Tensions escalated Monday between Russia and the West over concerns that Moscow was planning to invade Ukraine, with NATO outlining potential troop and ship deployments, Britain saying it would withdraw some diplomats from Kyiv, and Ireland denouncing upcoming Russian war games off its coast as unwelcome.
The Western alliance’s statement summed up moves already announced by member countries, but restating them under the NATO banner looks aimed at showing its resolve. It was just one of many announcements that signaled the West is ramping up its rhetoric in the information war that has accompanied the Ukraine standoff.
Russia has gathered around one lakh troops near Ukraine’s border, demanding that NATO promise it will never allow Ukraine to join and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed. Some of these, like any pledge to permanently bar Ukraine, are nonstarters for NATO — creating a type of intractable deadlock that many fear may lead to war.
Russia denies it is planning an invasion, and terming the Western accusations as a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations. Recent days have witnessed high-stakes diplomacy that failed to reach any breakthrough and manoeuvring on both sides.
On Monday, NATO said it is bolstering its “deterrence” in the Baltic Sea region. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16 warplanes to Lithuania; Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces; and France stands ready to send troops to Romania. The Netherlands also aims to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will “take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies.” “We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that it was NATO and the U.S. who were behind the escalating tensions in Europe, not Russia.
“All this is happening not because of what we, Russia, are doing. This is happening because of what NATO, the U.S. are doing,” Peskov told reporters. He also claimed that Russia is evacuating its diplomats from Ukraine, something Moscow denied.
The NATO announcement came as European Union foreign ministers sought to put on a fresh display of unity in support of Ukraine, and paper over concerns about divisions on the best way to confront any Russian aggression.
In a statement, the ministers said the EU has stepped up sanction preparations and they warned that “any further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs.”
Separately, the EU also committed to increase financial support for embattled Ukraine, vowing to push through a special package of 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in loans and grants as soon as possible.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday and said the U.S. would give Russia written responses to Moscow’s proposals this week, offering some hope that any invasion would be delayed for at least a few more days.
The West is eagerly watching Russian troop movements and war games in Belarus for any signs that a new invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Russia has already invaded Ukraine once, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Moscow has also supported pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kyiv government in the eastern part of the country known as the Donbass region. The conflict has already claimed around 14,000 lives.
Asked whether the EU would follow a U.S. move and order the families of European embassy personnel in Ukraine to leave, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “We are not going to do the same thing.”