Moscow (CNN)On any other week, the high-level diplomatic drama that unfolded in Moscow on Thursday should have been the main headline. But the images of a shelled kindergarten in eastern Ukraine shifted international focus to the Donbas region, where the world braced itself for signs that the simmering conflict there might escalate very seriously and catastrophically.
Thankfully, the shell that hit the Stanytsia Luhanska school took no lives. But they were a reminder of the very real stakes for people living near the Line of Contact that separates Ukrainian government forces from Russian-backed separatists.
For weeks, world leaders have been shuttling back and forth to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and making high-level phone calls to try to put the brakes on a confrontation between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis.
Yet in Moscow today, there’s been no signs of a breakthrough, but a clear ratcheting up of tension. On Thursday afternoon local time, US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan paid a visit to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he received a long-awaited response from the Russian government to a written document delivered to Russia three weeks earlier.
The document made clear that the Russians laid full blame on the US and its allies for stoking the Ukraine crisis, even as evidence continues to mount of that as many as 150,000 Russian troops are arrayed around Ukraine’s borders.
“There is no plan for a ‘Russian invasion’ of Ukraine, as the U.S. and its allies have been alleging at the official level since last Autumn,” the document, released by Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti said. “Therefore, claims about ‘Russian culpability for the escalation’ cannot be interpreted as anything other than an attempt to pressure and devalue Russian offers of security guarantees.”
At about the same time, the US State Department confirmed Russia had expelled the second-most senior diplomat at the US diplomatic mission in Moscow, a move that US President Joe Biden’s administration called an “escalatory” step.
That escalation has clearly been incremental: A senior State Department official said that Bart Gorman, the US deputy chief of mission in Moscow was formally expelled by Moscow earlier this year, given two weeks to depart and left Moscow last week.
So where does that leave diplomacy? It’s still not entirely dead. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met on Thursday with his Italian counterpart, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.
Lavrov essentially laid out the same complaint that was in the written reply delivered to the US: The Americans and NATO have ignored Russia’s core security concerns, he said, and none of the secondary issues — on the technical details of arms control, for instance — can be resolved “until we agree on our key positions.”
And on those key positions, particularly regarding the issue of who can join NATO, Russia and the West remain very, very far apart.