US-led NATO says it intends to prevent a conflict with Russia, as Moscow has already warned that it will act if the military alliance crosses its red lines in Ukraine while refuting claims by Washington and Kiev that Russia could be preparing to invade its crisis-hit neighbor.
Over the past weeks, the United States and NATO have expressed their support for Ukraine over allegations that Russia has been deploying thousands of forces across its border with the Eastern European country.
Referring to what they described as “unusual” Russian troop movements near the common border with Ukraine, they have also issued warnings over a possible attack by Russia, which has strongly rejected the allegations and denounced the West for “artificially whipping up” tensions around Ukraine.
On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the military bloc intended to prevent a conflict with Russia over Ukraine.
“The task is to prevent that from happening. That's first of all the reason why we call Russia to stop its aggressive actions against Ukraine,” he said in an interview with CNN, repeating the bloc’s allegations against Moscow.
He made the comments while answering a question about the possibility of a conflict between Russia and NATO over Ukraine in an interview with the CNN.
Stoltenberg underscored that NATO provided “guarantees of security” to its member states, while Ukraine is not one of them but is striving to become one.
“Ukraine is a partner we provide support and training capacity,” he said, stressing that NATO member states can expect full protection by the military bloc in case of aggression.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia have been deteriorating since 2014, when the then-Ukrainian territory of Crimea voted in a referendum to fall under Russian sovereignty. The US and the European Union-backed Kiev refused to recognize the referendum results, later imposing sanctions on Moscow.
Ukraine as well as the EU and the US also claim Russia has a hand in an ongoing conflict that erupted in the Donbass region of Ukraine between government forces and ethnic Russians in 2014, killing more than 13,000 people so far. The West imposed sanctions on Russia after accusing it of interfering in the conflict. Moscow denies the allegation.
Ukraine claims that there are Russia has deployed heavy-armored vehicles, electronic warfare systems and nearly 100,000 soldiers around its borders while Russia says Ukraine has deployed half of its army, or 125,000 troops, to the ethnic Russian region of Donbass, calling it “very dangerous adventurism” by Kiev.
Separately on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated Washington’s allegations against Moscow, saying that Washington was “deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine.”
The top US diplomat also warned that Washington “will be prepared to act” if Russia attacks Ukraine.
Blinken, who was speaking with reporters after a meeting of NATO ministers in Riga, Latvia, made the comments just a day before a top-level meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit in Sweden.
Blinken said Washington did not know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin “has made the decision to invade” Ukraine but “We do know that he’s putting in place the capacity to do so on short order, should he so decide.”
Earlier this week, Putin said he wanted serious talks with Washington and its allies in order to obtain guarantees that NATO would not expand further East. He also accused the West of breaking its promises regarding its military presence in the region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday called for talks with his Russian counterpart to resolve the crisis in the east of his country. But the Kremlin said the conflict is a domestic Ukrainian issue, and has nothing to do with Russia.
The Kremlin has warned that the US and NATO are turning Ukraine into a “powder keg” by increasing arms supplies to Kiev and inflaming tensions in the country's volatile east, where government forces are fighting ethnic Russians.
Last month, a Ukraine-bound ship carrying former American Coast Guard patrol boats designed to boost the Ukrainian Navy sailed through the Dardanelles strait. Earlier this year, the US also sent a large consignment of ammunition plus Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, drawing criticism from Moscow.