NATO foreign ministers will meet on Tuesday to discuss how to counter Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border amid fears the Kremlin is preparing to invade.
The long-planned rally in the Latvian capital Riga comes at a volatile time on NATO’s eastern flank, as allies also grapple with a migrant crisis that the West says is fueled by Belarus supported by the Kremlin.
Western countries led by the United States fear that Moscow is planning an incursion into Ukraine after accusing the Kremlin of gathering forces near the border.
“Russian intentions are unclear but there is an unusual concentration of forces for the second time this year,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told AFP during a visit by forces of the Alliance in Latvia.
“We are seeing heavy armor, drones, electronic warfare systems and tens of thousands of soldiers ready for battle.”
Moscow, which took Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and supports separatists fighting Kiev, has firmly denied it is planning an attack and accuses NATO of fueling tensions.
NATO diplomats say the bloc remains uncertain of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, but ministers will discuss contingency plans in the event of an invasion of Russia.
The US-led alliance seeks to show the Kremlin that it faces significant costs if it threatens Ukraine, while avoiding provoking Moscow into further aggression.
Officials expect talks on further support for the Ukrainian military and a potential strengthening of NATO forces deployed along its eastern wing.
But they stress that the NATO aspirant Ukraine – which will have its foreign minister at the two-day meeting – is not covered by the alliance’s collective defense pact.
“We don’t want to leave any doubt in the minds of the people that there will be serious consequences, strategic consequences for Russia, if it pursues the kind of path that we fear it may be,” a senior said. American official.
“It’s about finding the right signals and the right posture of deterrence that actually leads to de-escalation rather than escalation.”
US President Joe Biden said on Friday he was likely to address the leaders of Russia or Ukraine in an attempt to defuse the growing tensions.
Growing fears around Ukraine come as NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia face another threat from the east that will be a priority in Riga.
They accuse Moscow’s ally, Belarus, of having channeled thousands of migrants mainly from the Middle East to their borders as part of a “hybrid attack” in retaliation for EU sanctions against Minsk.
President Alexander Lukashenko rejects this request.
NATO has expressed “solidarity” with its members in the East, but has been largely left out as the threat level hovers in a gray area just before actual aggression.
Polish President Andrzej Duda spoke of the increase in the number of NATO forces deployed on its eastern flanks during a meeting with Stoltenberg last week.
But an initiative to trigger emergency consultations under Article 4 of the alliance’s founding treaty appears to have been on hold for the time being.
Speaking on a joint tour of the Baltic states on Sunday, Stoltenberg and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen pledged to step up cooperation against such challenges.
Border tensions have eased slightly as some migrants have started returning to Iraq, but Warsaw and Vilnius insist the crisis is far from over.
“There is no doubt that the Lukashenko regime and the forces supporting it will continue to test the unity of the Western world and their capacity to react,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said.
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