BRUSSELS: The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) yesterday said it could not confirm the withdrawal of Russian troops from near the flashpoint Ukrainian border as Russia heaped even more pressure on a teetering Ukraine economy with a painful gas price hike.
Foreign ministers from the western alliance gathered in Brussels to try and forge a response to Russia annexation of Crimea last month, amid tentative signs of a calming in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
Ukraine’s parliament met one of Moscow’s key demands by voting unanimously to disarm all self-defence groups that sprang up across the country during its political crisis that first erupted over a ditched EU alliance in late November.
But tensions still remained high over two weeks after Moscow formally annexed Crimea and Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned he could not confirm that Russia had pulled away from the Ukrainian border, as announced by the Kremlin.
“This is not what we have seen,” Rasmussen said as Nato ministers gathered for two days of talks, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew in between shuttle diplomacy stops in the Middle East.
Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of massing thousands of troops near the border and have expressed concern that Moscow intends to seize southeastern parts of Ukraine that are home to large populations of ethnic Russians, following the Crimea takeover.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office said Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally informed her of the troop pullback in a telephone conversation and yesterday said she had “no reason” to doubt his word. Ukraine also reported on Monday that Russian troops were leaving the sensitive area adding it appeared to coincide with a phone call that Putin had unexpectedly placed to US President Barack Obama on Friday.
With the assurances from Moscow, Nato seemed to be stepping back from a floated idea to reinforce the alliance’s military presence in countries bordering Russia, preferring for now to give more time to talks. “I think everybody realises that the best way forward is a political and diplomatic dialogue,” Rasmussen said, though he added Nato was “very determined to provide effective defence and protection of our allies”.
One counter-measure apparently off the table for now is the idea to set up permanent military bases in Nato countries bordering with Russia.
The move would be highly controversial for Moscow, reversing an informal agreement made when Nato expanded east to include former Warsaw Pact countries that were eager to break away from years of Soviet domination. But Dutch foreign minister Frank Timmermans said that for now “we don’t need Nato troops at the border with Russia,” adding there was “no need for sudden moves”. AFP