Putin plot: Kremlin rolls the dice as war fears explode – NATO warns ‘prepare for worst’

Boris Johnson outlines NATO support for Ukraine against Russia

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As Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s chief, welcomed Prime Minister Boris Johnson at NATO’s headquarters, he stressed “this is a dangerous moment for European security”. The two leaders discussed the Kremlin’s military build-up and the West’s commitment to finding a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

The Secretary-General told Mr Johnson: “NATO is not a threat to Russia.

“But we must be prepared for the worst while remaining strongly committed to finding a political solution.”

He continued: “The number of Russian forces is going up. The warning time for a possible attack is going down.”

William Courtney, Bill Clinton’s special envoy for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia in the nineties, echoed Mr Stoltenbergs’ assessment: “Russia could carry out a full-scale invasion with this force.

“It probably wouldn’t be enough to conquer all of Ukraine, but it would be big enough to occupy the eastern part of the country all the way to Odessa.”

Mr Johnson claimed during the joint news conference held in Brussels: “Our intelligence I’m afraid to say remains grim and we’re seeing the massing of huge numbers of tactical battalion groups — potential battalion troops — on the borders of Ukraine. 70 or more.”

He added: “This is probably the most dangerous moment, I would say that in the course of the next few days, in what is the biggest security crisis that Europe has faced for decades, and we’ve got to get it right.”

Mr Stoltenberg said NATO was “prepared to listen to Russia’s concerns” while sustaining “the fundamental principles of European security that we have all signed up to”.

These principles are at the core of the row.

The Kremlin says its security is at stake because of NATO’s unwillingness to promise it will never admit Ukraine as a member.

Ukraine feels its security is threatened for obvious reasons: Russia’s troops.

And NATO worries it may have to set aside its values, which include “respecting sovereign decisions”, to avoid an escalation on Vladimir Putin’s end.

On Monday, Mr Stoltenberg warned of the dangers of returning “to an age of spheres of influence, where the big powers can tell others what they can or cannot do”.

Through a “diplomacy or sanctions” approach, the West is hoping for Mr Putin to change his stance.

Mr Stoltenberg said: “Russia has a choice: they can either choose a diplomatic solution — and we’re ready to sit down — but if they choose confrontation, they will pay a higher price.

“There will be economic sanctions. There will be an increased NATO military presence in the eastern part of the alliance.”

Mr Courtney, who also served as ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan as well as deputy US negotiator in disarmament negotiations with the USSR, said: “In the current crisis, NATO has managed to agree on sanctions that would truly be massive.”

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Speaking to German publication Zeit, he added he senses Russia wants to keep on talking, which he thinks might be linked to the Kremlin’s realisation of a united Europe.

Mr Courtney said: “The Russians have seen Europe as weak and divided for decades. From this, they conclude that Russia is the only superpower in Europe and only has to deal with the other superpower on the other side of the Atlantic.”

However, NATO has shown a sort of unity he suggested Mr Putin may not have expected: “The West has essentially done three things: First, it has decided on very strong economic and financial sanctions.

“Secondly, NATO is now investing more in the military equipment and training of the Ukrainian armed forces.

“And third, the alliance is increasing its presence on the eastern flank.”

Importantly, Mr Courtney emphasised, “there seems to be a consensus within NATO on all these measures”.

He said: “There have been signals over the past few days that President Putin is hesitating and wants to continue the dialogue with the West.

“It is difficult to say whether indecisiveness or internal conflicts in the Kremlin are behind this. In any case, a positive sign is that the Russian state media is currently not engaged in war propaganda.”

Despite the more than 100,000 Russian troops massed at the border, the Kremlin has repeatedly denied any plans to invade Ukraine.

Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg

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