Russia sees few 'reasons for optimism' after U.S. responds to demands over Ukraine

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev took a softer line as he also weighed in on Thursday, saying Russia and the U.S. must engage in diplomacy to avoid war.

Medvedev, a trusted ally of Putin who served as president from 2008-2012, told state news agency Ria that it was “obvious here that the most important and single route is actually to come to agreement on security guarantees.”

The idea of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO over Ukraine would be a “catastrophic scenario,” he added. “I just hope it never happens,.”

Russia held talks in Paris on Wednesday with diplomats from Ukraine, France and Germany to defuse broader tensions in a long-standing conflict in eastern Ukraine, in which Moscow has been supporting pro-Russian separatists fighting Kyiv’s forces in the region.

No breakthroughs followed the eight-hour talks, but the parties agreed to reconvene in Berlin, Germany in two weeks. 

This “means that Russia for the next two weeks is likely to remain on the diplomatic track,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Thursday.

But amid the diplomacy, Russia continued to enlarge its military presence near its borders with Ukraine, intelligence and defense officials told NBC News.

The officials said there are now 62 Russian battalion tactical groups in the area, up from 59 at this time last week — with several more on the way. This does not include the Russian forces that have been gathering in Belarus. Moscow and Minsk, a close ally of Russia, say the troop movement is for joint drills next month, but the buildup along another of Ukraine’s borders puts more forces in a position to join a potential military action, the officials said.

Intelligence officials have consistently said they don’t know whether Putin has made up his mind to invade Ukraine, but they have continued to assess an increasing probability of invasion as the crisis has continued to unfold without a diplomatic resolution.

Courtney Kube, Ken Dilanian and Tatyana Chistikova contributed.