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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets the press following the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on Jan. 26, 2015.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets the press following the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on Jan. 26, 2015. (NATO)

NATO on Monday rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that a “foreign legion” of alliance troops is fighting inside Ukraine, countering that the only foreign forces in the country belong to Russia.

“It’s nonsense,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg following an emergency meeting with Ukrainian officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “There is no NATO legion. The foreign forces in Ukraine are Russian.”

Putin had told students in St. Petersburg Monday that elements of the Ukrainian army were “a foreign legion, in this case a foreign NATO legion,” with the intent to contain Russia.

Stoltenberg and Ukrainian leaders met Monday to discuss the recent outbreak of violence in the city of Mariupol, a port city in eastern Ukraine where 30 civilians were killed and 100 more injured on Saturday. NATO said Russian-backed separatists are responsible for the attacks and called on Moscow to cease arming the fighters.

“We condemn the sharp escalation of violence along the ceasefire line in eastern Ukraine by Russia-backed separatists. This comes at great human cost to civilians,” Stoltenberg said. “The attack was launched from territory controlled by separatists backed by Russia.”

In addition, Stoltenberg accused Russia of intensifying its support for militia fighters, saying Moscow continues to provide them with “training, equipment and forces.”

“In recent weeks, Russia has supplied hundreds of pieces of advanced equipment, including rocket systems, heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles and electronic warfare systems,” Stoltenberg said.

Russia has repeatedly denied such claims.

When it began its invasion of Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in March, Russia first denied sending in materiel and troops, but later acknowledged it.

The recent escalation in violence raises questions about the larger aims of Moscow in eastern Ukraine. Security analysts have been speculating for months that Russia may aim to establish a land bridge west to Crimea, which is separated from mainland Russia. When asked whether the recent violence around Mariupol was a sign of such a Russian plan, Stoltenberg declined to speculate on Moscow’s strategic aims.

Meanwhile, Stoltenberg said there is no military answer to a crisis that needs a political solution.

“We call on Russia to stop its support for the separatists immediately, to stop destabilizing Ukraine and to respect its international commitments,” Stoltenberg said. “We urge all parties to continue all efforts without delay to achieve a peaceful solution, in full conformity with the Minsk agreements.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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