NATO sends ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe

BRUSSELS –
NATO said on Monday it was putting additional forces on hold and sending more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe, as Ireland warned that new Russian war games off the coast of its shores were unwelcome given tensions over President Vladimir Putin’s intention to attack Ukraine.

The US-led military organization said it was strengthening its “deterrent” presence in the Baltic Sea region. Denmark sends a frigate and deploys F-16 warplanes to Lithuania; Spain will also send warships and may send fighter planes to Bulgaria; and France stands ready to send troops to Bulgaria.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO “will take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies”. He said, “We will always respond to any deterioration in our security environment, including by strengthening our collective defence.”

The announcement came as European Union foreign ministers sought to show new resolve on behalf of Ukraine and raise concerns about divisions over how best to deal with any Russian aggression.

“We are showing unprecedented unity on the situation in Ukraine, with strong coordination with the United States,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chairs their meeting, told reporters in Brussels.

Asked if the EU would follow a US decision and order the families of EU embassy staff in Ukraine to leave, Borrell said: “We are not going to do the same.” He said he was looking forward to hearing from Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the decision.

Britain also announced on Monday that it was withdrawing some diplomats and dependents from its embassy in Kyiv. The Foreign Office said the move was “in response to the growing threat from Russia”.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said the US decision was “a premature step” and a sign of “excessive caution”. He said Russia was spreading panic among Ukrainians and foreigners in order to destabilize Ukraine.

Germany is monitoring developments, but German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stressed that “we must not contribute to further destabilizing the situation; we must continue to support the Ukrainian government very clearly and above all maintain the stability of the country.

Arriving at the EU meeting, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he would inform his counterparts that Russia planned to hold war games 240 kilometers off the southwest coast of Ireland – in international waters but within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

“Now is not the time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what is happening with and in Ukraine.” said Coveney. “The fact that they are choosing to do it on the western borders, if you will, of the EU, off the coast of Ireland, is something that we think is just not welcome and not not desired at this time, especially in the coming weeks. ”

At Monday’s meeting, which Blinken will attend virtually, ministers will reaffirm Europe’s condemnation of Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine, involving around 100,000 troops, tanks, artillery and heavy equipment, diplomats and officials before the meeting.

They will renew calls for dialogue, including through the European-backed “Normandy Format”, which helped ease hostilities in 2015, a year after Putin ordered the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The fighting in eastern Ukraine killed around 14,000 people and is still smoldering today.

If Putin were to intervene again in Ukraine, the ministers will warn, Russia would face “massive consequences and significant costs”. These costs would be financial and political in nature. The EU insists it is ready to impose heavy sanctions on Russia within days of any attack.

Over the weekend, some of Russia’s closest member countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – confirmed plans to send US-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a decision approved by the United States.

But questions have been raised about the degree of EU unification. Various political, trade and energy interests have long divided the 27-nation bloc in its approach to Moscow. Around 40% of EU natural gas imports come from Russia, much of it via pipelines through Ukraine.

Gas prices have soared and the head of the International Energy Agency said Russian energy giant Gazprom was already cutting exports to the EU at the end of 2021 despite high prices. Putin says Gazprom is meeting its contractual obligations and not putting pressure on Europe.

The two major EU powers seem the most cautious. The German Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, which is completed but has not yet pumped gas, has become a bargaining chip. French President Emmanuel Macron has renewed previously rejected calls for an EU summit with Putin.

Late last year, France and Germany initially expressed doubts about US intelligence assessments that Moscow might be preparing to invade.

Late Saturday, the head of the German navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, resigned after being criticized for saying that Ukraine would not return to the Crimean peninsula and for suggesting that Putin deserved “respect”. .

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban plans to meet Putin next week to discuss a Russian-backed project to expand a Hungarian nuclear power plant.

Still, diplomats and officials said tough sanctions were being worked out with the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission. But they were reluctant to say what the measures might be or what Russian action might trigger them.

The aim, they said, is to try to match the doubts Putin has sown about his intentions for Ukraine with the uncertainty about what any retaliatory European action might look like, or when it will happen. .

——

Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.

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