NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday welcomed U.S. plans to deploy more troops to Europe and said NATO is considering sending additional battle groups to the southeastern part of its alliance amid tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border.
Stoltenberg told reporters that while NATO is preparing for the possibility that Russia may take military action, NATO remains ready to engage in “meaningful dialogue” and find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
“NATO continues to call on Russia to deescalate. Any further Russian aggression would have severe consequences and carry a heavy price,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that the U.S. deployment is heightening tensions in the region.
The United States and other Western allies have been preparing economic sanctions to level against Russia in hopes of persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back the more than 100,000 troops Russia has near the border. Russia has denied it plans to invade Ukraine.
Stoltenberg said Thursday there has been a “significant movement of Russian military forces into Belarus,” Ukraine’s northern neighbor where Russia is set to take part in joint military drills this month.
“This is the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War,” Stoltenberg said.
Russia has demanded NATO pull back troops and weapons deployed in eastern European member countries, and to make clear that Ukraine cannot join the 30-member military alliance.
NATO and Ukraine have rejected those demands, saying countries are free to pick their allies.
But Stoltenberg said Thursday that NATO is ready to talk to Russia about relations between the two sides, and about risk reduction, increased transparency and arms control.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is meeting Thursday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the latest in a series of visits to Kyiv by world leaders and diplomats to show support for Ukraine and try to advance a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Erdogan has suggested Turkey, a NATO member that also has good relations with Russia, could act as a mediator.
Talks Wednesday between Putin and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not provide any breakthroughs. French President Emmanuel Macron was expected to have a phone conversation with Putin later Thursday.
Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden discussed the Russia-Ukraine situation in a call Wednesday, with the White House saying the two leaders reviewed diplomatic efforts and “preparations to impose swift and severe economic costs on Russia should it further invade Ukraine.”
The Norwegian Rights Council also warned Thursday about the effects on those living in eastern Ukraine if the crisis escalates.
After years of violence in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where Ukrainian forces have been battling Russia-backed separatists, the aid organization said the humanitarian needs are already high with nearly 3 million people relying on aid.
Increased fighting “would devastate already damaged civil infrastructure, further restrict peoples’ movements, block access to communities in need, and disrupt essential public services such as water, power, transport and banking,” the NRC said in a statement.
The U.S. said Wednesday it is dispatching 2,000 more troops to Europe, most of them to Poland, and moving 1,000 troops from Germany to Romania to bolster NATO’s eastern flank countries.
The additional U.S. troops, part of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, are “not going to fight in Ukraine” in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. Rather, he said, they are intended as an “unmistakable signal that we stand with NATO.”
Kirby said the new deployment is not permanent, but that the U.S. could dispatch more troops as warranted. Kirby said the deployment is separate from the 8,500 U.S. troops placed on heightened alert last week for possible dispatch to Europe.
The Defense Department spokesperson said the U.S. still does not believe Putin has “made a decision on invading Ukraine.”
But Kirby said the Russian leader is “showing no signs of being willing to de-escalate” and has continued to add troops in Russian-aligned Belarus to Ukraine’s north and along Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine.
Kirby said the U.S. is “prepared for a range of contingencies” involving Putin’s actions toward Ukraine. The spokesman said the new deployment is “not the sum total of the deterrence.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba addressed the conflict in a broader context at a news conference Wednesday, saying, “I’m confident that Russia’s war on Ukraine and wider Europe will ultimately end when two fundamental issues are resolved. First, the West should turn from reactive to proactive strategies when dealing with Russia.”
He added, “Ambiguity on Ukraine’s role as an indivisible part of the West has to be put to an end. The Ukrainian people chose this course and defended it at a high price.”
“We are historically, politically and culturally a part of the West,” Kuleba said. “It is time to end harmful ambiguity which serves as a temptation for the Kremlin to continue its attempts to undermine Ukraine or reverse its course against the will of the Ukrainian people.”
Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse and Reuters.