NATO warns of Russian military build-up on Ukraine border

"European governments should fulfil their obligations within NATO and invest 2% of their GDP into defence," said former alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen. [Texas Military Forces/Flickr]

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday (19 June) that at least a few thousand more Russian troops were now at Ukraine’s eastern border, a build-up he called a regrettable step backwards. The Russian press wrote that Moscow could send troops to Ukraine to “encourage” government forces and separatists toward peace.

After Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March, NATO said Russia had massed some 40,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. It withdrew the vast majority of them until just one unit and 1,000 troops remained about a week ago.

“We now see a new Russian military build-up around the Ukrainian border. At least a few thousand more Russian troops are now deployed,” Rasmussen said in London.

“I consider this a very regrettable step backwards. It seems Russia keeps the option open to intervene further in Ukraine,” he said. “The international community would have to respond in a firm manner if Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine.”

He added: “That would imply deeper … economic sanctions against Russia which would have a very damaging effect on the Russian economy.”

In last few days, NATO has seen evidence of a few mechanised units, consisting of a few thousand Russian troops, conducting new troop movements close to the Ukrainian border, a NATO military officer said.

“These troops don’t appear to be engaged in ‘border patrol’ duties. Rather they appear to be concentrating in staging areas and preparing and awaiting future orders,” the officer said.

The Russian press writes that Moscow has plans to send troops inside Ukraine. According to sources, the Russian military are preparing to create in Lugansk and Donetsk regions what is called “sanitary cordon or boundary line”. Reportedly, the Russian army units in this case will serve as peacekeepers and separate the conflicting parties so that they were not able to fight each other.

A Russian military source said that the total number of Russian troops on Ukrainian border does not exceed 5000.

Peace plan

In the meantime, the Ukrainian press quoted Irina Geraschenko, a spokesperson to President Petro Poroshenko, saying that the authorities will not conduct negotiations with the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Lugansk People’s Republic”, which she called “terrorist organisations”.

“Negotiations will not be conducted with organisations who take responsibility for downing Ukrainian aircraft with the best of our military, who take responsibility for killing without regrets peaceful civilians”, Geraschenko said. She added that negotiations would be held “only those who are willing to actually share the President’s peace plan for peace, to stop the fratricidal war”.

Poroshenko discussed his peace plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone yesterday.

According to Poroshenko’s press services, he has stressed the importance of freeing the hostages and putting in place effective control of the Ukraine-Russian border.

Ukrainian daily Zerkalo Nedeli published the 14-point peace plan Poroshenkoproposed to the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions:

1. Guarantee security for all participants in the negotiations.

2. Amnesty for those who those who laid down their arms and did not commit serious crimes.

3. Release of hostages.

4. Creating a 10 km buffer zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Withdrawal of illegal armed groups.

5. Guaranteed corridor for the exit of Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries.

6. Disarmament.

7. Creating corps in the structure of the Interior Ministry to implement joint patrols.

8. Releasing the illegally detained administrative buildings in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

9. Resumption of the work of the local authorities.

10. Resuming central TV and radio broadcasting in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

11. Decentralization of power (through the election of the executive committees, the protection of the Russian language – draft amendments to the Constitution).

12. Consultations before the election on governors with the representatives of Donbass (in case of disagreement the decision will be taken by the President).

13. Early local and parliamentary elections.

14. A program to create jobs in the region.

The Kremlin website published a short press release about the telephone call between Putin and Poroshenko. Accordingly, the Russian President has expressed “a number of comments with a focus on the immediate cessation of military operations in Kiev, Lugansk and Donetsk regions”.

“The Russian President expressed hope that with the implementation of this plan, priority will be given to addressing the key problems that caused strong protests of the population in the regions,” the statement ends.

According to the press release published on the website of the Ukrainian President, Putin expressed support for “the efforts of de-escalate the situation in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the cease-fire process and the realisation of the peace plan of the President of Ukraine”.

The Ukrainian press reported heavy fighting overnight near the Lugansk airport. It reportedly involved two T-64 thanks and five armored personnel carriers on the separatist side.

Ukrainian new foreign minister to attend EU meeting

Poroshenko confirmed yesterday his country would sign its Association agreement with the EU on 27 June and said he would send his new foreign minister to Luxembourg next week to lay out a peace plan to EU ministers.

Poroshenko made his comments after presenting Pavlo Klimkin, who was earlier endorsed as foreign minister by parliament, to the media. The former foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia had become an embarrassment last Sunday when he publicly called Putin a “dickhead”.

>> Read: Ukrainian minister swears at Putin

The Kremlin today (20 June) denied a statement by NATO suggesting Russia was building up troops on the frontier with Ukraine but said Moscow had brought in more border guards because of security concerns.

"There has been no build-up," Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser, told reporters.

He said Russia was concerned about security at the border and added: "This means just the border guards are getting a few reinforcements, and troops have been withdrawn."

Ushakov said Putin had informed French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel of this by telephone, adding that the three leaders would hold another three-way call soon. He said Putin also planned another phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama but gave no details.

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, which the West called illegal and illegitimate. 

  • 23 June: EU foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg, new Ukrainian foreign minister to participate;
  • 27 June: EU leaders meet for Spring summit, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia sing EU association agreements.

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