A Russian lawmaker is encouraging residents of the rebel-controlled areas of Ukraine to join the Russian army, a sign that Moscow is continuing to try to integrate those territories as much as possible amid Western fears that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine.
Viktor Vodolatsky said Saturday that residents of the regions controlled since 2014 by Russia-backed rebels fear assaults by Ukrainian forces and that those who hold Russian passports would be welcomed in the military.
"If Russian citizens residing in the (territories) want to join the Russian Armed Forces, the Rostov regional military commissariat will register and draft them," Vodolatsky, deputy chairman of parliament committee on relations with neighbors, told the state news agency Tass.
Russia has granted passports to more than 500,000 people in the territories. Vodolatsky said the recruits would serve in Russia — but that leaves open the option that they could join any future invasion force.
Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday that President Vladimir Putin could use any portion of the force of an estimated 100,000 troops to seize Ukrainian cities and "significant territories" or to carry out "coercive acts or provocative political acts."
Russia denies that it is planning an invasion, but contends that Ukraine poses a security threat and is demanding that NATO promises never to allow Ukraine to join the alliance, as well as stopping the deployment of alliance weapons near Russian borders, and rolling back its forces from Eastern Europe.
The U.S. and NATO formally rejected those demands this week, although Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope that there could be a way to avoid war.
The Russian president has made no public remarks about the Western response, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said it leaves little chance for reaching agreement.
"While they say they won’t change their positions, we won’t change ours," Lavrov told Russian radio stations in a live interview. "I don’t see any room for compromise here."
"There won’t be a war as far as it depends on the Russian Federation, we don’t want a war," he added. "But we won’t let our interests be rudely trampled on and ignored."
A senior offical in President Joe Biden's administration said the U.S. welcomed Lavrov’s comments that Russia does not want war, "but this needs to be backed up with action. We need to see Russia pulling some of the troops that they have deployed away from the Ukrainian border and taking other de-escalatory steps." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.
Lavrov said the U.S. suggested the two sides could talk about limits on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles, restrictions on military drills and rules to prevent accidents between warships and aircraft. He said the Russians proposed discussing those issues years ago, but Washington and its allies never took them up on it until now.
He also said those issues are secondary to Russia’s main concerns about NATO. He said international agreements say the security of one nation must not come at the expense of others, and said he would send letters to Western counterparts asking them to explain their failure to respect that pledge.
Washington has warned Moscow of devastating sanctions if it invades Ukraine, including penalties targeting top Russian officials and key economic sectors. Lavrov said Moscow had warned Washington that sanctions would amount to a complete severing of ties.
NATO, meanwhile, said it was bolstering its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region.
Russia has launched military drills involving motorized infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, and dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic. Russian troops are also in Belarus for joint drills, raising Western fears that Moscow could stage an attack on Ukraine from the north. The Ukrainian capital is 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) from the border with Belarus.