BRUSSELS—Facing their biggest security challenge in years, NATO foreign ministers discussed how to react to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and what measures to take reassure the alliance’s rattled eastern members in the face of a newly assertive Russia.
As the two-day meeting began Tuesday in Brussels, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization downplayed reports of a Russian troop pullback from border areas with Ukraine. Russia’s Defense Ministry on Monday said one battalion — about 500 troops — had pulled back.
“This is not what we have seen,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters. “And this massive military buildup can in no way contribute to a de-escalation of the situation — a de-escalation that we all want to see — so I continue to urge Russia to pull back its troops, live up to its international obligation and engage in a constructive dialogue with Ukraine.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking to reporters in Berlin, echoed those comments.
“(Even if some troops left) it’s certainly not the final step,” she said. “The troop concentration on the Ukrainian border is very high.”
An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops equipped with tanks, other armored vehicles and fixed and rotary wing aircraft remained deployed near the border with Ukraine, a NATO military official told The Associated Press on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The official described the Russian buildup as “a complete combat force” that was highly threatening to Ukraine.
The NATO meeting, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew in from Israel to attend, was expected to agree on stepped-up security measures to reassure Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, including further increases in air patrols already being conducted by other NATO members over the Baltic Sea.
Ministers of the alliance’s 28 member nations were also expected to formally end practical defense cooperation with Russia and decide on some form of assistance to Ukraine’s government. Ukraine’s foreign minister was invited to attend part of the proceedings,
In other developments, Russia on Tuesday sharply hiked the price for natural gas to Ukraine and threatened to reclaim billions in previous discounts, raising the heat on Ukraine’s cash-strapped government. In Kiev, Ukrainian police moved to disarm members of a radical nationalist group after a shooting spree in the capital.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier renewed a push for internationally backed direct talks between Russia and Ukraine to defuse one of Europe’s gravest crises since the end of the Cold War.
“What will be important in the coming days is getting Russia and Ukraine around a table together,” Steinmeier said at a meeting with his French and Polish counterparts in Weimar, Germany, before heading to Brussels.
Despite annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials have said that Russia has no intention of invading other areas of Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted Tuesday the Kremlin wants a “political settlement that would take interests and rights of the entire Ukrainian people into account.”
Alexei Miller, the head of Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant, said Tuesday that the company has withdrawn December’s discount that put the price of gas at $268.50 per 1,000 cubic meters and set the price at $385.50 per 1,000 cubic meters for the second quarter.
The move is expected to eventually hit Ukrainian consumers hard. Household gas prices in Ukraine are set to rise 50 percent beginning May 1.
The Russian discount was part of a financial lifeline that Putin offered Ukraine’s previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, after his decision to ditch a pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow. The move fueled three months of protests that sent Yanukovych fleeing to Russia in February.
On Tuesday the Russian parliament moved to annul agreements with Ukraine to rent Russia’s Black Sea Fleet’s base in Crimea until 2042 for $98 million a year and discounts for Russian natural gas. The lower house voted to repeal the deal Monday, and the upper house was to follow suit.
Radical nationalist groups played a key role in Yanukovych’s ouster, but they quickly fell out with the new government in Kiev. Many activists are still encamped on Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and have signaled their intent to remain until the May 25 election.
Last week, one of the leaders of the most prominent radical group, the Right Sector, was shot dead while resisting police. Right Sector members then besieged parliament for hours, breaking windows and demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. They lifted the blockade after lawmakers set up a panel to investigate the killing.
Late Monday, a Right Sector member shot and wounded three people outside a restaurant adjacent to Kiev’s Independence Square, including a deputy city mayor, triggering a standoff that lasted overnight.
Police responded by surrounding the downtown Dnipro Hotel, which Right Sector had commandeered as its headquarters, demanding that the radicals lay down their weapons and leave. Avakov said that Right Sector members agreed Tuesday to leave their weapons behind.
The Ukrainian parliament then voted to order police to disarm all illegal armed units. Backers said the drive was needed to combat a surge in violent crime and to defuse the risk of provocations by “foreign citizens” in Kiev and Ukraine’s southern and eastern Russian-speaking regions, where some anti-government groups have rallied for secession.
If police disarm nationalists and other radical groups, it would undermine Russia’s key allegation that the new Ukrainian government was kowtowing to nationalist radicals.
Vladimir Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Peter Leonard in Kiev, David Rising in Berlin and Geir Moulson in Weimar, Germany contributed to this report.
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