(CNSNews.com) – Reacting to U.S. criticism of a buildup of Russian forces near its border with Ukraine, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday the troops were there because it’s “our country.” Then he asked why it was that the U.S. engages in military activities in the area, “thousands of kilometers away from its territory.”
Lavrov’s comments came amid escalating tensions in and around Ukraine, as the U.S., its G7 partners, and the European Union stepped up calls for Moscow to lower the temperature, and a spokeswoman for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was ignoring his request for urgent talks.
The Kremlin says the troop movements on its soil are standard military exercises and pose no threat. But Zelensky told CNN during a visit to troops in his country’s troubled Donbass region that a Russia invasion was a very real possibility.
Since 2014 Russia has occupied Crimea, Ukraine’s strategic Black Sea peninsula, while backing separatists in two self-proclaimed republics in Donbass, where fighting between government forces and the militias has cost more than 13,000 lives.
According to Kyiv, more than 20 Ukrainian troops have been killed since the start of this year, and the troop buildup of recent weeks has further ratcheted up tensions.
U.S. Navy vessels regularly carry out exercises with NATO partners in the Black Sea, and on Friday Turkey, which supervises access to the waterway, said two more U.S. warships would be deployed to the Black Sea in the coming days.
During a visit to Egypt, Lavrov was asked whether the arrival of U.S. ships in the Black Sea would add fuel to the fire.
He acknowledged that the deployment of U.S. warships to the area was a regular occurrence, but added that “it is being done especially pointedly now and is accompanied by aggressive rhetoric.”
“Questions are being asked about what Russia is doing on the border with Ukraine,” he said, according to a foreign ministry translation. “The answer is very simple: we live here, this is our country.”
“But the question of what the United States is doing there – with its ships and troops, never ceasing to organize all kinds of NATO activities in Ukraine, thousands of kilometers away from its own territory – remains unanswered,” Lavrov added.
(The comments echo those made periodically by other regimes hostile towards the U.S. about the presence of U.S. naval forces in their neighborhoods – China with regard to the South China Sea, and Iran when it comes to the Persian Gulf.)
The Ukraine tensions are expected to feature prominently in Brussels on Tuesday, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin consult with NATO allies and partners.
Blinken said on Sunday that President Biden has made it clear that “there’ll be consequences” for any reckless or aggressive Russia behavior in Ukraine, a stance repeated on Monday by White House press secretary Jen Psaki when asked what options were being considered.
“There will be some consequences that are seen and some that are unseen,” she said. “I’m not going to give you a menu of the options. When we’re ready to announce them, we will announce them and share the details with all of you.”
While previewing Blinken’s Brussels trip, acting Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker said the administration continues to be concerned about Russia’s actions.
“There are very clear and credible reports of Russian troop movements,” he said. “We can see this in Crimea and around Ukraine’s borders, and attacks by Russia-led forces at the line of contact in eastern Ukraine.”
Asked specifically what the U.S. was “prepared to do if Russia goes ahead with a fresh offensive,” Reeker reiterated the administration’s position that “if Russia acts recklessly or aggressively, there will be costs,” without elaborating.