NATO’s top official again issued a stern warning to Russia on Tuesday, but stopped short of signaling whether the alliance would consider sending military assets into Poland following a meeting focused on concerns that the crisis in Ukraine could somehow spill into its territory.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who also announced that the alliance will meet with Russian officials on Wednesday to discuss the dispute over Ukraine, urged Moscow to respect Ukrainian borders.
“These developments have direct and serious implications for the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area,” Rasmussen said. “NATO allies stand together in the spirit of strong solidarity in this grave crisis.”
Rasmussen did not say whether Poland or any other member state had formally requested that NATO forces or any other assets be deployed to their territory, following a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s top decision-making body. The meeting followed a request by Poland for consultations under NATO’s Article 4, according to which any ally can demand consultations if it perceived a threat to its security or territorial integrity.
In a statement, the council, which comprises all 28 member countries, said Russia’s continued violation of “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” presents “serious implications for the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.”
“Allies stand together in the spirit of strong solidarity in this grave crisis,” the statement said.
Last week, Russian forces seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region, causing perhaps Europe’s most significant political crisis since the end of the Cold War. For some eastern European countries, signs of Russian aggression in former Soviet satellite states stoked old fears about a Russia with imperialist ambitions.
The United States has been considering a range of economic sanctions as part of an effort to isolate Russia and persuade it to withdraw. So far, however, there appears little appetite in Europe to place harsh penalties on Russia, which is a major gas supplier to much of the Continent.
In Brussels, a senior NATO diplomat noted that the general sense was that the alliance’s options were limited to providing a few air or ground units in order to reassure east European allies like Poland, although there was no evidence that they face any security threat from Russia.
“There is a concern that Moscow will retaliate to any move it perceives as truly provocative,” said the envoy who spoke on customary condition of anonymity.
If Moscow chooses to escalate the crisis, it could shut down NATO’s vital overland supply route to Afghanistan, and put on hold an agreement to help the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal, the diplomat said.
Other measures could include arming Syria and Iran with sophisticated long-range anti-aircraft and anti-shipping missiles, the envoy said.
Allies usually invoke Article 4 to discuss their security needs, and in some cases it results in the deployment of forces. For example, in 2012 Turkey sought support after one of its fighter jets was shot down by Syrian air defense forces and Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian shells. The alliance responded with the deployment of Patriot missile batteries to Turkey’s border with Syria.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev in a sign of support for the new authorities there. During his visit, Kerry offered Ukraine a $1 billion loan guarantee.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday described the new government’s rise to power as a coup against the democratically elected president who has fled to Russia.
In televised remarks, Putin gave no indication that he had any intention of pushing Russian troops deeper into Ukraine. As for whether Crimea might break away from Ukraine, Putin said that was a matter for local residents to decide.
“It’s up to people living in a certain territory, if they can exercise their free will, and determine their future. For example, if Kosovo’s Albanians were allowed to do that, self-determination, which according to U.N. documents is a right, but we will never instigate it, never support such trends,” said Putin, as quoted by The New York Times.
While Russia’s next move remains unclear, a military response by the West appears to be well off the table. No western political official of consequence has called for any kind of military answer to Russian aggression.
So far, the only tangible penalties that have been imposed on Russia have been the Pentagon’s decision to cancel military cooperation activities and exercises with Russia. U.S. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said on Monday the U.S. continues to weigh its options on the diplomatic front as it ponders possible sanctions.
“So just to reiterate, one, we’re not talking – no one’s preference is a military action in Ukraine. That’s why we’re pulling every lever we can on the economic end and on the political end,” Psaki said.