NATO signals support for Ukraine in the face of Russian threat

KYIV, Ukraine – Faced with a construction threat from Russia, the Ukrainian president asked for security guarantees from the NATO chief during a meeting on Thursday and left with a renewed commitment that his country could eventually join the military alliance despite strong objections from its Russian neighbors.

While the timing of the chief’s statement, Jens Stoltenberg, sent an unequivocal message of support, it did not come with the commitments of military assistance that Ukrainian officials pleaded to dissuade, or perhaps defend against, a Russian military incursion. .

Alongside Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Stoltenberg denounced the Russian military build-up but said nothing about providing Ukraine with the additional weapons or troops it was looking for. He referred to a 2008 summit in which NATO members pledged to join Ukraine and Georgia.

“We stand by this decision,” he said, without specifying a deadline.

Ukraine has been locked in a bitter war with Russian-backed separatists since 2014, which has claimed the lives of more than 13,000. Although there is no indication that it would be ready to join NATO Soon, Russian leaders are arguing that the prospect alone is a threat to Moscow’s national security, and have indicated they would be prepared to use force to stop it.

More than 100,000 Russian troops have been deployed to areas of northern, eastern and southern Ukraine, along with heavy artillery and tank units, as well as rocket forces armed with missiles capable of strike deeply in Ukraine, according to Western and Ukrainian officials. Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies predict that an incursion could begin in weeks or months.

It was Russia, Zelensky said Thursday – through its 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and continued military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine – that has pushed the country towards NATO. The alliance has an interest in supporting Ukraine at this time, he suggested, because if Russia attacks, NATO could be trained whether it likes it or not.

“NATO owes Ukraine nothing,” Zelensky said.

“If our army is not able to hold out,” he said, NATO will have to intervene to contain the fallout from a Russian attack that could affect its member states.

The United States, the European Union and NATO have all said any further Russian incursion into Ukraine will face severe, escalated and extraordinary economic sanctions, including the likelihood of killing a favorite Kremlin project, the North Gas Pipeline. Stream 2 to Germany, which bypasses Ukraine. The United States has also suggested that NATO will strengthen its troop presence near Russia’s borders.

EU leaders, who will also hold a summit meeting on Thursday, met Zelensky on Wednesday. At their meeting on Thursday, they are expected to issue a stern warning to Russia of “massive consequences and significant costs” if Russian President Vladimir V. Putin launches a new military operation against Ukraine, according to a draft statement. .

There is no indication that Mr. Putin has decided whether or not to launch such an attack, and there is no consensus among Western officials and analysts as to why he might want to do so now. But for much of this year, Mr Putin has been fixated on Ukraine, seemingly angry that a country so close to Russia in culture, language and geography has strayed from its orbit.

At the very least, observers say, the military build-up appears to be part of an attempt to pressure NATO countries to overthrow what the Kremlin sees as a plot to wrest Ukraine away.

NATO considers the idea of ​​such a plot absurd.

More than a dozen NATO countries have military advisers in Ukraine, including 150 US special forces and the National Guard. The United States alone has spent $ 2.5 billion on security assistance, which includes high-tech surveillance equipment, armed patrol boats, and Javelin anti-tank systems.

But since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the alliance has no obligation to defend it in the event of an attack.

This, however, brought no visible comfort to the Kremlin, which has described NATO’s activities in Ukraine as an existential threat, even as the Russian leadership has dismissed the threat posed by their own military build-up on the Ukrainian border.

In telephone conversations this week with the British and French leaders, two of NATO’s largest members, as well as the President of Finland, a close NATO partner, Mr Putin made a similar request: immediate opening of negotiations to codify strict limits on NATO enlargement, in particular with regard to the extension of membership to Ukraine.

Mr Putin sent a similar message to President Biden during a video call last week that aimed to ease tensions over Ukraine.

But Western officials have said Putin’s demand for strict limits on NATO expansion has failed.

“NATO’s support for Ukraine is not a threat to Russia,” Stoltenberg said on Thursday. “Ukraine has the right to choose its own security arrangements. It is a fundamental principle of European security. And the decision of whether Ukraine can join NATO will be made by Ukraine and 30 NATO allies alone. “

In the face of such refusals, the statements of Russian leaders have become increasingly belligerent. Last week, Sergei Ryabkov, deputy foreign minister and resource person for negotiations with the United States, said that while Russia hoped for a diplomatic solution to the current crisis, “our arsenal to normalize the situation” is important.

“We are sure of the reliability of our defenses and the ability of our armed forces to handle any task, so here there are no questions,” he said at a conference. Press.

On several occasions, Russian officials have warned that any attempt by Ukraine to launch military action against Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine will be repulsed by force, Mr. Putin recently accusing the Ukrainians of genocide.

There is no evidence that Ukraine is considering such action, and there has been no sign that the Ukrainian military is mobilizing troops in the face of the Russian reinforcement. Such accusations, however, have angered Ukrainian and Western officials, who say they fear the Kremlin is attempting possible intervention under different pretexts.

While Mr Putin has given no indication of his intention to order further military action in Ukraine, the strengthening of the Russian army continues. As of this week, according to the Ukrainian army, there were just over 100,000 troops stationed within striking range of the Ukrainian border, as well as over 1,300 tanks, 1,800 pieces of artillery and Iskander missile batteries. -M capable of launching rocket attacks deep within us. Ukrainian territory.

Much of the attention has been paid to Russian troop movements in eastern Ukraine, along the border with two separatist Ukrainian provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian forces continue to support a bloody insurgency.

But perhaps of more concern, according to military analysts, is a concentration of troops and equipment in the north and northeast. In both locations, the Russians have deployed a serious fighting force that experts say could be used to launch military action against the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

“If you push towards Kiev and you’re outside the capital, it’s not sustainable for the Ukrainian state,” said Robert Lee, a US Marine Corps veteran and doctorate holder. candidate at King’s College London who is a Russian military expert. “This is why the forces in the northern part are the real concern.”

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Brussels.

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