The United Kingdom is considering a major NATO deployment in a plan to strengthen Europe’s borders amid rising “Russian hostility” towards Ukraine, after Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops to the country’s border.
The UK has said any Russian incursion into Ukraine would be met with swift sanctions and would be devastating for both sides.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to visit the region next week, and is also expected to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone.
“This package would send a clear message to the Kremlin – we will not tolerate their destabilising activity, and we will always stand with our NATO allies in the face of Russian hostility,” Johnson said in a statement late on Saturday.
The offer could double the number of UK troops in eastern Europe and see “defensive weapons” sent to Estonia, Johnson’s office said. There are about 1,150 UK troops in the region at the moment.
“I have ordered our Armed Forces to prepare to deploy across Europe next week, ensuring we are able to support our NATO allies,” Johnson said.
But Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Sunday it is highly unlikely British soldiers would be sent to fight alongside Ukrainian troops in case of a Russian invasion.
Asked by the BBC if there was any scenario in which British troops would be deployed to Ukraine, Truss said: “That is very unlikely. This is about making sure that the Ukrainian forces have all the support we can give them.”
NATO’s chief also said on Sunday the alliance would not send soldiers to non-NATO member Ukraine in the event of a Russian attack.
“We have no plans to deploy NATO combat troops to Ukraine … we are focusing on providing support,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC.
“There is a difference between being a NATO member and being a strong and highly valued partner as Ukraine. There’s no doubt about that.”
Officials will finalise the details of the UK troop offer at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, this week, with ministers discussing the military options on Monday. The head of the armed forces will brief the UK cabinet on the situation in Ukraine the following day.
With Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, tensions have risen, and relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Russia has also sent more troops to the frontier with Belarus, which lies to the north of Ukraine, as it steps up demands for wide-ranging security guarantees, including that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.
The situation on Ukraine’s border with Russia is “increasingly concerning”, Johnson said on Sunday.
“I continue to urge Russia to engage in negotiations and avoid a reckless and catastrophic invasion,” he said on Twitter.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow wanted “mutually respectful” relations with Washington.
“We want good, equal, mutually respectful relations with the United States, like with every country in the world,” Lavrov told Russia’s Channel One. “Learning from bitter experience, we do not want to remain in a position where our security is infringed daily.”
Amid criticism that his government – under intense pressure at home over a series of scandals – has not been doing enough, Johnson will make a second trip to meet NATO counterparts early next month, his office said.
Johnson’s foreign and defence ministers will also go to Moscow for talks with their Russian counterparts in coming days, with the aim of improving relations and de-escalating tensions.
The UK is also expected to announce the toughening of its sanctions regime on Russia in parliament on Monday to target strategic and financial interests.
Ukraine has turned increasingly westwards since Moscow seized Crimea in 2014 and began fuelling a separatist conflict in the east of the country that has led to the deaths of more than 13,000 people.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Western countries to remain “vigilant and firm” in talks with Moscow.