NATO steps up preparation in Eastern Europe to reassure allies


KIEV—NATO said monday that some member countries were putting their forces on standby and sending additional ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe to reassure their allies in the region, while Britain joined the United States in ordering the families of diplomats to leave Ukraine, citing “the growing threat from Russia”. ”

These moves signaled growing fears of possible Russian military intervention in Ukraine, as well as growing worries about the Kremlin flexing its muscles further. Russian troops and equipment are flocking to neighboring Belarus for drills scheduled for next month which US officials say are not only directed against Ukraine but also intended to intimidate NATO countries on the border Western Belarus, such as Poland and the Baltic countries.

US intelligence officials have said they do not believe President Vladimir V. Putin made the decision to attack Ukraine, and Russian diplomats have repeatedly said there were no plans to attack Ukraine. To do.

But with the month-long negotiations between Moscow and Washington at an apparent stalemate, Russia and the West appear to be talking more and more to each other. Even as the White House prepares written responses to Russia’s demands to limit NATO’s footprint in Europe, the Biden administration plans to deploy several thousand American troops, as well as warships and planes, with NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

NATO’s announcement on Monday consolidated the pledges and actions member states have made over the past few days. They include an offer from France to send troops to Romania under NATO command; Denmark sends F-16 jets to Lithuania; the Netherlands sent two F-35 jets to Bulgaria to help with air policing; and Spain sending a frigate to the Black Sea.

The European Union also announced new financial assistance to Ukraine of some 1.2 billion euros, or $1.36 billion, to help the country during this crisis.

NATO members bordering Russia and Belarus, or near the disputed Black Sea to the south, have requested more allied troops and equipment to bolster deterrence against any potential Russian aggression. This would come on top of the approximately 5,000 NATO troops already stationed in Poland and the three Baltic countries who were installed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, in what NATO called a “reinforced forward presence”.

There was no indication in NATO’s statement on Monday that additional forces deployed in central, eastern or southern Europe would be used to support Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, in the event of a Russian invasion. Western officials have made it clear that NATO forces will not engage militarily against Russia, and the Biden administration has said that goes for the United States as well.

On Monday, NATO and Russia accused each other of stoking tensions.

“All this leads to rising tensions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said, referring to NATO’s moves to strengthen its eastern flank. “It’s not happening because of what we, Russia, are doing. It’s all happening because of what NATO and the United States are doing.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, said in a statement that NATO would “continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all Allies, including strengthening the eastern part of the Alliance”. The statement added: “We will always respond to any deterioration in our security environment, including by strengthening our collective defence.”

The mobilization by the West comes in response to what Western countries say is a larger buildup of Russian forces than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Ukraine’s military intelligence calculates that 127,000 troops are massed on the Ukrainian border and thousands more are expected to arrive in Belarus for exercises next month, along with tanks, artillery and fighter jets.

But the buildup near Ukraine is only part of what increasingly appears to be a global activation of Russian forces.

Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that more than 140 ships and 10,000 sailors would take part in a series of live-fire naval exercises in February across the world, including off the coast of Ireland. The goal, according to the ministry, is to “protect Russia’s national interests in the world’s oceans.”

On Monday, the Russian Navy announced the start of exercises in the Baltic Sea involving 20 warships, and the Irish government said he raised his concerns in Moscow of its plans for naval exercises off the coast of Ireland next month.

Even as NATO countries stepped up their preparations, the Ukrainian government tried to project an image of the status quo. He criticized the US decision to order family members of US embassy staff to leave Ukraine, calling it “premature” and the result of “excessive caution”.

But other countries were also showing caution in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Britain has said it will also withdraw family members of diplomats, and Germany and Australia have been reported to be working to withdraw their embassies.

“There has been no serious change in the security situation lately,” Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, said in a statement. “The threat of a new wave of Russian aggression has been ongoing since 2014, and the build-up of Russian forces on the state border began in April last year.”

While the United States has warned that Mr Putin could order an attack at any time, the Ukrainian government has shown less sense of urgency and at times presented conflicting assessments of the situation.

In his statement, Mr Nikolenko, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, suggested that panicking would simply give Russia a victory as it tries to sow discord through information warfare.

“The Russian Federation is currently actively working to destabilize the internal situation in Ukraine,” he said. “In this situation, it is important to assess the risks soberly and to remain calm.”

Despite the withdrawal of family members and some staff, the US and UK embassies have been ordered to remain open.

Meeting on Monday, European Union foreign ministers issued a statement reiterating their call for Russia to respect international law, defuse tensions and negotiate. A further incursion into Ukraine would mean “massive consequences and significant costs”, they said.

As Western countries threaten sanctions, war concerns are already weighing on the Russian economy. On Monday, Russia’s RTS stock index fell more than 8%, while the ruble fell more than 2% against the dollar to its weakest level in more than a year.

In an editorial in Ukrainska Pravda in Ukraine newspaper on Monday, a group of Ukrainian military experts said Russia was at least two to three weeks away from deploying all the forces it would need to launch a full-scale military operation, but added that it was not there would probably not be enough forces to capture and hold significant territory.

A more likely scenario, experts say, would be smaller-scale operations, possibly a military escalation in separatist territories in eastern Ukraine, an escalation of the conflict in the Sea of ​​Azov or rocket attacks. against critical infrastructure and military targets.

Michael Schwirtz reported from Kiev and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Anton Troianovsky contributed reporting from Moscow.

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