Germany urged NATO yesterday (2 December) to set up an early warning system with Russia to prevent any military accident from spiraling out of control.
NATO’s ties with Moscow have hit a post-Cold War low over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and what the alliance says is Russian backing for separatists in the east of the former Soviet republic.
Both NATO and Russia have stepped up military exercises, and experts say more frequent Russian air and sea patrols around Europe have raised the risk of an accident or clash.
As NATO has suspended cooperation with Russia, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there were few possibilities for the two sides to exchange information on exercises and overflights.
“I think we are obliged to … take care that a conflict does not get out of control and lead to a military escalation. We need certain channels to check if some reports are true or not,” he told reporters at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.
NATO and Russian ambassadors have met only twice since the Crimea crisis erupted. One diplomat said a few countries, including France, Germany and Italy, were backing a proposal to use the existing NATO-Russia Council as a mechanism to avoid escalation.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine may last a long time.
“The changes we have seen are maybe something that will not go back to normal within a short period. NATO doesn’t seek confrontation with Russia and NATO does not want a new Cold War. But we cannot compromise on the principles on which the security and peace in Europe have been based for many decades,” he told a news conference.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said yesterday there was a high chance the Ukraine-Russia crisis would grow into a large conflict involving more than just those two countries.
“The probability of a military conflict is 70%,” he told a forum hosted by daily newspaper Hospodarske Noviny.
“I am talking about a large military conflict now; I am not talking about a Russia-Ukraine conflict.”
NATO has said repeatedly it has no plans to intervene in Ukraine, which is not an alliance member, but has reinforced eastern European allies worried about Russian intentions.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
The fighting has escalated sharply after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists. The EU's resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine on 17 July of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.
Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.
On 27 August NATO and the U.S. said Russian incursions into Ukraine took an ‘overt and obvious form’ and on 28 August Poroshenko said Russia had invaded Ukraine.