Nato would keep bolstering its eastern flank to counter Russian threats, and repeated accusations the Kremlin was building up forces around Ukraine, British defense minister Ben Wallace said on Thursday.
“We are deadly serious in how we’re going to face the threat that is currently being posed to both Ukraine and potentially to our security,” Wallace said.
The Kremlin said Thursday that Russia’s withdrawal of forces from around Ukraine’s borders would take place over an extended period, after reports of Moscow’s drawdown drew skepticism from Kyiv’s allies.
“This is a process that will take some time,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, after Moscow had announced two separate pullbacks following drills that raised fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Western countries have accused Russia of building up more than 100,000 troops around ex-Soviet Ukraine and warned of crippling sanctions if Moscow escalates an ongoing separatist conflict there by moving in troops.
The Kremlin denies planning to invade and has said the troops are taking part in drills. It has also criticized Western officials for commenting on how Russia moves its army on its own territory.
Wallace, for his part, was speaking ahead of talks in Brussels between NATO defense ministers and their counterparts from Ukraine and Georgia.
“This is not a joke or a light matter. This is a real challenge to the stability of Europe,” he said.
“One of the ways we can make sure there is no overspill or escalation is to provide resilience to our partners at NATO and that’s what we’re all doing,” Wallace added.
The Western military alliance on Wednesday asked its military commanders to draw up plans to send more forces to its eastern members, amid persistent fears of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Wallace repeated accusations that Moscow was continuing to build up military deployments at its neighbour’s border despite announcing the withdrawal of some troop.
“I think we have seen the opposite of some of the statements. We’ve seen an increase of troops over the last 48 hours – up to 7,000. We’ve seen a bridge constructed from Belarus, into Ukraine or near Ukraine,” he said.
“We’ll take them at their word but we’re going to judge Russia by their actions and at the moment, the troop build-up continues.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also reiterated the West had “so far… not see any sign of withdrawal or de-escalation.”
NATO allies have rushed thousands of troops and hardware to bolster the alliance’s eastern flank in response to Moscow’s deployments around Ukraine.
The United States has said it is temporarily deploying around 4,700 additional soldiers to Poland.
Wallace said Britain had put an extra 1,000 troops on standby and was looking to double its contribution to NATO’s battle group in Estonia.