By Alexander Marrow
MOSCOW (Reuters) -British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said he took Russian assurances that Moscow will not invade Ukraine seriously, but that he wanted to see accompanying action and hoped his talks in Moscow on Friday had helped reduce tensions.
Wallace met Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as Russia holds huge military exercises in Belarus, part of a force buildup near Ukraine that has fuelled fears of an impending invasion. Moscow denies plans to attack.
“When they say to me they are not going to invade Ukraine we will take that seriously but as I also said we will look at the actions that accompany it,” Wallace told a news conference at the British embassy in Moscow.
“The disposition of the Russian forces that we see, over 100,000 .. obviously gives that size of force the ability to do a whole range of actions including an invasion of a neighbouring country at any time,” he said.
Wallace described his talks with Shoigu, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, as constructive and frank, a day after Britain’s foreign secretary sparred publicly at a news conference with Russia’s top diplomat following talks in Moscow.
“In our discussion there was absolutely no deafness or blindness,” Wallace said in a response to a question about the tense talks on Thursday that Russia’s Sergei Lavrov described as like a conversation between deaf and mute people.
He said confidence-building measures and transparency could help address Russia’s concerns, and that an invasion by Russia would have “tragic consequences”.
“I heard clearly from the Russian government that they had no intention of invading Ukraine and I also heard some of their concerns,” he said.
Russia’s buildup near Ukraine comes amid a campaign by the Kremlin to win security “guarantees” from the West, including a veto on ex-Soviet Ukraine ever joining NATO and a halt to the alliance’s expansion.
The United States and its allies reject those demands but say they are willing to talk about other issues including arms control.
(Reporting by Alexander Marrow; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)