UPDATED: NATO says concerned Russia may be preparing pretext for chemical attack

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BRUSSELS, March 24 (Reuters) – Russia may be trying to create a pretext for the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine by accusing the United States and its allies of preparing such an attack, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday.

“We are concerned partly because we see the rhetoric and we see that Russia is trying to create some kind of pretext accusing Ukraine, the United States and NATO allies of preparing to use chemical and biological weapons,” he told reporters after a NATO summit in Brussels, adding any use of chemical weapons would have widespread consequences.

“There is also a risk that it (a chemical weapons attack) will have a direct effect on people living in NATO countries because we can see contamination, we can see the spread of chemical agents or biological weapons into our countries,” Stoltenberg said.

Jens Stoltenberg said that at today’s NATO leaders gathering in Brussels “NATO leaders agreed that we must and will provide further support to Ukraine”.

“We will continue to impose unprecedented costs on Russia and we will reinforce allied deterrence and defence leaders approved our four new battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.”

Stoltenberg says NATO will provide more ground troops, anti-tank systems, drones, naval power and jets to the areas around Ukraine.

Talking about other threats, Mr Stoltenberg said: “We agreed to do more, including cyber security assistance and equipment to help Ukraine protect against biological, chemical, biological and nuclear threats. 

“This could include detection, protection and medical supplies, as well as training for the community, contamination and crisis management. We are determined to do all we can to support Ukraine, and I welcome the concrete offers of assistance made by allies.”

NATO leaders on Thursday agreed to bolster defenses, particularly in Eastern Europe, and will deploy four new combat units in Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement.

NATO leaders will also develop plans for additional forces and capabilities before their June summit, Biden said in a statement during his trip to Europe to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the President of the Unites States of America, Joe Biden

Earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to NATO leaders on Thursday to increase military support for his country against Russian forces that he warned would next target alliance members in eastern Europe including Poland.

Russia “wants to go further. Against eastern members of NATO. The Baltic states. Poland for sure,” Zelenskiy said in a pre-recorded video address to a NATO summit which was released in advance by the Ukrainian presidency.

“But NATO has yet to show what the alliance can do to save people,” he said.

Earlier  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Western nations gathering in Brussels on Thursday to take “serious steps” to help Kyiv fight Russia’s invasion, as an unprecedented one-day trio of NATO, G7 and EU summits got underway.

The hectic day of summitry, aimed at maintaining Western unity, kicks off at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where the transatlantic defence alliance’s leaders will agree to ramp up military forces on Europe’s eastern flank.

While leaders promised to step up support for Ukraine, EU diplomats played down expectations of major new sanctions on Russia, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeated that the alliance will not send troops or planes to Ukraine.

“At these three summits we will see who is our friend, who is our partner and who sold us out and betrayed us,” Zelenskiy said in a video address released early on Thursday.

He said he expected “serious steps” from Western allies, repeating calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine and complaining that the West had not provided Ukraine with planes, modern anti-missile systems, tanks or anti-ship weapons.

NOT AFRAID

While they will not send troops or planes, the 30 nations of NATO, alarmed by the prospect that Russia might escalate the war with its neighbour after a grinding month-long conflict, will agree to send Kyiv equipment to defend against biological, chemical and nuclear attacks. 

Leader after leader said as they arrived at the NATO meeting that the aim was to help Ukraine defend itself.

“Vladimir Putin has already crossed the red line into barbarism,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, adding: “The harder our sanctions … the more we can do to help Ukraine … the faster this thing can be over.”

Johnson told LBC radio earlier that one option was to see if more can be done to prevent the Russian president from accessing his gold reserves, which could stop people buying Russian gold to convert it into hard currency.

The resolve to punish Moscow with massive sanctions will be underlined by an emergency meeting of the G7 advanced economies, which will bring Japan into the room with six NATO members.

Then, with a summit of the 27-nation European Union, countries representing more than half of the world’s gross domestic product will have met in one day.

“Putin’s steps are made to make us afraid as well so it deters us from helping Ukraine … we should definitely not fall into that trap,” Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “Putin can’t win this war, it’s very important to all of us.”

Russia’s assault on Ukraine has killed thousands and driven almost a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people from their homes, according to United Nations data, including more than 3.6 million who have fled the country.

Putin says his forces are engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and the West say Putin launched an unprovoked war of aggression.

NATO has increased its presence on its eastern borders, with some 40,000 troops spread from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Leaders are expected to agree to deploy four new combat units in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia to further reassure countries on its eastern flank.

“Nobody can feel safe now,” said Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda.

ENERGY

Russia has been frozen out of world commerce to a degree never before visited on such a large economy.

But the biggest loophole to sanctions is an exception for its energy exports. Some EU member states are resisting calls to ban Russian oil and gas, as they rely heavily on them.

In a tweet, Ukraine’s foreign ministry told the EU leaders to “stop financing the war, stop paying for Russian energy”.

EU leaders are expected to agree at their two-day summit to jointly buy gas, as they seek to cut reliance on Russian fuels and build a buffer against supply shocks. 

Brussels is also aiming to strike a deal with Biden to secure additional U.S. liquefied natural gas supplies for the next two winters.

Photo: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with the President of the Unites States of America, Joe BidenPhoto courtesy of NATO

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