After the Kremlin’s ultimatums to NATO appeared to fall flat earlier this week, Moscow ratcheted up the crazy on Tuesday with new claims of U.S. mercenaries supposedly preparing a “chemical weapons” attack and a threat of unspecified “military-technical” action.
“Tanks with unidentified chemical components have been delivered to the cities of Avdeyevka and Krasny Liman for the completion of the provocations,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of defense officials as President Vladimir Putin looked on.
Shoigu claimed the Defense Ministry was aware of 120 representatives of private U.S. military contractors currently training Ukrainian forces, according to RIA Novosti.
At the same meeting, Putin took things even further and warned of “military-technical” action against the West, deploying language the Kremlin has often used to deliver stern warnings in its conflicts with the U.S.
“If our Western colleagues continue the obviously aggressive stance, we will take appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures and react harshly to unfriendly moves,” he said, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
The tough talk appeared to mark a major escalation after the Kremlin has spent weeks hinting at possible military action in Ukraine over NATO supposedly threatening its borders.
In typical shakedown tradition, it also came after Russia failed to secure an immediate response to a list of demands provided to NATO. In a list of “red lines” handed to NATO and U.S. officials last week, the Kremlin demanded that Ukraine be denied membership in the alliance, that Western countries be required to get consent from Moscow if they want to deploy troops to former Soviet countries, and that they abstain from military drills near Russian borders.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, admitted Monday that the proposals had not so far gotten any response from the West. According to The Financial Times, Western officials have privately already scoffed at most of the proposals as outrageous, though they are hesitant to reject the demands outright.
Putin, clearly aware of this diss, upped the ante on Tuesday, laying into NATO and accusing the West of gloating over the Cold War.
“Everything that is happening right now… this tension that is unfolding across Europe—it’s their fault. Every step of the way, Russia has been forced to respond in some way. Every step of the way, the situation has constantly worsened and worsened, and deteriorated… And now we have this situation today where we are forced to make a decision,” Putin told defense officials.
He went on to accuse the West of acting against Russia “from euphoria in connection with so-called victory in the Cold War.”
While Putin’s criticisms were in line with his prior assessments of U.S.-Russia relations, his threat of “military-technical” action comes at a crucial moment in the ongoing standoff over Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces have been waging war in the Donbas for more than seven years as Moscow has sought to keep its grip.
Indeed, Shoigu’s claim of U.S. mercenaries in the Donbas appears to be a throwback to Kremlin propaganda that was prevalent in the brutal early days of the war, when Moscow pulled out all the stops to spread the conspiracy theory that American private contractors had been brought in to battle pro-Russian forces. That fearmongering saw Ukrainian troops and even foreign journalists falsely labeled as U.S. mercenaries as Moscow sought to cultivate a siege mentality and shore up domestic support.