NATO bolsters eastern flank as fears mount over Ukraine crisis

The Netherlands is sending two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April to support NATO’s air-policing activities in the region. [Netherlands Air Force]

NATO said Monday (24 January) it was sending jets and ships to bolster its eastern European flank, as the US and EU looked to coordinate a tough response to Russia if it invades Ukraine.

Tensions have soared over Russia’s deployment of some 100,000 troops and heavy armour at its neighbour’s borders, despite the Kremlin’s insistence it is not planning a new incursion almost eight years after it seized Crimea.

The United States, Britain and Australia ordered diplomats’ families to leave Kyiv, while France told its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Ukraine.

Both Kyiv and the European Union’s foreign policy chief said any withdrawal of diplomatic personnel appeared premature, amid doubts over how imminent any attack could be.

EU says not following US diplomat families' withdrawals from Ukraine

The EU is not following the US in withdrawing its diplomats’ families from Ukraine, top European diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday (24 January), adding that there was no need to “dramatise” the situation while talks with Russia continue.

But the tensions helped send global markets sharply downwards — with Russia’s stock market plunging and its central bank suspending foreign currency purchasing after the ruble slumped.

Troops ‘on stand-by’

“NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said., as the alliance said its members were placing troops “on standby” and sending ships and jets to bolster eastern Europe’s defences in response to the Russian buildup.

Denmark is sending a frigate to the Baltic Sea and is set to deploy four F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania to support NATO’s long-standing air-policing mission in the region. Spain is sending ships to join NATO naval forces and is considering sending fighter jets to Bulgaria. France has expressed its readiness to send troops to Romania under NATO command.

The Netherlands is sending two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April and is putting ship and land-based units on standby for NATO’s Response Force. The US has also made clear that it is considering increasing military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.

The Kremlin accused the alliance of ramping up tensions through “information hysteria” and “concrete actions”, claiming the risk of an offensive by Ukrainian troops fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country was “very high”.

Top US diplomat Antony Blinken dialled in to a meeting of his EU counterparts in Brussels to brief them on his meeting Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, where the two sides failed to make a breakthrough but agreed to keep talking.

“Notions of ‘sphere of influence’ have no place in the 21st century … any further military aggression by Russia over Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs,” EU ministers said in a statement, giving no details of the “consequences”.

The European Commission, the EU executive body, proposed a €1.2-billion financial aid package for Ukraine, but there are differences among EU member states about how hard to be on Russia.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis suggested Russia wanted to “splinter the West” and that the EU could not afford to be divided.

‘Never-seen-before’ sanctions

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has urged Europe and the United States to think carefully when considering sanctions and some European politicians, and Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg underlined the EU’s heavy dependency on Russian gas.

Asked about potential sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which is yet to win regulatory approval, Schallenberg said sanctioning something that is not yet operative was not a credible threat.

Another potential sanction would be cutting Russia off from the SWIFT global messaging system, but German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said wielding the “hardest stick” may not always be the best way to deal with such a situation.

Denmark said the EU would be ready to impose “never-seen-before” economic sanctions on Russia.

“Russia should know, (President Vladimir) Putin should know that the price of using provocations and military forces to change borders in Europe will be very, very high… We are ready to undertake the most severe sanctions, also more severe than in 2014,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod told reporters.

He declined to say what sectors would be targeted.

The EU, along with the United States, imposed economic sanctions on Moscow targeting its energy, banking and defence sectors after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

Britain, which left the EU at the end of 2020, ramped up the rhetoric with Moscow over the weekend by alleging it had information the Kremlin was seeking to install a “pro-Russian” leader in Kyiv.

Is Russia planning a puppet government in Ukraine? Its alleged leader denies

Former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevhen Murayev derided British allegations that he could be installed as leader of a Kremlin puppet government in Kyiv, and told Reuters in an interview that he was considering legal action.

And on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Russia an invasion could prove to be a “new Chechnya” — referring to Moscow’s bloody conflict in the 1990s over the territory.

Non-NATO member Ireland meanwhile sounded the alarm over upcoming Russian military exercises off its southwest coast in the international waters of the Atlantic.

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