WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers from other NATO nations said Tuesday they were freezing all civilian and military programs with Russia over its intervention in Ukraine.
While Ukraine does not belong to the trans-Atlantic alliance, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said military commanders of its 28 member countries were assembling plans to beef up defense of the allied nations along Russia’s western border.
“We have enhanced air policing in the three Baltic states (of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania),” Rasmussen told reporters at the Brussels, Belgium, headquarters of NATO after the foreign ministers’ meeting.
“We have deployed AWAC aircraft to improve surveillance of Poland and Romania,” Rasmussen said. “You have seen more naval presence in the Black Sea. And we will not hesitate to take further steps if needed to ensure collective defense.”
The United States last month sent six jet fighters to the Baltic nations to increase the U.S. presence in NATO patrol flights. The Pentagon also increased training exercises with the Polish military.
Rasmussen said Tuesday that “many European allies have also offered additional planes and air-to-air refueling tankers and other capabilities" to the Russian border countries.
In a joint statement, the foreign ministers said NATO will send more advisers to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and step up training of Ukrainian armed forces, including “greater access to NATO exercises” and other capability-boosting steps.
“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is the gravest threat to European security in a generation,” Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark, said. “It challenges our vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace, a vision that we have built since the end of the Cold War.”
Rasmussen acknowledged, however, that some European leaders oppose escalating the current standoff into direct military conflict with Russia.
“Everybody realizes that the best way forward is a political and diplomatic dialogue,” Rasmussen said. “Really, I don’t think anybody honestly would like to see a military confrontation in Europe.”
He added: “Having said that, it is of utmost importance to make sure that the world understands that we are very determined to provide effective defense and protection of our allies, of our populations.”
Kerry said he had told Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov “in a frank conversation” Tuesday evening that “the United States still considers the Russian actions to be illegal and illegitimate.”
“It is important for everybody in the world to understand that the NATO alliance takes seriously this attempt to change borders by use of force,” Kerry told reporters in Brussels. “So that is the wake-up call.”
Kerry and the NATO foreign ministers asked that staff from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 57-nation group, go to Ukraine to monitor events there.
Ukraine does belong to the OSCE, along with the United States, Canada, Mexico and most countries in Europe and Central Asia.
Hastily arranged talks Sunday in Paris between Kerry and Lavrov had failed to produce a diplomatic breakthrough in the monthlong crisis over Russia’s claimed annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
“Russia’s actions obviously over the past several weeks have placed it at odds with the rule of law and the international community and, we still believe, on the wrong side of history,” Kerry said.
Kerry said he told Lavrov that thousands of Russian troops massing along the Russia-Ukraine border “are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine,” and any diplomatic progress must start with a pullback of those forces.
Rasmussen said NATO was unaware of fresh reports that Russian troops had started pulling back from the Ukraine border. Lavrov said Monday that Russia had no intention of invading Ukraine and extending its grip beyond the Crimea, a small southeastern region of the former Soviet republic with a large ethnic-Russian population.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called President Barack Obama on Friday ostensibly to discuss ways to resolve the crisis.
In the almost quarter-century since the Cold War ended, the Western allies and Moscow have formed the NATO-Russia Council, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Partnership for Peace in a bid to prevent a return to hostilities.
NATO had previously announced the suspension of activities of the NATO-Russia Council, and on Tuesday it extended the freeze to the other trust-building organizations.
“Political dialogue” will continue between Western allies and Russia “at the ambassadorial level and above” in a continuing effort to break the impasse over Ukraine, the NATO foreign ministers said in a joint statement.
The foreign ministers said that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine “has gravely breached the trust upon which our cooperation must be based.”
Kerry said Russia has become increasingly isolated because of recent punitive measures by the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, the European Union and the G-7 group of major industrialized democracies.
Obama last month blacklisted 20 Russian officials and businessmen, some with close ties to Putin, by freezing their assets in U.S. banks and preventing them from entering the United States.
The House on Tuesday passed legislation that would impose additional sanctions and provide loan guarantees to Ukraine. After Senate approval last week, the measure now goes to the White House for Obama's signature.