Moscow expels Washington’s deputy chief of mission

KYIV: Russia expelled the deputy chief of the US mission in Moscow on Thursday. The State Department confirmed the expulsion of Bart Gorman, calling it unprovoked.

The move came amid heightened tensions between Russia and the US, fuelled by fears that Moscow plans to invade Ukraine.

Gorman was second in command at the US embassy in Moscow and had an open visa. He spent less than three years in Moscow.

Washington accused Moscow of misleading the world with disinformation by saying it was returning some troops to bases, charging that Moscow has instead added as many as 7,000 more troops near its tense border with Ukraine.

UN Security Council to discuss standoff

Tensions spiked on Thursday along the line that separates Ukrainian forces from Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east, with the parties accusing each other of intensive shelling. Western fears resurged that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine, after weeks of East-West tensions that have threatened Europe’s post-Cold War balance of power.

The US and its Nato partners said they had seen no sign yet of Russia’s promised troop withdrawal.

“We’ve seen some of those troops inch closer to that border. We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft,” US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said at Nato headquarters in Brussels.

“We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. We even see them stocking up their blood supplies. You don’t do these sort of things for no reason, and you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home.”

Russia held out an offer of diplomacy, handing the US response to offers to engage in talks on limiting missile deployments in Europe, restrictions on military drills, and other confidence-building measures.

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to New York for the UN Security Council meeting and then Germany for the Munich Security Conference, Russia delivered its long-awaited responses to US proposals on Ukraine and broader European security. A senior State Department official said the Russians had presented this response to US Ambassador John Sullivan in Moscow.

Positive signals from Moscow lowered the temperature in the crisis earlier in the week, but the heat was back up on Thursday, where Western powers estimating Russia has 150,000-plus troops massed outside Ukraine’s borders.

“We have seen the opposite of some of the statements. We have seen an increase of troops over the last 48 hours, up to 7,000,” said British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace before a meeting of the western alliance in Brussels.

That squared with what a US official had said on Wednesday.

British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey even called Russia’s claim to be withdrawing troops disinformation. Russia accuses the West of the same.

It has enough troops, enough capabilities, to launch a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine with very little or no warning time, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“The fact that you’re putting a battle tank on a train and moving it in some direction doesn’t prove a withdrawal of troops.”

While no attack materialised on Wednesday as some had feared, Western officials warned the threat of invasion remains high and vowed to counter it.

“The consequences of this mass buildup — nearly 60 per cent of Moscow’s land combat forces — on the border of a sovereign nation will get you the opposite effect,” Wallace said.

“We are deadly serious,” he added, and we’e going to face the threat that is currently being posed.

Moscow said several times this week that some forces are pulling back to their bases, but it gave few details that would allow for an independent assessment of the scope and direction of the troop movement.

Russian defence ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov offered a bit more detail on Thursday, saying that Russian tank and infantry units that took part in drills in the Kursk and Bryansk regions, both of which neighbour Ukraine, were pulling back to their permanent bases in Nizhny Novgorod region.

He said that some of those units already had arrived at their bases after a 700-kilometer journey east.

Troops deployed for exercises in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, have moved back to Chechnya and Dagestan, in North Caucasus, he noted.