Russian recognition of Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions would be yet another flagrant violation of the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, NATO defense ministers warned on Thursday as the alliance and Moscow traded claims and counter-claims over Russian troops amassed at Ukraine’s border.
On day two of an alliance meeting, the defense chiefs agreed in a statement that recognition would be a “further blatant violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty and of the Minsk agreements” and would undermine international mediation efforts led by Germany and France in the so-called “Normandy format” to find a political solution for the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Since 2014, the regions have been plagued by violence fueled by Russian-backed separatists.
After the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters, “Despite Moscow’s claims, we have seen no sign of withdrawal or de-escalation so far,” rebuffing Russian claims of a partial withdrawal of some 100,000 troops at Ukraine’s borders.
He reiterated NATO’s call on Russia to pull back troops and heavy equipment from the borders, stressing that doing so would be the first step towards finding a peaceful political solution to the issue.
Stoltenberg explained that the situation is dangerous because Russia has “enough troops, enough capabilities to launch a full-fledged invasion against Ukraine with very little or no warning time.”
But he also mentioned the ambiguity of the situation, where an invasion may be imminent but has not happened, saying: “We know about (Russia's) capabilities, but of course we don't know with certainty about their intentions. It remains to be seen what they actually do.”
Russian-backed separatists in Georgia
The remarks came after NATO defense ministers held a session with their Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts to assess the Russian threat and NATO’s support for its partners.
The ministers also discussed the Russian presence in the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the recent Russian Duma vote recommending recognition of the separatist breakaway areas of Donetsk and Luhansk of Ukraine as independent states.
He also confirmed that NATO has yet to receive Russia’s response to its invitation to continue talks on European security, arms control, and military transparency, but underlined that the NATO-Russia Council is “the best platform” to hold talks.
He stressed that “NATO believes in dialogue” and “it is never too late to find a political solution.”
In 2014, alongside its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, Moscow began to support separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine against the central government, a policy that it has maintained for seven years.
The US, with its European allies, has been warning that Russia is preparing for aggression against Ukraine after having amassed over 100,000 troops and heavy equipment in and around its neighbor.
Denying that it is preparing to invade, Russia has accused Western countries of undermining its security through NATO’s expansion towards its borders.
On Tuesday, Russia announced that some of its troops in the western and southern military districts have started returning to garrisons, but the US said that on the contrary, Russia is sending more troops to the region.
The Russian lower chamber of parliament, the State Duma, voted the same day for recognition of Ukraine's separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.