STUTTGART, Germany — NATO will cancel a joint mission with Russia to escort chemical weapons out of Syria in response to Russia’s continued military presence in Ukraine, the alliance’s top civilian official said late Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s prime minister vowed that his army was “ready to protect our country” if Russian forces moved deeper into Ukrainian territory.
“We have suspended the planning for our first NATO-Russia joint mission. The maritime escort for the U.S. ship Cape Ray, which will neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after a emergency meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. “Let me stress, this will not affect the destruction of chemical weapons, but Russia will not be involved in the escort of the U.S. vessel.”
Plans call for the Cape Ray, a U.S. merchant ship refitted with a hydrolysis system, to neutralize 560 tons of Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons and ingredients at sea, a stockpile that includes mustard agents, sarin and VX nerve agent. The ship is currently moored at a Navy base in southern Spain as it awaits delivery of the chemicals by Syria to its port in Latakia, a task the Middle East country has delayed for months but promised to finish before the end of April.
Other measures decided by NATO included the suspension of staff-level civilian or military meetings with Russia. NATO also has put “the entire range” of NATO-Russia cooperation under review, with alliance foreign ministers set to make decisions in April, Rasmussen said.
“These steps send a clear message: Russia’s actions have consequences,” Rasmussen said.
NATO, however, is prepared to continue discussions with Russia through ambassadors in the NATO-Russia Council, he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement issued Thursday in regard to his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that such actions as those taken by the NATO-Russia Council and other international organizations “[do] not help create an atmosphere for dialogue and constructive cooperation.”
Meanwhile, the 28-nation alliance will “intensify” its partnership with Ukraine, Rasmussen said.
“We will strengthen our efforts to build the capacity of the Ukrainian military, including with more joint training and exercises,” he said. “And we will do more to include Ukraine in our multinational projects to develop capabilities.”
Last week, Russian forces entered Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, causing outrage in the West. Crimea, home to a sizable Russian population, is positioned on the strategic Black Sea, where Russia maintains part of its fleet. Russia’s intervention followed the ouster of Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych after months-long protests by pro-Western demonstrators and the naming of a Western-leaning interim government.
Speaking in Brussels after holding talks with alliance officials, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk warned that Russian forces must cease provocations against Ukraine.
“On the use of military force, we have been provoked an number of times to use force (but) we refrained from using force,” he told reporters. “We still believe can solve in peaceful (means) but in case of further escalation and military intervention into Ukrainian territory by foreign forces, the Ukrainian ... military will act.”
“We are ready to protect our country,” Yatseniuk said.
Despite NATO’s tough talk, the alliance has been careful not to escalate the dispute with Moscow, as it did in 2008 in response to the Russian military drive into Georgia. Although at the time, Russia ignored NATO’s warnings that there could be no more “business as usual,” the alliance gradually relented over the next year and allowed relations to return to normal.
A senior diplomat in Moscow said that a group of NATO members, including Poland and the Baltic states, was pushing for a more forceful response. But another group, led by Germany and Belgium, was more cautious. “Their position is that in the end, we will have to talk to Moscow anyway, so what’s the purpose of souring relations now?” said the envoy who spoke on usual condition of anonymity.
Rasmussen made no mention of reducing reliance on the strategically important overland transit route to Afghanistan, which crosses Russian territory. More than a third of the supplies used by coalition forces in Afghanistan arrive via the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which is also used to bring out military equipment as the NATO’s combat forces prepare to pull out at the end of this year.
“The situation in Ukraine presents serious implications for the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area,” Rasmussen said. “And Russia continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and its own international commitments.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Slobodan Lekic and Steven Beardsley contributed to this report.