Even as Russia issued a warning to Ukraine Tuesday not to move closer to NATO, foreign ministers of the 28 North Atlantic Alliance member countries voted to increase cooperation with the struggling former Soviet republic.
At the same time, the NATO ministers moved to bolster Alliance forces in Eastern Europe – and to suspend all military and civilian cooperation with Russia.
The moves suggest a deepening estrangement between Russia and the West, even as leaders on all sides continue to call for dialogue and a diplomatic solution to the Russia-Ukraine standoff.
NATO ministers meeting in Brussels Tuesday ordered up plans for beefing up defenses and the Alliance presence in member countries closest to Russia – such as the Baltic states and Poland – that have expressed growing unease over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
At the same time, they approved a suspension of cooperation with Russia that will affect hundreds of programs, from counterterrorism efforts to civilian air security programs.
After Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea province last month it could no longer be “business as usual” with Russia, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after the ministers’ meeting.
NATO will also boost its cooperation with Ukraine’s armed forces by increasing joint training programs and Ukrainian participation in NATO exercises.
Earlier Tuesday Russia left no doubt about its view of closer Ukraine-NATO ties, issuing a statement that largely blamed past Ukrainian flirtations with NATO for the crisis shaking Europe’s post-cold-war order.
A debate in Ukraine over the past year on whether the former Soviet republic should move closer to and even seek to join NATO “led to freezing of Russian-Ukrainian political communications [and] to headaches in the relationship between NATO and Russia,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“What is most dangerous,” the statement continued, is how discussion of Ukraine’s NATO aspirations led to “the deepening of the split of Ukrainian society, the majority of which doesn’t support the idea of Ukraine entering NATO.”
Ukraine’s interim government says it is not seeking Alliance membership.
Russia has justified its annexation of Crimea last month in part on the grounds that it was defending the aspirations of the majority ethnic Russians in the province. The ethnic Russians oppose the Western tilt of the forces in power in Kiev since the ouster of the pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovitch.
That reasoning for Russia’s actions has also set NATO on edge as Russia has amassed tens of thousands of forces along its border with Ukraine. Like Crimea, Ukraine’s eastern provinces are largely populated by ethnic Russians.
NATO and Western European leaders continued to express concerns Tuesday that Russia could decide to send its troops into eastern Ukraine to seize the country’s eastern-most provinces.
Mr. Rasmussen rejected Russian claims of a partial drawback from the border, telling reporters, “This is not what we are seeing.” German officials had reported Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a telephone conversation that a partial pullback was under way.
What worries NATO officials is that the thousands of troops Russia has deployed to the border appear to be settling in for the long haul.
That could suggest a couple of things, regional analysts say: One is that Russia intends to keep up its campaign of “intimidation,” as President Obama called it last week, to try to dissuade Kiev from continuing on its Westward-leading path.
Another is that Moscow still hasn’t decided if it will order its troops into eastern Ukraine, but wants to keep its options open.