Brussels: NATO's foreign ministers ordered an end to civilian and military cooperation with Russia and told their generals and admirals to quickly figure out ways to better protect alliance members that feel threatened by Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.
The 28-member alliance, the keystone of US and European security since the end of World War II, was reacting to its most serious crisis in years: Russia's unilateral annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which the US and its allies have condemned as an illegal land grab.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and the other ministers, meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels behind closed doors, unanimously agreed on Tuesday on a number of measures. A civilian NATO official who attended the meeting and briefed reporters afterward on condition of anonymity said the steps included:
- The suspension of "all practical civilian and military cooperation" between NATO and Russia. NATO officials said ambassadorial-level contacts will remain open to assure a reliable channel of communication.
- The possible deployment and reinforcement of military assets in eastern NATO members, such as Poland and the Baltic states, that feel menaced by Moscow's latest actions.
- A possible increase of readiness levels for the NATO rapid response force.
- A possible review of NATO's crisis response plans, as well as its military training and exercise schedules.
NATO Supreme Commander General Phil Breedlove and his subordinates will draw up the proposals within a few weeks and then submit them to political leaders for their approval, the NATO official said.
To reassure alliance members closest to Russia and Ukraine, NATO already has stepped up air patrols over the Baltic Sea and AWACS surveillance flights over Poland and Romania.
Prior to the meeting, the chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation downplayed reports of a Russian troop withdrawal from areas along its border with Ukraine. Russia's Defence Ministry on Monday said one battalion - about 500 troops - had pulled back.
"This is not what we have seen," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. "And this massive military buildup can in no way contribute to a de-escalation of the situation - a de-escalation that we all want to see - so I continue to urge Russia to pull back its troops, live up to its international obligation and engage in a constructive dialogue with Ukraine."
An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops equipped with tanks, other armoured vehicles and fixed and rotary wing aircraft remained positioned near the border with Ukraine, a NATO military official told the Associated Press. The official described the Russian buildup as "a complete combat force" that was highly threatening to Ukraine.
In other developments, the Russian parliament annulled its deal with Ukraine to rent its Black Sea Fleet's base in Crimea until 2042 for $US98 million a year and sharply hiked the price for natural gas to Ukraine. Russia also threatened to reclaim billions in previous discounts, raising the heat on Ukraine's cash-strapped government. Household gas prices in Ukraine are set to rise 50 percent beginning May 1.
Also on Tuesday Ukraine's parliament approved a series of joint military exercises with NATO countries that would put US troops in direct proximity to Russian forces in the annexed Crimea peninsula. The exercises approved - Rapid Trident and Sea Breeze - would take place between July and October and have prompted disquiet in Russia in previous years. Ukraine is planning two additional manoeuvres with NATO member Poland as well as joint ground operations with Moldova and Romania.
The Sea Breeze exercises have particularly irritated Moscow because they had on occasion been staged in Crimea - the home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.