Ukraine mobilises NATO’s diplomatic and political means over Russia troops build-up

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, (R), speaks with Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba prior to a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 13 April 2021. [NATO]

After Kyiv and Moscow traded blame over the worsening situation in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine was able to mobilise its Western allies at political level, with several high-level meetings planned this week.

NATO is “seriously concerned” by the largest massing of Russian “combat-ready troops” on Ukraine’s borders and calls on Russia to end provocation, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday (13 April).

“In recent weeks Russia has moved thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine’s borders, the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Stoltenberg said speaking alongside Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who came to Brussels on a working visit.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier had called an extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC), using its mechanism for convening to discuss Russia’s aggravation of the security situation.

The meeting was supposed to take place in a few weeks time but was brought forward, NATO diplomats told EURACTIV.

The decision-making body is responsible for developing the NATO-Ukraine relationship and for directing cooperative activities.

“Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” he said, calling it “unjustified” and “unexplained.”

“NATO stands with Ukraine and Allies continue to provide significant practical support so that Ukraine can better provide for its own security,” Stoltenberg added.

“I would like to reassure you that Ukraine does not want war, we do not plan any offensive or escalation. Ukraine is devoted to diplomatic and political means of settling the conflict,” Ukraine’s foreign minister said in Brussels.

NATO and the West must act quickly to prevent an escalation of violence between Ukraine and Russia, Kuleba said, adding that further sanctions against Moscow and more military help to Kyiv could help.

“Russia is working hard to undermine our defence capabilities,” Kuleba stressed.

“At the operational level, we need measures which will deter Russia and which will contain its aggressive intentions. This could be (…) a new round of sanctions which would raise the price of Russian aggression,” Kuleba said.

“This could be direct support aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defence capabilities because we do know that Russia spares no effort to prevent third countries from cooperating with Ukraine in the defence sector,” he added.

NATO has entered a closer partnership with Ukraine, recognising the former Soviet republic as an enhanced opportunities partner (EOP) in June 2020. Other recognised EOPs are Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden.

Ukraine’s new status effectively enables the country to benefit from “enhanced access to interoperability programs and exercises” and more sharing of information.

Although Kuleba’s meeting with Stoltenberg was a strong symbol of Western support, it fell short of Ukraine’s desire for full membership.

Asked again about Ukraine’s NATO perspective, Stoltenberg said the Western alliance, and not Moscow, would decide whether Ukraine joins in the future.

“It is for the 30 NATO allies to decide when Ukraine is ready for membership. No one else has any right to try to meddle or to interfere in that process,” Stoltenberg said.

“Russia is now trying to re-establish some kind of sphere of influence where they try to decide what neighbours can do,” he added.

Russia condemns Ukraine support

Moscow on Tuesday said active US military support to Kyiv was a serious challenge for Russia’s security and accused Washington and NATO of turning Ukraine into a “powder keg” with increasing arms supplies, Russian agencies reported, citing the foreign ministry.

Russia would do everything possible to ensure its security in the event of an escalation in Ukraine, agencies quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.

Earlier on Tuesday, Ryabkov warned the United States to ensure its warships stayed well away from Crimea “for their own good”, calling the latest deployment of two US warships in the Black Sea a provocation designed to test Russian nerves.

US top officials for talks in Brussels

The increased diplomatic activity came at the same time as two senior US diplomats are on a visit in Europe to shore up allied support on countering Iran and China as well as recent Russian moves at the Ukraine border.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to Brussels on Tuesday to meet with European and NATO allies on a range of issues, including Russia’s build-up of forces along the border with Ukraine. Blinken will be joined in Brussels by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Austin arrived in Germany on Monday night and will hold talks Tuesday with senior government officials. He will also visit NATO headquarters later this week in Belgium and meet with British defence officials in London.

The double visit comes three weeks after Blinken was in Brussels for a summit with his counterparts from NATO member states.

NATO diplomats confirmed to EURACTIV that Stoltenberg would also chair an emergency video conference with allied defence and foreign ministers on Wednesday, “mostly on Afghanistan, but with Ukraine sprinkled into the agenda”.

Blinken’s schedule, however, will include talks with Ukraine’s Kuleba, European and Eurasian Affairs Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Philip Reeker, told reporters during a phone briefing on Monday (12 April).

According to Reeker, Washington “commended Ukraine for its ongoing restraint in the face of Russia’s provocations” as Russia’s “destabilizing actions have undermined the tenuous ceasefire agreement that was brokered by the OSCE back in July 2020”.

“At the same time, Russia has had a disinformation campaign blatantly designed to falsely blame Ukraine for what are the Kremlin’s own actions – so we’re monitoring the situation closely, coordinating with Ukrainian officials, with allies and partners,” Reeker added.

On Monday, Blinken spoke with Stoltenberg over phone about the situation and said there was mutual agreement that “Russia must end its dangerous military buildup and ongoing aggression along Ukraine’s borders.”

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