LONDON --- Russia’s recent attack on Ukrainian naval vessels will likely top the agenda at a NATO meeting this week as the alliance searches for a robust response in the wake of the Kremlin’s latest act of aggression on Europe’s borders.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to join other foreign ministers for the two-day meeting in Brussels starting Tuesday, where American demands for more military spending from NATO allies will also be discussed.
Kyiv has warned the likelihood of an all-out war with its neighbor is dangerously high after Russia fired on its vessels last week in the Azov Sea and detained several Ukrainian naval personnel. Moscow has blamed Ukraine for what it called a ‘provocation.’
Attending a ceremony to mark the acquisition of new military hardware Saturday, Ukraine’s president urged allies to step forward.
“This is an enormous threat and together, with our allies, we are searching for an appropriate response to it,” President Petro Poroshenko said.
The Ukrainian leader wants NATO to send warships to the Azov Sea, which is supposed to be shared between Moscow and Kyiv under a 2003 agreement. Ukraine says Russian warships have blockaded the Kerch Strait off Crimea – the territory it forcibly annexed in 2014 – effectively cutting off Ukrainian Black Sea ports.
NATO is under pressure to offer a robust response at Tuesday’s foreign ministers’ summit. But speaking last week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gave no indication that the alliance is prepared to risk a naval confrontation with Russia.
“We call on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports and allow freedom of navigation for Ukraine in the sea of Azov and Kerch Strait,” Stoltenberg told reporters.
Following the incident in the Azov Sea, U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled a planned meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit.
Writing on Twitter last week, Trump wrote, “The European Union, for many years, has taken advantage of us on trade, and then they don’t live up to their military commitment through NATO. Things must change fast!”
Along with military spending, NATO foreign ministers will also discuss Ukraine and Georgia’s ambitions to join the alliance. Georgia’s new President-elect Salome Zurabishvili has already staked out a tough line on Russia, describing it as an "unpredictable occupying power" – and vowing to push forward her country’s bid to join NATO.
“We can ask and we've been doing that - membership and that is our direction without any alternative - but on that road we can get much more concrete steps and I intend to be more demanding partner for Europeans as well as with our NATO partners,” Zurabishvili told the Reuters news agency.
The West faces a balancing act in dealing with an increasingly unpredictable Kremlin, says Russia analyst Nicholas Redman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“It’s partly about exploiting some of the capacities that Western states have in order to defend themselves. That will require new approaches. It’s also I think about deciding where the points of potential dialogue should come.”
Foreign ministers are also due to discuss Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan, in which about 16,000 personnel from 39 NATO member states and partner countries are involved in training and assisting Afghan forces.