NATO sends more ships, jets to eastern Europe as Russia builds up troops near Ukraine

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Tensions soared Monday between Russia and the West, with NATO outlining a series of potential troop and ship deployments and Ireland warning that upcoming Russian war games off its coast would not be welcome while concerns abound that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine.

Tensions soared Monday between Russia and the West, with NATO outlining a series of potential troop and ship deployments and Ireland warning that upcoming Russian war games off its coast would not be welcome while concerns abound that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine.

The Western alliance's statement summed up moves already announced by individual member countries — but restating them under the NATO banner appeared aimed at showing the alliance's resolve.

It was just one of a series of announcements that signalled the West is ramping up its rhetoric in the information war that has accompanied the Ukraine standoff.

Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border and is demanding that NATO promise it will never allow Ukraine to join and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed. Some of these, like any pledge to permanently bar Ukraine, are non-starters for NATO, creating a seemingly intractable standoff that many fear can only end in war.

Russia denies it is planning an invasion and has said the Western accusations are merely a cover for NATO's own planned provocations. Recent days have seen high-stakes diplomacy that failed to reach any breakthrough and manoeuvring on both sides.

On Monday, NATO said that it is beefing up its "deterrence" in the Baltic Sea area. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16 warplanes to Lithuania; Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces; and France stands ready to send troops to Romania. The Netherlands also plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will "take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies."

"We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defence," he said.

Heightened alert

The Pentagon said Monday it is putting about 8,500 U.S.-based troops on heightened alert for potential deployment to Europe.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said no final decisions have been made on deployments, which he said would happen only if the NATO alliance decides to activate a rapid-response force "or if other situations develop" in connection with tensions over Russia's military buildup along Ukraine's borders.

"What this is about is reassurance to our NATO allies," Kirby said, adding that no troops are intended for deployment to Ukraine itself.

Later Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden held an 80-minute video call with several European leaders on the Russian military buildup and potential responses to an invasion.

"I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders," Biden told reporters at the White House. "We'll talk about it later."

The White House said the leaders emphasized their desire for a diplomatic solution to the crisis but also discussed efforts to deter further Russian aggression, "including preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions, as well as to reinforce security on NATO's eastern flank."

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov charged that it was NATO and the U.S. who were behind "tensions escalating" in Europe, not Russia.

"All this is happening not because of what we, Russia, are doing. This is happening because of what NATO, the U.S. are doing," Peskov told reporters.

'Massive consequences'

The NATO announcement came as European Union foreign ministers sought to put on a fresh display of unity in support of Ukraine, and paper over concerns about divisions on the best way to confront any Russian aggression.

In a statement, the ministers said the EU has stepped up sanction preparations and they warned that "any further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs."

Separately, the EU also committed to increase financial support for embattled Ukraine, vowing to push through a special package of 1.2 billion euros ($1.71 billion Cdn) in loans and grants as soon as possible.

A Ukrainian soldier watches from a dugout on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near Gorlivka, Donetsk region, on Sunday.(Anatoli Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday and said the U.S. would give Russia written responses to Moscow's proposals this week, offering some hope that any invasion would be delayed for at least a few more days.

The West is nervously watching Russian troop movements and war games in Belarus for any signs that a new invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and Moscow has also supported pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kyiv government in the Donbas region. Fighting in Eastern Ukraine has killed around 14,000 people and still simmers.

Canadian response

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated on Monday that Canadian diplomats and their families are staying in Ukraine for the time being, but Ottawa is constantly reviewing their safety.

Trudeau sidestepped questions about whether he would order an evacuation and also did not answer when pressed on the possibility of Canada sending troops to Ukraine as a way of countering Russia's military buildup.

The U.S. State Department said Sunday it was ordering diplomats' family members to leave Ukraine, saying military action by Russia could come at any time. Britain on Monday also announced it is withdrawing some diplomats and dependents from its embassy in Kyiv.

Asked whether Canada would follow suit, Trudeau said: "There are many contingency plans in place. The safety of Canadian diplomats and their families is of course paramount.… We will make determinations based on safety on the ground."

Global Affairs Canada advises Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel to Ukraine, but is now also urging any Canadians already there to "evaluate if your presence is essential."

Trudeau told reporters his Liberal government would be making further announcements about help for Kyiv but gave no details. Canada said on Friday it would offer Ukraine a loan of up to $120 million.

Canada has 200 troops stationed in western Ukraine on a training mission. A further 540 Canadian soldiers are taking part in a NATO mission in Latvia.

War games

At the EU meeting, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he would inform his counterparts that Russia plans to hold war games 240 kilometres 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." 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."

Some of the NATO member countries closest to Russia — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have confirmed that they plan to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move endorsed by the United States.

But questions have been raised about just how unified the EU is. 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, with prices already soaring.

The EU's two major powers appear most cautious. French President Emmanuel Macron has renewed previously rejected calls for an EU summit with 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 Putin deserves "respect."

Still, diplomats and officials said hard-hitting sanctions are being drawn up with the EU's executive branch, the European Commission. They were reluctant to say what the measures might be or what action by Russia might trigger them, but said they would come within days of any attack.

With files from Reuters

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