Nato’s secretary general has called on Russia to halt its military buildup around Ukraine, describing it as “unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning”.
Later on Tuesday, Moscow hit back, saying the deployments were a reaction to what it claimed were Nato plans to move troops closer to Russia’s borders in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.
Flanked by Ukraine’s foreign minister at a press conference on Tuesday morning, Nato’s 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 for an emergency meeting with Stoltenberg to discuss the crisis, amid mounting concern among Nato members about the military manoeuvres.
Kuleba said 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 Ukraine urgently needed help from Nato. “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 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 sides. On Monday, Ukraine’s military reported one more soldier killed, bringing the total to 28 this year.
Russia had partly characterised its recent deployments as a response to increased fighting in Donbas, although observers in Kyiv andwestern countries have called that a pretext for a show of force.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, quantified the size of the buildup for the first time on Tuesday, saying the military had moved two armies and three airborne forces units to its western borders near Ukraine over the last three weeks.
In comments that could indicate an attempt to play down tensions, Shoigu said the Russian deployments, which he called part of a “preparedness check”, were due to conclude in two weeks.
However, in a direct attack on Nato, he called the troop movements “proper measures” taken “in response to the alliance’s military activities threatening Russia”, including an alleged Nato plan to move troops closer to Russia’s borders in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.
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.
Analysts speculate the Russian buildup 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 to Ukraine and the west.
Last week, Dmitry Kozak, Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, said 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, arrived in Brussels on Tuesday, where he joins Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defence, 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 Kyiv’s call that Ukraine be given a pathway to joining Nato, through a membership action plan. Stoltenberg said such a decision – almost certain to provoke Moscow – was for Nato’s 30 member states to decide.
A “crisis consultation mechanism” outlined in a longstanding 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 any more,” the minister added.
Overnight, Ukraine said, the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had asked to talk to Putin by phone. Kiev said it had heard nothing back from the Kremlin, but Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday he had not seen any requests from Zelenskiy “in recent days”.