NATO chief warns of thousands of Russian troops amassed near Ukraine

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Brussels (dpa) – NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned a build-up of “thousands” of combat-ready Russian troops at Ukraine’s borders as “unexplained, unjustified and deeply concerning” following a meeting with Kiev’s foreign minister on Tuesday.

At a Brussels press conference, Stoltenberg spoke of the “largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea” and called on Moscow to reverse this, “stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately.”

Recent reports of Russian military activity in and around Ukraine as well as ceasefire violations have sparked international concern that the seven-year conflict between the two nations could escalate again.

Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula after a controversial referendum in 2014. Western governments still consider Crimea to be part of Ukrainian territory.

Parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – collectively known as Donbas – along the Russian border are controlled by rebels supported by Moscow.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who met Stoltenberg at the defence alliance’s headquarters in Belgium, said Russia was gathering troops in north-eastern Ukraine, in Crimea in the south and in Donbas.

If Moscow makes any “reckless move” or starts a new “spiral of violence … it will be costly in all senses,” Kuleba said, adding that Kiev does not want war.

The Ukrainian official also met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels later Tuesday. Blinken stressed the US’ concern over Russia’s escalation of tensions, “through its aggressive rhetoric and disinformation, increasing ceasefire violations, and movement of troops,” according to a read-out from his spokesperson Ned Price.

NATO foreign affairs and defence ministers want to discuss the current escalation in Ukraine via videoconference on Wednesday, several diplomatic sources confirmed to dpa.

Ukraine is not one of NATO’s 30 members but is a close partner. The alliance offers support and capacity-building to the nation’s armed forces, for example.

Russia in turn accused the United States and NATO of threatening Russia’s security through arms deliveries to Ukraine as well as military exercises and the construction of other objects in the region.

“The United States and other NATO countries are deliberately turning Ukraine into a tinderbox,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Tuesday in comments carried by news agency Interfax.

Ryabkov accused the US of provocation near the Russian border, after it moved battleships to the Black Sea. “This is a grossly provocative measure,” he said.

He added Russia was concerned about a “web of biolabs” on Ukrainian soil. “Considering everything, this is a serious challenge to our security,” Ryabkov said.

He called on NATO to implement the peace plan in eastern Ukraine, but also added that Russia would do everything to guarantee its own safety and the safety of its citizens, “wherever they are.”

Russia recently openly threatened a military intervention in eastern Ukraine for the first time if Ukraine stages an offensive. “However, Kiev and its patrons in the West will bear full responsibility for the consequences of such an escalation,” Ryabkov said.

On Monday, the G7 nations also warned Moscow against causing provocations along the Ukrainian border.

“These large-scale troop movements, without prior notification, represent threatening and destabilizing activities,” the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and Britain said in a joint statement on Monday.

“We call on Russia to cease its provocations and to immediately de-escalate tensions in line with its international obligations.”

The ministers reaffirmed their “unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders” in the statement.

According to UN estimates, more than 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2014. Since the beginning of this year, 50 fatalities had been reported despite a ceasefire.

On Monday, the Ukrainian army again reported the death of a government soldier.