The United States is tracking enough indicators surrounding Russian military activity near Ukraine to trigger “a lot of concern,” and Russian rhetoric appears increasingly strident, the top U.S. military officer said on December 2.
Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to speculate about the options the United States might consider in the event of a Russian invasion. But Milley stressed the importance of Ukraine’s sovereignty to Washington and to the NATO alliance.
“There’s significant national security interests of the United States and of NATO member states at stake here if there was an overt act of aggressive action militarily by the Russians into a nation state that has been independent since 1991,” Milley said during a flight from Seoul to Washington.
Milley also said it would be a mistake for any country to draw broad strategic conclusions about the U.S. response based on its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.
Milley’s comments came after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Russia to withdraw the troops it has deployed near Ukraine and seek a diplomatic solution to escalating tensions in the region.
Blinken also warned Moscow of “severe costs” in case of aggression against its neighbor.
Blinken spoke after meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on December 2 in Stockholm on the sidelines of a gathering of foreign ministers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“The United States and our allies and partners are deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine, including efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within and large-scale military operations,” Blinken told a news conference after the talks.
Blinken said he urged Lavrov during what he called a “candid” meeting to seek a diplomatic exit from the crisis, while reaffirming Washington’s “unwavering” support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity, its sovereignty, its independence.”
Blinken’s talks with Lavrov came a day after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia, where Blinken said Russia’s military operations appeared to be an effort to destabilize Ukraine from within.
Ukraine and Western officials say Russia has kept tens of thousands of troops and heavy equipment near the Ukrainian border since war games held in western Russia earlier this year.
Russia, which backs separatists fighting against Kyiv in eastern Ukraine, denies it is plotting an attack. Moscow blames Ukraine and its Western backers for fanning tensions, pointing to what it says is a similar Ukrainian military buildup.
On December 1, Russia’s Defense Ministry said more than 10,000 Russian troops started military exercises in the country’s southwest, close to the Ukrainian border.
Blinken cautioned Moscow that despite what he called “a massive Russian disinformation campaign,” Ukraine was neither threatening nor seeking a military confrontation with Russia.
“The only threat is that of renewed Russian aggression toward Ukraine,” Blinken said, adding that Moscow will face serious consequences in case Russia invades.