Nato is sending additional ships and fighter jets to eastern Europe amid growing fears of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Boris Johnson warning Vladimir Putin that any conflict would be “painful, violent and bloody”.
Secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Nato would take “all necessary measures” to protect and defend its allies.
Western leaders including US president Joe Biden and prime minister Boris Johnson agreed to take swift action "including an unprecedented package of sanctions" in the event of a Russian incursion in Ukraine, following a call on Monday evening.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The leaders stressed that diplomatic discussions with Russia remain the first priority, and welcomed talks that have already taken place between Russia and Nato allies.
“They also agreed that the international community should not tolerate any action which undermines Ukrainian sovereignty.
“The leaders agreed that, should a further Russian incursion into Ukraine happen, allies must enact swift retributive responses including an unprecedented package of sanctions. They resolved to continue co-ordinating closely on any such response.”
Britain and the United States announced they were moving some staff and families from their embassies in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, and Mr Johnson said an invasion of the country would be disastrous and could end up becoming the “new Chechnya”.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, said the American decision was “a premature step” and a sign of “excessive caution”. He accused Russia of sowing panic to destabilise the country.
Denmark is sending a warship to the Baltic Sea and is set to deploy four F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania in support of Nato’s long-standing air-policing mission in the region.
Spain is also sending ships to join Nato naval forces and is considering sending fighter jets to Bulgaria. France says it is ready to send troops to Romania on Nato’s command, with the Netherlands sending two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April to support Nato’s air-policing activities in the region.
The US has already made clear that it is considering increasing its military presence in the eastern part of the alliance and moving some of its troops stationed in western Europe eastwards.
Russia denounced Nato’s latest announcement. Deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko accused the alliance of “demonising” his country and of using “threats and military pressure”.
Moscow has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders and is demanding that Nato promise it will never allow Kiev to join the organisation, but denies it is planning an invasion.
Meanwhile, the European Union said it had stepped up sanction preparations and warned that “any further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs”.
Separately, it also committed to increase financial support for embattled Ukraine, vowing to push through a special package of €1.2bn (£1bn) in loans and grants as soon as possible. For now, though, it is keeping embassy staff in the Ukraine capital.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Nato and Washington were the reasons for escalating tensions, “not because of what we, Russia, are doing”.
The west is also nervously watching Russian troop movements and war games in Belarus for any signs that a new invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Russia has already invaded Ukraine once, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Moscow has also supported pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kiev government in the Donbass region. Fighting in eastern Ukraine, which has killed around 14,000 people, still simmers.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said he would inform his counterparts that Russia planned to holds war games 150 miles off Ireland’s southwest coast – in international waters but within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone. “This isn’t a time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what’s happening with and in Ukraine,” Mr Coveney said. “The fact that they are choosing to do it on the western borders, if you like, of the EU, off the Irish coast, is something that in our view is simply not welcome.”
Questions have been raised about just how unified the EU approach to Russia is, however. Diverse political, business and energy interests have long divided the 27-country bloc in its approach to Moscow. Around 40 per cent of the EU’s natural gas imports come from Russia, much of it via pipelines across Ukraine – and many are skittish about being cut off from that supply in winter as energy prices soar.
Hungary said on Monday it did not want a new cold war in Europe and was supporting all diplomatic efforts to avert war.
The EU’s two major powers, France and Germany, appear most cautious. French president Emmanuel Macron has renewed previously rejected calls for a summit with Mr Putin.
Late on Saturday, the head of the German navy, vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, resigned after coming under fire for saying that Ukraine would not regain the Crimean Peninsula, and for suggesting that Mr Putin deserved respect.
Britain said at the weekend that Russia was trying to install a puppet government in Ukraine, headed by a Ukrainian politician called Yevhen Murayev.
Mr Murayev denied the claim, telling The Independent it was an “absurd but very damaging fantasy”.
Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine's ambassador to the UK, said a Russian invasion was very likely but that there was still room for a diplomatic resolution.
However, Russia's foreign minister accused the UK of circulating disinformation, and told the Foreign Office to “cease these provocative activities” and “stop spreading nonsense”.
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