During a Tuesday press conference the head of NATO, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, issued some hugely provocative words aimed at Russia while standing beside Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal at a joint press conference in Brussels. It comes after Joe Biden has vowed a tougher response to alleged Russian 'interference' in the West's affairs.
Asked specifically to respond claims that Russia is expanding military exercises and deployments abroad in order to "distract" from the Alexei Navalny saga and protests at home, Stoltenberg said, "What I will say is we have seen a significant Russian military buildup over the last years."
"We have seen a significant Russian buildup in the Black Sea, not least with the illegal annexation of Crimea, and also with more naval presence in the year," he added. Citing past years' conflicts and 'Russian aggression' in Ukraine and Georgie, Stoltenberg continued, "This is a military buildup very closely monitored and followed at NATO. It has triggered the largest and strongest reinforcement of NATO's collective defenses since the end of the Cold War."
He quickly pivoted to Navalny's recently being sentenced by a Moscow court to over two-and-a-half years in prison, which he slammed as "a perversion of justice, targeting the victim of an attempted killing – assassination – using a banned chemical agent to try to take his life."
"We have seen a very firm reaction from NATO, both when it comes to the way Russia has used military force against neighbors – Ukraine – but also in the way Russian security services are using violence to suppress legitimate democratic voices in Russia," Stoltenberg said additionally.
Ukrainian PM Shmyhal in his statements crucially noted that his country plans to "start building two naval bases, one in the Black Sea one, in the Azov Sea." According to Shmyhal's remarks this is with help from Britain and other Western allies - all of which sounds a dangerous repeat of the build-up to the Ukraine crisis of five years back.
But this is where Stoltenberg threw out his most provocative statement of the press conference, essentially calling for Ukraine to be invited into the Atlantic military alliance:
"NATO's door remains open, and we work with countries like Ukraine. Ukraine is recognized as a candidate for NATO membership. NATO allies help and support Ukrainian efforts to join the Alliance. I feel certain that as part of the future project we have launched in NATO, NATO 2030, […] the enlargement policy will be part of that. And also when NATO leaders meet in Brussels later this year, enlargement and NATO's open door policy will be discussed and addressed," Stoltenberg said.
The Kremlin as well as President Putin have long affirmed Ukraine's entry into NATO would constitute a firm "red line" which it would take action to prevent.
It's common knowledge in Moscow that Russia considers Ukraine joining NATO a "red line" and that any attempt by the bloc to move so close to Russian borders would be met with a massive military response. You can be sure Jens Stoltenberg is fully aware.— Bryan MacDonald (@27khv) February 10, 2021
There's been agreement and general consensus among pundits on both sides of the issue that Ukraine's formal entry into NATO would likely fast trigger major regional war. Already Ukraine has semi-regularly engaged in joint naval drills in the Black Sea with NATO forces, however, formal membership would of course require the United States and other major NATO powers to go to war with Russia should Ukrainian forces be attacked.
Lately Stoltenberg has accused Russia of being 'expansionist' with regard to former Soviet satellite states, given it has appeared to increase its military presence in places like the Black Sea, but also the Barents and Baltic seas. This also comes as the US Air Force has greatly increased its presence in far North places like Norway, with the latest deployment of four B-1 Lancer bombers there.