Ukraine gets U.S., NATO backing in Brussels — but it wants action

A Russian military buildup is raising questions about whether the Kremlin is plotting another Ukraine invasion.,

The U.S. and NATO on Tuesday reiterated their support for Ukraine amid Russia’s military buildup along its border — but in a series of meetings in Brussels, Ukraine’s top diplomat made it clear his country is looking for more than words.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba made his case to both NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during in-person meetings. And in remarks to the press, the two leaders used forceful language to describe their allegiance to Ukraine.

“Unwavering,” Stolenberg said of the military alliance’s support for Kyiv.

“The United States stands firmly behind the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Blinken echoed later in the day.

However, neither leader committed to Kuleba’s specific pleas for steps like sanctions or additional military support.

Later, Kuleba leaned on the U.S., saying he was “sure” what had been said publicly “will be supported by actions that will make it very clear for Russia that the price of its aggression against Ukraine will be too heavy for it to bear.”

The two meetings represent a significant diplomatic push from Ukraine to pressure its allies. But it also shows how swiftly Russia has risen to the top of the agenda for the U.S. and NATO — presenting an early test for the new Biden administration, as well as for the decades-old military alliance as it considers whether to admit Ukraine. Compounding things: Western allies are already under pressure to confront the Kremlin over its jailing of dissident Alexei Navalny and ongoing efforts to divide Europe.

The stakes, Kuleba said, are high.

“That Russian buildup is taking place not only along the border of Ukraine, but along the border of the democratic world,” he said before meeting Blinken. “This is the struggle that is taking place between democracies and authoritarianism.”

The topic has come to a head in recent days, with NATO and G7 members raising concerns about growing Russian military movements along the eastern Ukraine border and into Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Moscow’s military buildup is its largest in the region since the annexation, raising questions about whether the Kremlin is plotting another invasion.

Blinken called the behavior “very provocative” and “of deep concern.”

Stoltenberg used almost identical language, describing the situation as “deeply concerning” and “unjustified.” He demanded Moscow “stop its provocations” and deescalate the situation.

Attention has focused on eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which pro-Russian separatists seized in April 2014. Back then, Kuleba said, it wasn’t out of the question that Russia itself would go that far, and now, “I can’t exclude anything.”

Kuleba pressed for a quick response to head off such possibilities.

“It’s better to act now to prevent Russia from further escalating the situation,” he said, stressing that Ukraine doesn’t want war.

“I do believe we have all tools available not only to prevent Russia from making a single step forward, but also to make it withdraw from the occupied territories of Ukraine,” he added.

On Tuesday, however, Kuleba didn’t get all the firm commitments he wanted.

Blinken only said he “will be consulting with our close NATO allies and partners in the days ahead about the situation.”

Such statements can be the building blocks to action, said Steve Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Pifer noted the remarks are being made in parallel to an uptick in Western intelligence gathering around Ukraine, as well as the movement of U.S. warships into the Black Sea.

In recent years, the U.S. has also sold Ukraine Javelin anti-tank missiles and launchers, bolstering Kyiv’s military deterrence capability. Ukraine’s forces are also better trained now than during the 2014 Crimea annexation, even if Russia retains military superiority.

“The Kremlin has to ask itself — taking Crimea in a one week bloodless campaign was very popular, but a much longer, bloodier war where you have Russian soldiers coming back in body bags?” asked Pifer, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I’m not sure that’s going to be very popular with Putin’s public.”

Pifer could see the U.S. and NATO providing more weapons to Ukraine. And Washington may be backchanneling potential sanctions to Moscow in an effort to ward off the Kremlin, a step Pifer argued “might have some value to dissuade them from considering an attack.”

Tuesday’s meetings were just the first leg of Ukraine’s diplomatic blitz this week as it tries to garner support for its position. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Friday. And Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis will travel to Kyiv later this week, with his Estonian and Latvian counterparts likely joining.

One element of the tensions between Moscow and Kyiv is the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO, which would expand the alliance’s presence along Russia’s border.

Stoltenberg stressed that NATO — not Moscow — will choose whether Ukraine joins NATO: “It is for the 30 NATO allies to decide when Ukraine is ready for NATO membership, and no one else has any right to try to meddle or to interfere in that process.”

He added: “Russia is now trying to reestablish some kind of sphere of influence where they try to decide what neighbours can do.”

For Ukraine, Kuleba said, NATO membership “is a matter of time.”

Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.

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