NATO Urges Russia to Halt Military Buildup on Ukraine’s Borders

NATO Urges Russia to Halt Military Buildup on Ukraine’s Borders

Alliance condemns presence of tens of thousands of troops, faces delicate balance in relations with Kremlin

NATO called for Russia to end a military buildup on its borders with Ukraine that has sparked concerns of a major escalation in the conflict between the two countries, which has simmered since the Kremlin invaded in 2014.

Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said Russia should withdraw tens of thousands of troops it has massed around Ukraine in recent weeks.

“Russia’s considerable military buildup is unjustified, unexplained, and deeply concerning,” Mr. Stoltenberg told a news conference after a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations, and de-escalate immediately.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, also in Brussels Tuesday for consultations with allies, has warned of costs for Russia if it acts aggressively, without giving specifics.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday that U.S. and NATO activities in and around Ukraine had turned the region into a “powder keg.” Military aid to Ukraine “presents a serious challenge to our security,” he told reporters, Russian state news agencies reported.

Ukraine’s Mr. Kuleba, who met with top officials from NATO members and should see Mr. Blinken later Tuesday, called for quick measures to deter Russia, including sanctions that would raise the price of a Russian intervention and help strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities.

“The price, some measures, which we are talking about, may look costly, but the price of prevention will still be lower than the price of stopping the war and mitigating its consequences,” Mr. Kuleba told the news conference. “So it’s better to act now to prevent Russia from further escalating the situation.”

The U.S. and its allies face a delicate balance in showing support for Ukraine without putting the West in direct conflict with Moscow, which sees Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence.

After a Russian-backed president fled pro-Western street protests in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and covertly sent irregular fighters, weapons and troops without insignia to take control of parts of eastern Ukraine. The West responded with sanctions on Russia and financial assistance, military equipment and military trainers for Ukraine. It has drawn Ukraine closer to NATO and the European Union without offering membership.

More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict, which since 2015 has largely consisted of artillery and sniper duels across front lines fixed by a cease-fire deal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took office in 2019 promising peace. But amid limited progress, his positions on Russia and Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO, a red line for Moscow, have hardened.

Ukraine last year sealed deeper ties with the alliance, becoming an “enhanced opportunities partner.” In a conversation with Mr. Stoltenberg last week, Mr. Zelensky called for a formal plan for membership. Such a move would be unlikely to gain the necessary unanimous support from NATO’s 30 members, although the alliance has said that Ukraine will become a member in the future.

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

In recent weeks, Russia has moved more troops to its borders with Ukraine and Crimea than at any time since 2014, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.

Russia says it can move its troops within its borders as it wishes and has no belligerent intentions, accusing Ukraine of unspecified provocations. At the same time, Russian officials have spoken of defending Russian speakers and citizens, the kind of statements that preceded invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Russia has in recent years distributed passports in the areas it controls in eastern Ukraine.

Western and Ukrainian officials and analysts say Mr. Putin’s immediate goals could include taking Ukrainian territory to provide Moscow with a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula.

“It is always difficult to understand what the Russians want because Putin is an opportunist,” said Riho Terras, a former chief of defense forces in Estonia, a NATO member bordering Russia. “He is a world champion at changing plans.”

The Kremlin is also testing President Biden, officials and analysts say, after he took office pledging a tough line against Mr. Putin. Mr. Biden spoke with Mr. Zelensky earlier this month for the first time since taking office amid the escalating tensions.

Russia has increased pressure on NATO allies. The alliance said it scrambled jet fighters 10 times on March 29 to shadow Russian warplanes near NATO airspace during “an unusual peak of flights.”

Moscow has also temporarily suspended most air travel with Turkey, citing an increase in coronavirus cases there. Russian tourists, who usually flock to Turkey during the May holiday season, are a major earner for Turkey’s economy. Turkey is supplying Ukraine with armed drones and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Saturday expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and called for an end to the current escalation after a meeting Friday with Mr. Zelensky.

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