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With a major mobilization of Russian troops once again menacing Ukraine, and U.S. intelligence warning of a potential invasion, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal on Thursday urged NATO to send warships to the Black Sea and step up reconnaissance flights along Russia’s borders.
“Ensuring the constant presence of maritime warships of the NATO alliance in the Black Sea would be a very strong signal,” Shmyhal said in an interview with POLITICO by videoconference from his office in Kyiv.
“In the same way, a very strong signal would be the increase of intelligence and reconnaissance flights across the Russian border, in particular in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea,” he said.
Shmyhal’s request echoed proposals put forward by Polish President Andrzej Duda during a meeting with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. Duda also called for an increased deployment of allied troops in Poland and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
After Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO stationed multinational combat-ready battle groups in each of those four countries, led by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany.
“We are receiving information all the time about the Russian build-up, perhaps an aggressive build-up in the direct neighborhood of the Ukrainian border,” Duda said.
In the interview with POLITICO, Shmyhal said Ukraine agreed with the U.S. intelligence assessments of a sizable increase in the number of Russian forces on the border — not only along the border with the Donetsk region that is largely occupied by Russian-backed separatists, but also in Crimea and in Belarus — with the total now numbering nearly 100,000 soldiers.
Ukrainian officials have said thousands of Russian troops remained in Belarus following joint military exercises earlier this fall, and that Russia has created and deployed new military intelligence units along the Belarus-Ukraine border with the consent of Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Some analysts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin might want to seize a larger portion of Ukrainian territory, in part to create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea.
But while U.S. officials have briefed NATO allies about the threat of a Russian invasion, Ukrainian officials, including Shmyhal, said they believe the Kremlin is most immediately focused on a wider effort at destabilization of EU and NATO countries.
They said that destabilization effort includes exploiting a rise in worldwide natural gas prices, and restricting supply, creating anxiety in some European countries about having sufficient fuel for winter, and among politicians worried about citizens angry at higher home heating bills.
The Russian government and the state-controlled gas company Gazprom are also eager for regulatory approval that would allow operation of the newly constructed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and some Western officials believe the Kremlin is trying to use high prices and supply worries as pressure to win swifter clearance.
Shmyhal said the Russian threats are also designed to thwart Ukraine’s efforts at closer economic and political integration with the EU, and its security partnerships with NATO.
“Moscow on a regular basis is demonstrating its military potential and definitely is aiming and wishing to disrupt our Euro-Atlantic aspirations and our move towards the Euro-Atlantic direction,” Shmyhal said in the interview. “And in order to ensure that the tense situation is upheld with the proper degree of nervousness, the Russian Federation is regularly regrouping its troops along the border line with Ukraine.”
Russia carried out a similar military mobilization last spring, creating tension in the run-up to Putin’s annual speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly, prompting speculation he might use the address for a dramatic announcement. None came, and shortly after the speech, forces were pulled back from their border positions.
Officials from several allied nations said U.S. intelligence analysts indicated there were alarming differences in the current build-up but had not offered specific details. One EU official said the current intelligence found evidence of the construction of field hospitals and other support capabilities that typically were not seen during previous Russian mobilizations of troops and weaponry, including tanks.
NATO ships have engaged in exercises in the Black Sea on several occasions over the past year.
In recent testimony before the U.S. Congress, Alina Polyakova, the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank, cited a crucial need for NATO allies to devote more resources and attention to the Black Sea Region (BSR) precisely because of the threat posed by Russia.
“The BSR is vital to U.S. strategic interests of deterring Russian aggression against allies, ensuring European stability, and protecting freedom of navigation,” Polyakova said. “Insufficient resources and attention have undermined the U.S. and allies’ ability to effectively pursue these objectives at the same time as Russia has stepped up its aggression and China is increasing its foothold in the region.”
She added, “The BSR is the locus of the Kremlin’s tests against Alliance credibility and resolve, which have escalated over the last two decades in the conventional and nonconventional domain: from the invasion of Georgia in 2008 to the 2014 illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, to cyberattacks and information-influence operations.”
Shmyhal said that in addition to the troop build-up, Russia was constantly using hybrid tactics against Ukraine and the West, including cyberattacks and disinformation.
In addition to the expanded naval and air operations by NATO, he said it would be helpful if NATO allies increased their military training missions in Ukraine.
“To enhance the training in terms of both size and regularity of troops that participate in such training on the territory of Ukraine,” he said. “That could be also another potent signal.”