For the second time in a week, Germany has raised concerns over Russia’s military build-up along its border with Ukraine, as fears mount over a possible escalation in hostilities in the region.
Moscow has in recent weeks amassed tens of thousands of troops as well as tanks and artillery near Ukraine’s eastern border. It also mobilised troops in the annexed Black Sea region of Crimea, which it seized in March 2014.
Meanwhile, fighting has intensified in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.
German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Wednesday told ARD public television she believed Russia was “trying everything to provoke a reaction” and was “just waiting for a move, so to speak, from NATO, to have a pretext to continue its actions”.
Her comments follow Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plea last Thursday to Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back the troops.
Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed that NATO, of which Germany is a member, would stand by Ukraine in the conflict but added that neither the alliance nor Ukraine itself would be drawn into Russia’s “game”.
She praised Kyiv for reacting in a “sober” manner so far and voiced doubt over Moscow’s claim that it had sent the troops for combat drills because of “threats” from NATO.
“If it is a manoeuvre like the Russian side says, there are international procedures through which one can create transparency and trust,” she said, adding that Germany was monitoring developments.
A day earlier, NATO, which counts Ukraine as an ally, urged Russia to end its “unjustified” military build-up.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking alongside Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, called the movement of forces the “largest massing of Russian troops” since Russia annexed Crimea.
Biden proposes talks with Putin
Also on Tuesday, the US, a leading NATO member, intervened in the crisis.
President Joe Biden called on Putin to reduce tensions in the region and proposed a summit of the estranged leaders to tackle a number of disputes.
The call, which marked the second conversation between the two world leaders since Biden took office in January, came after Russia warned Washington to keep US warships due to arrive in the Black Sea this week well away from Crimea.
“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,” the White House said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Biden’s offer of talks would be “studied”.
The Russian navy on Wednesday began a military exercise in the Black Sea ahead of the arrival of the US warships, Russian news agencies reported.
The drills involve surface ships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which is based in Crimea, as well as helicopters and planes. They will rehearse firing at surface and air targets, agencies said.
Tensions with NATO
Moscow has blamed NATO and the US for turning Ukraine into a “powder keg” with increasing arms supplies to Ukraine.
While Kyiv has welcomed shows of Western support, they fall short of Ukraine’s desire for full NATO membership – which Moscow opposes.
Ukraine has accused Russia of ignoring its request for talks between the two countries over Russia’s military build-up.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied interfering in Donbas, but Ukraine and several Western countries have said separatist forces in the region have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russia.
On Tuesday, in the first public description of the military build-up, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow had moved two armies and three paratrooper units to its western border as part of a large snap drill meant to test combat readiness and respond to what he called threatening military action by NATO.
Russia has previously accused NATO of destabilising Europe with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea.
Shoigu said on state television that the three-week exercise, which he said was successful, was due to wrap up in the next two weeks.
He also claimed NATO was deploying 40,000 troops and 15,000 pieces of military equipment near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions. NATO denies any such plans.