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  30 Nov 2021, 10:37
Update : 30 Nov 2021, 10:59

NATO eyes Russia's Ukraine buildup amid invasion fears

  RIGA, Nov 30, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - NATO foreign ministers will meet on Tuesday
to discuss how to counter a Russian military build-up on Ukraine's border
amid fears the Kremlin could be preparing to invade.

  The long-scheduled gathering in Latvia's capital Riga comes at a volatile
moment on NATO's eastern flank as allies also grapple with a migrant crisis
the West says is fuelled by Kremlin-backed Belarus.

  Western countries spearheaded by the United States worry that Moscow could
be planning an incursion into Ukraine after accusing the Kremlin of massing
forces close to the frontier.

  "There is not clarity about the Russian intentions but there is an unusual
concentration of forces for the second time this year," NATO Secretary
General Jens Stoltenberg told AFP during a visit to alliance forces in
Latvia.

  "We see heavy armour, drones, electronic warfare systems and tens of
thousands of combat-ready troops."

  Moscow, which seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backs separatists
fighting Kiev, has strongly denied it is plotting an attack and blames NATO
for fuelling tensions.

  NATO diplomats say the bloc remains uncertain of Russian President Vladimir
Putin's intentions -- but ministers will discuss contingency plans should
Russia invade.

  The US-led alliance is looking to show the Kremlin it faces severe costs if
it threatens Ukraine, while stopping short of provoking Moscow into further
aggression.

  Officials expect talks on additional support for Ukraine's military and
potentially strengthening NATO forces arrayed along its eastern wing.

  But they point out that NATO-aspirant Ukraine -- which will have its
foreign minister at the two-day meeting -- is not covered by the alliance's
collective defence pact.

  "We want to leave no question in people's minds that there will be severe
consequences, strategic consequences for Russia, if it pursues the kind of
path that we fear it may be on," a senior US official said.

  "It's a question of finding the right signals and the right deterrent
posture that in fact leads to a de-escalation rather than an escalation."

  US President Joe Biden on Friday said he was likely to speak to the leaders
of Russia or Ukraine in a push to defuse the rising tensions.

  - 'Hybrid attack' -

  The growing fears around Ukraine come as NATO members Poland, Lithuania and
Latvia have faced another threat coming from the east that will be high on
the agenda in Riga.

  They accuse Moscow's ally Belarus of funnelling thousands of mainly Middle
Eastern migrants to their borders in a "hybrid attack" as retribution for EU
sanctions against Minsk.

  President Alexander Lukashenko rejects the claim.

  NATO has expressed "solidarity" with its eastern members but has largely
been left on the sidelines as the threat level floats in a grey zone just
short of actual aggression.

  Poland's President Andrzej Duda mooted increasing NATO force numbers
deployed on its eastern flanks at a meeting with Stoltenberg last week.

  But a move to trigger emergency consultations under article 4 of the
alliance's founding treaty appears to have been put on hold for now.

  Speaking on a joint tour of the Baltics on Sunday, Stoltenberg and EU chief
Ursula von der Leyen pledged to step up cooperation against such challenges.

  Border tensions have eased slightly as some migrants have begun returning
to Iraq, but Warsaw and Vilnius insist the crisis is far from over.

  "There can be no doubt that Lukashenko's regime and the forces that support
it will continue to test the Western world's unity and their ability to
react," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said.

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