NATO sees no signs of a Russian retreat from the Ukrainian border, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday, and is exploring plans to increase its own forces in Eastern Europe in response to a “new normal” of Russia aggression, threats and coercion.
“So far, we do not see any sign of de-escalation on the ground — no withdrawals of troops or equipment,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference following the first session of a two-day meeting of allied defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Stoltenberg said allies had taken note of public comments from senior Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, of an intention to pull back from the border, where it has amassed more than 100,000 troops, armor and sophisticated weapons. But, Stoltenberg said, Western intelligence had not noted any change.
“What we see today is that Russia maintains a massive invasion force ready to attack, with high-end capabilities from Crimea to Belarus,” he said.
Moscow’s emissaries mocked what they described as Western hysteria. “Wars in Europe rarely start on Wednesdays,” the Russian ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told the German newspaper Welt, referencing U.S. warnings last week that an attack was coming as soon as Wednesday.
“If you make accusations — especially such very serious accusations against Russia — you bear the burden of providing evidence,” Chizhov said. “Otherwise it is slander.” He added, “So, where is the evidence?”
Western officials have said that they were sharing more intelligence than has ever been released in order to draw attention to the Russian threat and deter it.
But while Russia has not invaded, Stoltenberg said allies were adjusting to accommodate a new, constant threat.
“I regret to say that this is the new normal in Europe,” he said, adding that the defense ministers had asked military commanders to develop plans positioning more forces on the alliance’s eastern flank, including potentially a new battlegroup led by France in Romania.
NATO already positioned four battlegroups in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. “Our military commanders will now work on the details and report back within weeks,” Stoltenberg said.
“We know the track record of Russia using force against neighbors,” he said.
Pressed on what he meant by the new normal, Stoltenberg said Russia was clearly prepared to use force and coercion to rewrite the security architecture in Europe.
“They have used force, the biggest concentration of combat force since the end of the Cold War, to underpin and to try to intimidate other countries in Europe, to, in a way, respect or to accept the Russian demands,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen, but we know what has already happened. And that is that Russia has demonstrated will to use force, to try to coerce other countries.”
Stoltenberg insisted that any new positioning of NATO troops would be defensive, and he insisted that allies would remain on alert until the pullback of Russian forces had been verified.
“What we see on the ground is no withdrawal of troops and forces, equipment,” he said. “But actually what we see is that Russian troops are moving into position. And we saw the cyber attack. And these are the kinds of actions and measures that we expect will come in advance of a bigger military intervention into Ukraine. So of course, this is of concern.”