over 14,000 people, and efforts to reach a settlement have stalled.

Ukrainian and Russian envoys and others sat down in Paris on Wednesday to discuss a resolution to that conflict, but Medvedev said that Moscow sees no point in talking to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — and suggested that only a change in leader would defuse tensions.

He expressed hope that the Ukrainians would eventually become “weary of that bedlam and elect the leadership that would pursue policies … aimed at normal economic relations with Russia.”

That comment follows a British claim that the Kremlin is seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration — an allegation Russia denied.

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