Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday said Russia does not have any imminent intention to invade eastern Ukraine, the Associated Press reports.
His breaking-news statement at press time could offer slight breathing room for international crisis talks, following Russia's Thursday movement of large numbers of troops to its western border with Ukraine. The redeployment raised fears that an invasion beyond Crimea could be imminent, on the eve of a quickly scheduled referendum for the peninsula's independence and alignment with Moscow.
The massing of troops and heavy vehicles near Eastern Ukraine was just the latest in a series of moves and countermoves by Russia and NATO to beef up their military presence in Eastern Europe. Tensions between the former Cold War antagonists have risen to one of their highest points since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a result of Russia's continued military occupation of the Crimean Peninsula.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly condemned the latest Russian troop deployment, saying that Moscow was risking a "catastrophe," the New York Times reported.
"If Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine," the German leader said in an address to parliament. "We also as neighbors of Russia, would not only see it as a threat."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress on Thursday that Moscow had not yet begun readiness measures to mount a full-scale onslaught on the entirety of Ukraine, though "that could change very quickly and we recognize that."
The Russian Defense Ministry has granted the request of Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, to deploy six fighter jets and three transport aircraft to that allied nation, Russian state media reported. NATO earlier this week initiated reconnaissance flights over Romania and Poland to better monitor the security situation in Ukraine. On Thursday, supplemental U.S. F-16 planes arrived in Poland, Reuters reported.
"Augmenting the aviation detachment was a deliberate choice to demonstrate to our allies that U.S. commitments to our collective defense responsibilities are credible and remain in force," the U.S. embassy in Poland said in provided comments. "A total of 12 aircraft are scheduled to arrive by the end of this week."
An unidentified U.S. official told the Times the Obama administration had set aside but was "still considering" a request from Kiev's interim government for defense equipment such as weapons and munitions.
NATO Military Committee Chairman Gen. Knud Bartels spoke over the phone with Russian General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov, according to an Interfax report.