Russia-Ukraine clash to dominate NATO meeting

Moscow’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty is also set to be thoroughly discussed

Photo: EPA Secretary General of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jens Stoltenberg.

Russia’s last week seizure of three Ukrainian naval ships and their 24 sailors promised to dominate a NATO Foreign Ministers summit that will get underway in Brussels later today, with members on both sides of the Atlantic grappling to craft a robust response. The issue will be discussed during a special meeting with the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Georgia, where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the 28 other NATO foreign ministers are expected to offer political support to Ukraine, but not provide naval escorts or any military assistance beyond what’s being done now. 

Turning to developments in the Kerch Strait, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated at a press conference on Monday, that there was no justification for the use of force and said he hoped Russia would end its effective blockade of the Azov Sea for Ukrainian shipping.

“We call for calm and restraint,” Stoltenberg said. “Russia must release the Ukrainian sailors and ships. It must also allow freedom of navigation and unhindered access to the Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov. Ukrainian vessels, military as well as civilian, have the right to navigate through the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov.”

Stoltenberg also stressed that not only Ukraine, but also Georgia faces serious security challenges from Russia if the crisis continues.
“We will continue to give both countries practical and political support," he commented on the isssue.

Meanwhile Stoltenberg dodged the question when asked about Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s request for NATO ships to be sent to the Azov Sea. He repeated the alliance’s verbal support for Ukraine, but gave no indication that NATO would take any new actions in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine in the Kerch Strait and Black Sea.

“NATO has already increased its presence in the Black Sea significantly, with more NATO ships at sea than in the previous year, (and) we have air policing,” he said. “We have more presence in the Black Sea in general, and we will closely monitor the situation in that region also in the light what we saw a few days ago.”

The NATO meeting comes a fay after Ukraine has reportedly begun calling up reservists and deploying troops to the border to counter what it says is the growing threat of a Russian invasion.

President Petro Poroshenko, who last week declared martial law in 10 regions, announced the military moves on Monday in response to a “sharp increase in Russian forces along our borders” and in the Crimean peninsula. In response, Vladimir Putin's spokesman called the statement “absolutely absurd” and accused Ukraine's leader of “provoking tensions” before the presidential election there in March.

Russia’s actions in the Black Sea looks set to also eclipse a separate debate on Russia within NATO over how to address Moscow’s alleged violation of a 31-year-old arms-control treaty (INF) and the threat it poses to the world.

Besides Russia’s destabilising behaviour, the array of security challenges facing the ministers includes violent extremism in the Middle East and North Africa, and continuing instability in Afghanistan. Along with those topics, NATO foreign ministers will also discuss Ukraine and Georgia’s ambitions to join the alliance. Georgia’s new President-elect Salome Zurabishvili has already staked out a tough line on Russia, describing it as an "unpredictable occupying power" – and vowing to push forward her country’s bid to join NATO.

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