NATO warns of 'sizeable' Russian force mobilised on Ukraine border
NATO's top military commander said Russia has built up a "very sizeable" force on its border with Ukraine and that Moscow may have a region in another ex-Soviet republic, Moldova, in its sights after annexing Crimea.
Russia was acting more like an adversary than a partner, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove said, adding the 28-nation alliance should rethink the positioning and readiness of its forces in Eastern Europe.
Russian troops, using armoured vehicles, automatic weapons and stun grenades, seized some of the last military facilities under Ukrainian control on Saturday in Crimea. The move came as Ukrainians held an anti-war rally in Independence Square in Kiev yesterday.
Gen Breedlove was one of several Western officials to warn that Russia may not stop there. "The (Russian) force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready," the NATO commander told an event held by the German Marshall Fund think-tank.
US President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said the build-up might just be aimed at intimidating Ukraine's new pro-Western leaders but that Russia could invade the country's mainly Russian-speaking east. "It's possible that they are preparing to move in," he told CNN.
A meeting of the G7 group has been hastily convened for today in the Netherlands to allow leaders to discuss a response to Russia's actions. Mr Obama will also meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for bilateral talks.
Russia said it was complying with international agreements and had no plans to invade. It has called the soldiers who took over Ukrainian bases in Crimea "self-defence forces".
The US and the EU have targeted some of Mr Putin's closest political and business allies with personal sanctions and have threatened broader economic sanctions if Putin's forces encroach on other eastern or southern parts of Ukraine. Germany, which has close trade ties with Russia, said the EU was united in its readiness to impose sanctions on Russia if necessary, and that Moscow had the most to lose.
"None of us wants to escalate, but if Russia changes things unilaterally, then it must know that we won't accept it and that relations will be bad," Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told German television.
Mr Blinken said Washington was considering all requests for military assistance from the government in Kiev, but that it would be unlikely to prevent an invasion of Ukraine, which is not part of NATO.
Gen Breedlove said the military alliance needed to think about its eastern members, particularly the former Soviet Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. "We need to think about our allies, the positioning of our forces in the alliance and the readiness of those forces . . . such that we can be there to defend against it if required, especially in the Baltics and other places," he said.
He said NATO was very concerned about the threat to Transdniestria, which declared independence from Moldova in 1990 but has not been recognised by any United Nations member state. About 30pc of its half-million population is ethnic Russian and more than half of the total speak Russian as a mother tongue.
Russia has 440 peacekeepers in Transdniestria plus other soldiers guarding Soviet-era arms stocks. It launched a new military exercise, involving 8,500 artillery men, near Ukraine's eastern border 10 days ago.
The speaker of Transdniestria's parliament has urged Russia to incorporate the region, which lies to the west of Ukraine.
The new leaders in Kiev have said Moscow could seek to link up pro-Russian regions in Moldova, and Georgia to Ukraine's east, in a destabilising southern corridor with Crimea in the middle.
Moscow's ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov, said Russia did not have "expansionist views".