Nato’s secretary general has called on Russia to halt its military buildup around Ukraine, describing it as “unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning”.
Flanked by Ukraine’s foreign minister at a press conference on Tuesday morning, Jens Stoltenberg said Russia had moved thousands of combat troops to Ukraine’s borders in “the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014”.
The head of the western military alliance, addressing Moscow directly, added: “Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, had flown in to meet with Stoltenberg for an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis, amid mounting concern among Nato members about the military manoeuvres.
Kiev estimates the movement of troops, which has been going for more than a fortnight, has seen Russia increase the number of its total troops in the border region to 80,000, with tank units, artillery and missiles among those arriving.
Kuleba said that Russia had gathered troops in three directions to the “north-east of Ukraine, and Crimea in the south and the Donbas in the east”, and accused Russia of “drastically intensifying its belligerent propaganda, which dehumanises Ukrainians and incites hatred towards Ukraine”.
The minister said that Ukraine urgently needed help from Nato. “We also need some very practical support,” he said, adding that Stoltenberg had indicated he was “willing to work with us” in the face of the heightened Russian activity.
“We need measures which will deter Russia, and which will contain its aggressive intentions,” Kuleba added, and suggested they could be “a new round of sanctions, which would raise the price of Russian aggression” as well as “direct support, aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defence capabilities”.
Following the seizure of Crimea, subsequently annexed by Russia, Kremlin-backed separatists took control of Ukraine’s south east Donbas region, where they remain in control. Conflict has simmered between the two since, with an estimated 13,000 killed over the past seven years.
A ceasefire is supposed to be in place in the Donbas region, but violations are becoming increasingly frequent, with casualties on both the separatist and Ukrainian side. On Monday, Ukraine‘s military reported one more serviceman killed, bringing the total to 28 this year.
Russia has not explained the thinking behind the latest deployment, which analysts say is partly designed to capture the west’s attention while leaving it guessing about its ultimate intentions. Instead the Kremlin has sought to shift the focus onto Ukraine and the west.
Earlier on Tuesday, Russia warned the US to ensure that warships expected to enter the Black Sea shortly avoided Crimea “for their own good”. The Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said their anticipated deployment was a provocation designed to test Moscow’s strength.
Although Washington has not officially confirmed the deployment, Turkey, which dominates access to the Black Sea, said that two US destroyers were expected to pass through the Straits in support of Ukraine’s navy to the north.
“There is absolutely nothing for American ships to be doing near our shores, this is purely a provocative action. Provocative in the direct sense of the word: they are testing our strength, playing on our nerves. They will not succeed,” Ryabkov was reported as saying by Russian news agencies.
“We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good,” the minister added.
Last week, Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, said that Moscow could “come to the defence” of its citizens in Russian-backed separatist territories if it thought they were at risk of ethnic cleansing, although there is no suggestion that this is taking place.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, is travelling to Brussels on Tuesday, where he will be joined by Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense, for two days of talks with Nato foreign and defence ministers and officials about the situation in Ukraine, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Brussels, Kuleba repeated Kiev’s call that Ukraine be given a pathway to joining Nato, through a membership action plan. Stoltenberg said that such a decision – almost certain to provoke Moscow – was for Nato’s 30 member states “to decide when Ukraine is ready for membership”.
A “crisis consultation mechanism” outlined in a long standing Ukraine-Nato agreement was also being set up, Kuleba said. It would help prevent a repeat of 2014 when the seizure of Crimea had caught the west off guard. “Russia will not be able to catch anyone by surprise anymore,” the minister added.
Overnight, Ukraine added, President Volodymyr Zelensky had asked to talk to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, by phone. Kiev said it had heard nothing back from the Kremlin, but Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday that he had not seen any requests from Zelenskiy “in recent days”.