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Russia denies looking for pretext to invade Ukraine

MOSCOW (AP) – Russia’s top diplomat angrily rejected United States (US) allegations that Moscow was preparing a pretext to invade Ukraine, as Russian troops that are amassed near the Ukraine border launched more drills on Monday.

The White House said on Friday that US intelligence officials had concluded that Russia had already deployed operatives to rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine to carry out acts of sabotage there and blame them on Ukraine in a “false-flag operation” to create a pretext for possible invasion.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the US claim as “total disinformation”.

He reaffirmed that Russia expects a written response this week from the US and its allies to Moscow’s request for binding guarantees that NATO will not embrace Ukraine or any other ex-Soviet nations, or station its forces and weapons there.

Washington and its allies firmly rejected Moscow’s demands during last week’s Russia-US negotiations in Geneva and a related NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels, which were held as an estimated 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and other heavy weapons are massed near Ukraine in what the West fears might be a prelude to an invasion.

Amid the troops build-up, Russia in recent weeks has held a series of war games in regions that border Ukraine.

Russian peacekeepers walk next to their military vehicle after leaving a Russian military plane after withdrawing its troops at an airport outside Ivanovo, Russia. PHOTO: AP

On Monday, the military announced the launch of another exercise involving armored units stationed in the western part of Russia that includes 300 combat vehicles.

A delegation of US senators is visiting Ukraine to emphasise US support for the country.

“Our bipartisan congressional delegation sends a clear message to the global community: the US stands in unwavering support of our Ukrainian partners to defend their sovereignty and in the face of persistent Russian aggression,” New Hampshire Democrat Senator Jeanne Shaheen said in a statement.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said after the delegation met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that if Russia invades Ukraine “we will impose crippling economic sanctions, but more important we will give the people of Ukraine the arms, lethal arms they need to defend their lives and livelihoods.”

Speaking on Monday on a visit to Kyiv, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that “any further escalation would carry a high price for the Russian regime – economic, political and strategic” – and emphasised the need to continue negotiations.

“We are prepared to have a serious dialogue with Russia, because diplomacy is the only way to defuse this highly dangerous situation,” she said.

Baerbock said Germany has offered to send cybersecurity specialists to Ukraine to help investigate last week’s cyberattacks, which Ukrainian authorities have blamed on Russia.

At the same time, she noted that Germany hasn’t changed its refusal to provide it with weapons.