In the latest blow to NATO’s posture of unity against Moscow, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic has warned that his country would withdraw its troops from Eastern Europe if tensions escalate with Russia over Ukraine.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, Milanovic said Croatia would not be involved in the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, a day after the US and NATO said they were preparing thousands of troops to potentially be deployed to Eastern Europe amid allegations that a Russian incursion into Ukraine could be imminent.
"As the commander-in-chief, I have been closely following statements indicating that NATO - not one country, not the United States - is building up its presence and sending some reconnaissance ships. We do not have any bearing on this and we will not have anything to do with this. I guarantee this," Milanovic said.
"Croatia will not send any troops in case of an escalation. On the contrary, it will recall all troops, to the last Croatian soldier," he added.
Milanovic said, "All that is happening in the antechamber of Russia," stressing that, "One must reach a deal that will take account of the security interests of Russia."
"As far as international security matters are concerned, I can see inconsistency and in fact dangerous behavior," he said, adding that there are other ways to preserve Ukraine in "its entirety or 99 percent of its territory" and "to help it economically."
However, Milanovic was later contradicted by Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic-Radman, who said the president's comments had nothing to do with the government's position.
"The president does not speak for Croatia, but for himself. We are and will remain a loyal member of NATO. Everything we do, we do in consultation with our partners," he told a reporter for Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine.
"In times like these, it is particularly important to show solidarity among partners, and Croatia will do so in the EU and in NATO," he added.
Milanovic has an acrimonious relationship with the center-right government of Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and has clashed repeatedly with its members.
Milanovic's comments also caused confusion because, although the president serves as commander-in-chief of the Croatian military, NATO deployments are handled by the Defense Ministry, with the approval of parliament.
The US, its NATO allies, and Ukraine have accused Russia of amassing troops near Ukraine's border for a possible invasion. Moscow has rejected the allegations and said the troop build-up is defensive.
The US State Department has also approved shipments of US-made missiles and other weapons from NATO allies Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Ukraine.
The latest development comes as German government officials have said they oppose sending weapons to Ukraine as they fear that such deliveries could push tensions higher and make negotiations more difficult.
Germany has also reportedly blocked Estonia from providing German-origin military support to Ukraine.
Other NATO members, including Britain and Poland, have agreed to directly send arms to Ukraine, including handguns, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons.
The US and NATO's latest provocations against Russia come while American and Russian diplomats have failed to make a breakthrough in talks to resolve the crisis over Ukraine, although they agreed to continue the talks.
During the talks held earlier this month, the Russian representatives reiterated Moscow’s position that its demand for security guarantees be taken seriously. They also made it clear that they were not looking to start any war and had no plan to “invade” Ukraine.
But the Western bloc insists that Russian President Vladimir Putin would ultimately decide on some form of invasion or incursion. Washington believes an attack could now come “at any point” and has sent troops and weapons to Russia’s borders.