Brussels (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.
Separately, a senior Western intelligence official warned that Russian military exercises were at their peak stage and the risk of Russian aggression against Ukraine would remain high for the rest of February.
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 lessened, 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,” Stoltenberg 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.”
Moscow wants to stop the former Soviet state from ever joining the NATO military alliance. NATO has refused to concede that demand and defence ministers sought to show a united front on Wednesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden warned on Tuesday 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.
The senior Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said intelligence showed Russian military exercises would be at their most active during the remainder of February.
“We are at a peak period where the exercises that the Russians had announced are in their active phases,” the official said, adding that Russia would likely fire ballistic missiles eastwards from Belarus as part of its drills.
“There are no credible signs at this point that there will be any kind of military de-escalation,” the official said.
Russia could now attack Ukraine “with essentially no, or little-to-no, warning,” the official said.
Stoltenberg cautioned that Russia has 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 is considering new steps to deter Russia on its eastern flank on Wednesday, in response to the Russian threat in Ukraine’s north, east and south.
Diplomats said that could involve 4,000 new troops in four battlegroups in Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Hungary and Slovakia.
Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad, speaking on Tuesday before heading to NATO, said the Czech Republic could be part of a battlegroup in Slovakia but discussions were only at the beginning. Prague was not immediately available to comment.
“If we create structure here that will be made of units that have capabilities that Slovakia lacks, and that is what we are working on, then it not only strengthens our defence abilities but also saves means,” he said.
Ministers also considered the alliance’s nuclear deterrents, although discussions were 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.