NATO chief wary of Russian troop buildup in Belarus

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concern Thursday that Russia is continuing its military buildup around Ukraine, and that it has now deployed more troops and military equipment to Belarus that at any time in the last 30 years.

More high-level diplomacy was expected in Moscow and Kyiv amid deep uncertainty of Russia’s intentions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is hosting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks in the Ukrainian capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Argentine counterpart Alberto Fernandez in Moscow.

Russia now has more than 100,000 troops stationed near Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, raising concern that Moscow might invade again, as it did in 2014, and destabilize the Ukrainian economy. Russian officials deny that an invasion is planned.

“Over the last days, we have seen a significant movement of Russian military forces into Belarus. This is the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War,” Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

He said that Russian troop numbers in Belarus are likely to climb to 30,000, with the backing of special forces, high-end fighter jets, Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, and S-400 ground-to-air missile defense systems.

“So, we speak about a wide range of modern military capabilities. All this will be combined with Russia’s annual nuclear forces exercise, expected to take place this month,” Stoltenberg said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Minsk on Thursday to check on preparations for major Russia-Belarus war games scheduled for Feb. 10-20. Shoigu met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Speaking about the drills, Lukashenko said the goal was “to reinforce the border with Ukraine.”

Stoltenberg called on Russia to “de-escalate,” and repeated warnings from the West that “any further Russian aggression would have severe consequences and carry a heavy price.”

NATO has no intention of deploying troops to Ukraine should Russia invade, but it has begun to reinforce the defenses of nearby member countries — notably Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The 30-nation military alliance also plans to beef up its defenses in the Black Sea region near Bulgaria and Romania.

Stoltenberg also welcomed President Joe Biden’s decision on Wednesday to send 2,000 U.S.-based troops to Poland and Germany and shifting 1,000 more from Germany to Romania, demonstrating to both allies and foes Washington’s commitment to NATO’s eastern flank.

“We are committed to finding a political solution to the crisis, but we have to be prepared for the worst,” Stoltenberg said, and he welcomed other recent offers of troops and equipment from several allies. Russia objects to the troop move and has described it as “destructive.”

Erdogan, a prominent NATO ally in the Black Sea region, is positioning himself as a possible mediator. Speaking before departing for Kyiv, he reiterated Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and said Ankara was ready to do what it can to reduce tensions.

“We are closely following the challenges that Ukraine is faced with as well as the tension in the region,” he said. “We express on every platform that we support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our strategic partner and neighbor, Ukraine.”

“As a Black Sea nation, we invite all sides to exercise restraint and dialogue in order to bring peace to the region,” Erdogan said. “I once again stress that we are ready to do our part to establish an atmosphere of peace and trust in our region.”

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Fraser reported from Ankara. Dasha Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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