France’s foreign ministry on Monday advised French nationals to avoid non-essential travel to Ukraine as tensions soared over the Russian military buildup, prompting NATO allies to put forces on standby and send ships and fighter jets to bolster Europe’s eastern defences.
A French foreign ministry statement “strongly recommended” that nationals “postpone any travel to Ukraine that is not essential or urgent”.
Due to the Russian military buildup on the border with its neighbour, France cautioned its nationals to “avoid border areas in the north and the east of the country”, the statement said.
The advice came as NATO on Monday bolstered its defences in eastern Europe.
“NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all Allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the Alliance. We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.
In response, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday accused the United States and NATO of ramping up tensions through “information hysteria” and “concrete actions”.
He said the risk of an offensive by Ukrainian troops against pro-Russia separatists was now “very high”.
Increased military presence
The Western alliance pointed to decisions in recent days by Denmark to send a frigate and warplanes to the Baltic states, Spain bolstering naval deployments and the Netherlands putting a “ship and land-based units on standby” for its rapid response force.
The statement also highlighted a recent offer from France to send troops to Romania and said “the United States has also made clear that it is considering increasing its military presence”.
The US is considering transferring some troops stationed in Western Europe to Eastern Europe in the coming weeks, according to NATO diplomat sources.
“This has to do with American troops that are already in Europe,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirming a New York Times report that said US President Joe Biden was considering sending US troops to the Baltics and its Eastern European allies.
Tensions are mounting as the West accuses Moscow of threatening to invade Ukraine by massing over 100,000 troops on its border. Russia denies it is planning an incursion.
NATO’s eastern members have been calling for reinforcements.
Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics tweeted: “We are reaching the point where continuous Russian and Belarusian military buildup in Europe needs to be addressed by appropriate NATO countermeasures.
“It is time to increase allied forces presence in the alliance’s Eastern flank both as measures of defence and deterrence.”
The alliance is preparing a proposal for further talks with Russia after the Kremlin issued a raft of demands that would see NATO stop Ukraine joining and roll back its forces in eastern Europe.
NATO insists it will not negotiate over its “core principles” including defending all allies and allowing partners to choose their own path.
The alliance bolstered its forces in the Baltic states after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Kyiv and is currently weighing plans to deploy more troops to Romania and Bulgaria.
EU show of unity
Meanwhile EU foreign ministers are aiming to put on a fresh display of resolve and unity in support of Ukraine on Monday, amid deep uncertainty about whether President Vladimir Putin intends to attack Russia’s neighbour or send his troops across the border.
“All members of the European Union are united. We are showing unprecedented unity about the situation in Ukraine, with the strong coordination with the US,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.
During Monday’s meeting, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will attend virtually, the ministers will restate Europe’s condemnation of the Russian military buildup.
They will also renew calls for dialogue, notably through the European-backed “Normandy format”, which helped to ease hostilities in 2015, a year after Putin ordered the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed around 14,000 people and still simmers today.