Tensions between Russia and the West rose on Tuesday over fears Moscow is attempting to escalate its conflict with Ukraine over the Donbas region.
Addressing reporters alongside Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accused Russia of having moved “thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine’s borders”.
Stoltenberg urged Russia against the “unjustified” and “largest massing of Russian troops” since Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula in March 2014, after an uprising that toppled former Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, and called on Moscow to reverse course.
“Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said, describing the troop deployment as “deeply concerning”.
Meanwhile, Moscow on Tuesday accused NATO and leading member the United States of turning Ukraine into a “powder keg” with increasing arms supplies, Russian agencies reported, citing the foreign ministry.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying that military support provided by Washington to Kyiv posed a serious challenge to Russia, and warned that Moscow would do everything possible to ensure its security in the event of an escalation in the Donbas conflict.
Ryabkov also urged Washington to ensure two US warships due to arrive in the Black Sea this week stay well away from Crimea “for their own good”, saying the risk of unspecified incidents was very high.
“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 cited as saying.
Ukrainian government troops have battled Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which form part of Donbas, since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.
While a ceasefire halted full-scale warfare in the area in 2015, sporadic clashes never ceased and fears of an escalation in hostilities have mounted in recent weeks amid renewed front-line clashes and Russia’s reported mass deployment of military units close to Ukraine’s eastern border and in the Black Sea region of Crimea.
Russia says the troop movements pose no threat and are merely defensive, describing them as preparation for regular drills. Moscow has also said the military units would remain there as long as it saw fit.
While Moscow has repeatedly denied interfering in Donbas, Ukraine and several Western countries have said separatist forces in the region have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russia.
NATO’s plea came a day after Kyiv accused the Kremlin of ignoring its request for talks between the two countries’ presidents over the military build-up.
Ukraine’s Kuleba said on Tuesday that Kyiv would continue to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
But he added that further economic sanctions against Moscow and more military support could help protect Ukraine from an escalation.
“At the operational level, we need measures which will deter Russia and which will contain its aggressive intentions,” Kuleba told the news conference.
Ukraine is an ally of NATO, but not a member. In recent weeks, Kyiv has urged the alliance to hasten its membership, saying it was the only way to end the conflict in Donbas, while Moscow has warned against such a move.
NATO has told Kyiv to focus on rolling out domestic reforms and developing its defence capabilities, in order to be considered for membership.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said the comments made clear Kyiv believed current support from NATO “did not go far enough”.
“What Ukraine wants is the full backing of NATO,” she said. “It would get that as a NATO member, and in that way would feel that Russia would have to stand down and stop what it calls threats to its sovereignty.”
Biden proposes summit
US President Joe Biden, in a phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, emphasised Washington’s “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty and expressed concern over the Russian military build up, the White House said on Tuesday.
“The president voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions,” it added in a statement.
Biden also proposed a summit between the two leaders in a third country.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Brussels for talks on Tuesday with NATO leaders and Ukraine’s foreign minister, echoed Biden, saying US stood firmly behind Ukraine.
Blinken also said he would discuss Kyiv’s ambitions to one day join NATO – although France and Germany have long worried that bringing the former Soviet republic into the Western alliance would antagonise Russia.