Russia warned last night that relations with the West had reached a “critical line” over the Ukraine crisis and demanded that Nato drop its attempts to draw the country closer.
“Inflaming the confrontation against our nation is absolutely unacceptable,” the Russian foreign ministry said, accusing the West of “encouraging Russophobia” and ignoring its concerns about Nato expansion.
“Instead of putting their Ukrainian protégés in their place, Nato countries are pushing Kiev towards aggressive steps,” the ministry added, echoing remarks made by President Putin in recent days.
It said there was no other way to interpret western naval manoeuvres in the Black Sea and the “provocative flights” staged by strategic bombers on Russia’s borders. The Kremlin needed security guarantees because of the risk of missiles “with minimal flight times to central Russia” being deployed by Nato in Ukraine.
The outburst followed a pledge by Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato chief, yesterday to support Ukraine’s efforts to join the military alliance. “Russia must de-escalate, respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity [and] return to diplomacy,” he said at a news conference in Paris alongside Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, and Florence Parly, the defence minister. “The crisis requires a political and diplomatic solution.”
President Biden had earlier emphasised the United States’ “sacred commitment” to defending fellow Nato states in eastern Europe and promised them military support amid a build-up of 100,000 Russian troops on the borders of Ukraine.
Russia demanded that Nato backtrack on the promise made to Ukraine and Georgia at its Bucharest summit in 2008 that they would move towards membership. Stoltenberg has insisted that Russia cannot veto the accession.
In fact, analysts suggest there is no chance of Ukraine getting membership soon, but Moscow remains angry about a perceived growth in western military backing for its neighbour’s army, which has received training from US special forces and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Biden phoned the leaders of nine Nato states in the region — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia — on Thursday to “underscore the United States’ commitment to transatlantic security and our sacred commitment to Nato’s Article 5”, the White House said.
President Karis of Estonia said that he had understood from the conversation that “if necessary, extra troops would be moved to Nato countries”.
Asta Skaisgiryte, an advisor to President Nauseda of Lithuania, told reporters that Biden had said “additional reassurance elements are possible and additional military capabilities”.
Article 5 of Nato’s founding treaty states that an attack on any member state is an attack on all of them.
Eastern and central European states have been unnerved by the massing of Russian troops near Ukraine’s border. Ukrainian troops have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbas region since 2014, and there are fears that Washington might seek a deal with Moscow on the local conflict in order to defuse the bigger crisis.
However, Biden assured the leaders that decisions on their fate would not be taken without consultation. “He said, ‘nothing about you without you’,” added Skaisgiryte. He gave a similar pledge to President Zelensky of Ukraine earlier in the day, the White House said.
In Warsaw, Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, warned yesterday that “the spectre of armed conflict” on the European Union’s eastern border had never been more serious.
Morawiecki, 53, heaped pressure on the new German government to put a stop to Nord Stream 2, the Russian gas pipeline project. “It’s supposed to be a symbol and instrument of Russian hegemony in central and eastern Europe,” he told La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper. “A conditional approval of Nord Stream 2 [by Germany] and the absence of sanctions against Russia would mean a politics of concessions is up against the imperial politics of the Kremlin. It would be proof of Europe’s weakness.”
Morawiecki’s government said recently it would more than double the size of Poland’s military to counter Putin’s ambitions “to restore the Russian empire”. Nord Stream 2 would make Europe “even more reliant” on Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy conglomerate, and deprive “transit countries” such as Ukraine of their ability to stand up to Moscow.
Olaf Scholz’s new coalition government in Berlin is being urged by the US and Britain, among others, to draw up plans to block the pipelines if Putin moves against Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 was completed in the summer but is still waiting for approval from the German network regulator.
Putin said on Thursday that what was happening in Donbas “certainly looks like genocide”, but he did not provide evidence to back his claim.