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NATO chief sees no retreat by Russian forces near Ukraine’s border

STUTTGART, Germany — NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen rejected Russia’s claim on Monday that it was pulling massed troops back from the border with Ukraine, where unrest and Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula have refocused the 28-nation NATO alliance on security in its own backyard.

NATO has dismissed previous claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin about the withdrawal of troops from Ukrainian border, in some cases offering satellite imagery to challenge his assertions.

“I think it is the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops, but so far we haven’t seen any withdrawal of troops at all,” Rasmussen said during a Monday news conference in Brussels.

Now, NATO must focus on a re-emerging Russian threat, Rasmussen said.

Western governments have accused Russia of massing 40,000 troops near the Ukrainian border in an effort to intimidate the new regime in Kiev.

“We have seen the Russian military doctrine that NATO is considered an adversary,” Rasmussen sad. “And I think we should take that seriously, it’s not just words. So we have to adapt accordingly to review our defense plans, enhance our exercises and also consider appropriate deployments.”

As the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election nears, Rasmussen called on Russia to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, where a Russian separatist movement broke out after the February ouster of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych. Moscow and Western countries have traded charges that other side has interfered in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

For NATO, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has focused attention on bolstering the alliance’s security presence in eastern Europe and the Baltics. This includes such measures as more fighter jet rotations through the Baltics, more war ships in regional waters and assorted war games with ground troops.

However, Rasmussen also warned of more potential instability in other parts of eastern Europe, including Moldova and Georgia, two countries that are seeking closer ties with the European Union.

“We have seen Russia put a lot of pressure on countries in their near neighborhood as they are approaching the European Union for progress,” Rasmussen said.

Moldova, home to the pro-Russia breakaway region of Trans-Dniester, and Georgia, with two breakaway states of its own — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — could face intimidation from Russia as they seek to to integrate with Europe, Rasmussen said.

“Of course, we don’t know exactly which instruments the Russians will use, but based on experience, that might include gas prices, gas supply, trade restrictions and also attempts to further destabilize the situation in those countries through the exploitation of the protracted conflicts in Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Rasmussen said. “I think only imagination sets limits to what the Russians might use.”

Such blunt commentary from NATO’s top civilian official was unheard of only months ago, but the conflict with Russia over Ukraine has altered Europe’s political and security landscape.

Rasmussen also voiced concern over a “Russian doctrine” according to which Moscow allegedly reserves the right to intervene when it deems the interests of minority ethnic Russian populations in foreign countries are at risk.

“Our eastern European allies are gravely concerned by Russian behavior,” he said. “This doctrine is not just words and can easily be turned into action.”

As NATO works to update its defense plans, it will need to take into account a newly assertive Russia, Rasmussen said, noting that current plans were based on the assumption Russia did not pose a threat the alliance.

Specific measures are expected to be taken up at NATO’s September summit in Whales, where alliance spending on defense also will likely be a point of contention. As Russia has increased spending by about 10 percent per year for the past five years, defense budgets across much of Europe have been slashed.

“This trend must be reversed,” Rasmussen said. “We can’t continue that way, taking the new security situation in Europe into account. European allies must invest more in defense.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

 

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