NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed the Western military alliance’s “unwavering” support for Ukraine and warned Moscow on Tuesday not to push its troop buildup along Russia’s border with the neighboring country.
“NATO stands with Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said during a news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, calling the Russian movements “unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning.”
The comments came amid a rise in cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have been locked in a conflict since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. More than 14,000 people have died in fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014, and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.
Stoltenberg called Moscow’s recent troop deployment the biggest military buildup since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began.
“Russia has moved thousands of combat troops to Ukraine’s borders, the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Over the last days, several Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in eastern Ukraine,” he said.
The Ukrainian foreign minister sounded defiant toward Moscow, and said Ukraine and its Western partners were better prepared than seven years ago.
“Should Moscow take any reckless move or start a new spiral of violence, it will be costly in all senses,” Kuleba said.
A special NATO meeting Tuesday on Ukraine would make sure the alliance is not caught unawares, he said.
“By gathering today, we try to avoid the mistake that was made in 2014 when Russia was ready to act swiftly and pursue its military goals,” Kuleba said. “By gathering today, we try to avoid the mistake that was made in 2014, when Russia was ready to act swiftly and pursue its military goals.”
Ukraine has said Russia has accumulated 41,000 troops at its border with eastern Ukraine and 42,000 more in Crimea. The numbers are likely to grow as the troops keep arriving.
The Kremlin has maintained that Russia is free to deploy its troops wherever it wants on its territory and has repeatedly accused the Ukrainian military of “provocative actions” along the line of control and of planning to retake control of the rebel regions by force.
Kremlin officials charged that Kyiv’s actions have threatened Russia’s security, warning that Russia may intervene to protect Russian speakers in the east.
Underlying Tuesday’s meeting is also Ukraine’s wish to become a member of NATO over the vehement objections of Moscow.
Stoltenberg insisted it was up to the alliance’s 30 members to decide who could join the group, “and no one else has any right to try to meddle or to interfere in that process. It’s a sovereign right of every nation like Ukraine to apply for membership.”
“This is an important principle, because Russia is now trying to reestablish some kind of sphere of influence where they try to decide what neighbors can do. And that is a world we are really trying to leave behind,” the NATO chief said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to join Stoltenberg on Wednesday to assess the Russian troop buildup, among other issues.
“Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said.