WASHINGTON – NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has assured Ukraine of the alliance’s backing amid what he called an “unusual concentration” of Russian forces in the area.
Speaking at a press conference Nov. 15 in Brussels with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Stoltenberg said NATO members would continue to provide “significant political and practical support,” including military training, to Ukraine as the standoff continues.
Ukrainian officials fear the current military context could foreshadow a repeat of Russian moves that led to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. NATO and the European Union consider that claim to be in violation of international law.
Asked about Russia’s posture, Kuleba said Moscow’s intentions are still hard to read.
“It is premature to say what exactly will ... be the Russian scenario — whether the military build-up is the main plan, and it will be accompanied by efforts to destabilize Ukraine from the inside, or whether the military build-up will serve as a background force, as a background argument for destabilizing efforts undertaken by Russia domestically,” he said. “We have to be ready for all scenarios, for all options.”
Stoltenberg stopped short of warning of an outright invasion of Ukraine, calling on Russia to be transparent about its plans for the troops amassed near the border. Having so many troops at the ready puts Moscow in position to act quickly on any orders for actual “military aggression,” leaving Ukraine and NATO with little warning time, he said.
“We have to be clear-eyed, we need to be realistic about the challenges we face,” Stoltenberg added. “And what we see is significant, large Russian military build-up. We see an unusual concentration of troops. And we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capabilities before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview broadcasted Sunday he rejected a defense ministry proposal to hold snap Black Sea drills in response to what he called “unplanned” U.S. and NATO drills, saying “there is no need to further escalate the situation.”
The Pentagon remains concerned with Russia’s “unusual” military activity, spokesman John Kirby said Monday. Kirby said U.S. exercises are defensive in nature and transparent.
“There’s been no transparency from the Russian side about this concentration of forces in the western part of their country, and we continue to urge them to be so transparent,” Kirby said.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said he sees recent Russian moves as a “steady escalation.” This spring, Russia massed forces near Ukraine, leaving weapons and vehicles behind before Putin this summer stepped up rhetoric questioning Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“An expansion of the current kinetic conflict in Ukraine is not inevitable ... but the pieces are increasingly being put into place should the Kremlin decide to act,” Hodges said Friday. “The Russians only do stop when they are stopped.”
Meanwhile, officials in Washington began debating NATO’s course of action last week following reports U.S. intelligence officials had warned European governments about the seriousness of the crisis.
In an interview with Defense News, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, argued it’s time for President Joe Biden to put the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Romania on alert, surge U.S. cyber assistance for Ukraine and send ships and aim satellites toward the region to gather intelligence.
“They always say Russia went to school on us in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re going to see [Russian] weaponry and capabilities we haven’t seen before, and we need to be watching everything,” Turner, a senior member of the armed services and intelligence panels, said Friday.
Turner, also a former chairman of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, said Biden should invite Stoltenberg to meet with him in Washington and that NATO’s top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, needs to meet to decide next steps.
“People need to understand the Biden administration has options, and they need to take those options,” he said.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.