BRUSSELS, Feb 16 (Reuters) – NATO accused Russia on Wednesday of sending more troops to a massive military build-up around Ukraine, even as Moscow said that it was withdrawing forces and was open to diplomacy.
At the start of two days of talks among NATO defence ministers, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg appeared unconvinced the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine had lessoned, and voiced guarded hopes for diplomacy.
“We have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces. And of course, that contradicts the message of diplomatic efforts,” Soltenberg said. “What we see is that they have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way. So, so far, no de-escalation.”
World powers are engaged in one of the deepest crises in East-West relations for decades, jostling over post-Cold War influence and energy supplies as Moscow wants to stop the former Soviet state from ever joining the NATO military alliance.
NATO has refused to concede that demand from Moscow.
U.S. President Joe Biden spelled out the stakes in a televised address on Tuesday, in which he warned that more than 150,000 Russian troops were still massed near Ukraine’s borders.
The Russian defence ministry published video that it said showed tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery units leaving the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Stoltenberg cautioned that Russians have frequently repositioned military equipment and troops during the build-up.
“Movement of forces, of battle tanks, doesn’t confirm a real withdrawal,” he said.
NATO will consider new steps to deter Russia on its eastern flank on Wednesday.
Allies are also likely to pledge more troops and equipment to NATO members in eastern Europe, following a series of announcements over the past six weeks in response to the Russian threat in Ukraine’s north, east and south.
Diplomats said that could involve 4,000 new troops in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia.
Ministers will also consider the alliance’s nuclear deterrents, although discussions are highly confidential. Russia has amassed a large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.
The latest crisis has galvanized NATO and given the alliance a renewed sense of purpose after the soul-searching that followed last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“The escalation of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border is increasing and significant, and implores us as an alliance to continue to work together,” Canada’s Defence Minister Anita Anand said as she arrived for the meeting.
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