Nato chief warns of real risk of Ukraine conflict as Russian buildup continues

The risk of conflict is real as Russia continues to mass its forces and artillery on the borders of Ukraine and make demands that it knows are unacceptable, Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, has warned.

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Photograph: Johanna Geron/Reuters

Earlier, Nato foreign ministers held a final symbolic display of transatlantic unity before a set of three separate critical talks next week with Russia on Moscow’s demands to restore past spheres of influence and have Nato strategic weapons withdrawn from near Russia’s borders.


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Russia has threatened to invade Ukraine unless its demands – also including a guarantee that Ukraine will never be permitted to join Nato – are met.

Stoltenberg said: “The Russian military buildup has not stopped. It is gradually building up with artillery and electronic warfare equipment.”

He vowed that Nato would never withdraw its conditional offer of membership to Ukraine, saying the true threat to Russia was Ukraine’s secure democratic politics.

He also said that in the event of a Russian invasion there would be a major movement of troops to protect Nato countries on the border of Russia.

The Nato show of strength was intended as a message to Vladimir Putin that he will be unable to lure the US into any concessions in separate bilateral talks about Ukraine’s sovereignty or Nato’s future structure.

Although Stoltenberg said Nato was prepared to discuss issues such as troop transparency, western officials are sceptical that next week’s round of talks will lead to a breakthrough and believe the demands Putin set out on 17 December in the form of two draft treaties have been framed to be rejected.

“We are ready to engage in arms control with Russia, conventional and nuclear, but that has to be reciprocal,” Stoltenberg said. “That’s a different thing [from] imposing one-sided restrictions … we can’t end up in a situation where we have second-class Nato members where Nato as an alliance is not allowed to protect them.”

Nato is adamant that its conditional offer of membership to Georgia and Ukraine, first made in 2008, will not be withdrawn, even if in practice membership is not imminent. Both countries have been invited to attend part of a meeting of Nato defence ministers next month.

The UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said: “Russia’s military buildup on the border of Ukraine and in illegally annexed Crimea is unacceptable. There is no justification for its aggressive and unprovoked stance towards Ukraine. We stand with our Nato allies in urging Russia to end its malign activity and adhere to international agreements it freely signed up to.

“We will defend democracy in eastern Europe and around the world. Our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering. We are clear that any Russian incursion would be a massive strategic mistake, for which there would be a severe cost.”

UK officials remain unclear whether Putin will invade, but they appear increasingly focused on strengthening forward defences inside Nato. The west has promised massive economic sanctions against Russia if an incursion occurs, but it has ruled out sending troops – as opposed to arms – into Ukraine.

The round of talks start on Monday with a bilateral meeting in Geneva between US and Russian officials over future security structures. This will be followed by a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday of the Nato Russian council, the first such meeting for two years, and finally a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chaired by Poland in Vienna.

Western officials suggested the dispatch of a few thousand Russian troops to suppress the rebellion in Kazakhstan would not alter Putin’s military calculations, even if it represents an unexpected political headache for Moscow.

The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Putin was trying to discuss with Nato proposals “to sort of return to the zones of influence from the past … which would mean Russia restore the spirit of Yalta” – a reference to the conference between second world war allied powers in February 1945 that gave the Soviet Union control over its eastern European neighbours. “This is not our point of view, but we have to accept the discussion,” Le Drian said.

Senior French and German diplomats met Russian counterparts in Moscow on Thursday as part of efforts to revive talks over eastern Ukraine. There have been reports that Emmanuel Macron and the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, want to meet Putin, raising fears of freelance diplomatic operations.

But Macron, who has rowed with the US over its security plans in south-east Asia, said the consultation with the US over Russia had been exemplary. British officials also insisted the US had been very consistent in saying it would not talk about Europe without Europe, or about Ukraine without Ukraine.

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