NATO, US vow support for Ukraine, warn Russia on troops

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United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, waits for the start of a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Johanna Geron, Pool via AP)

BRUSSELS – The United States and NATO on Tuesday expressed strong support for Ukraine and warned Russia against pressing ahead with a major troop buildup along the former Soviet republic’s eastern border.

In separate meetings with Ukraine’s foreign minister, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg expressed serious concern about Russia deploying the largest concentration of troops near the Ukraine border since 2014.

Blinken accused Russia of taking “very provocative” actions that have alarmed Ukraine and the West. Stoltenberg, meanwhile, called the Russian movements “unjustified, unexplained and deeply concerning.” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv welcomed the support and urged Western countries to make clear to Moscow that it would pay a price for its “aggression.”

The comments came amid a surge of cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-baсked separatists and Ukrainian forces have been locked in a conflict since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. NATO is holding a special meeting Tuesday on Ukraine.

“The U.S. stands firmly behind the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Blinken told Kuleba at the start of their meeting at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, a post once held by Blinken's uncle. "That’s particularly important at a time when were seeing, unfortunately, Russia take very provocative actions when it comes to Ukraine.”

Kuleba replied that Ukraine was grateful for the support of the U.S. and NATO, an alliance that Kyiv is looking to join over fierce Russian objections.

“In this struggle, the support of the United States is absolutely crucial and deeply appreciated,” Kuleba said. He called Russia's troop build-up “aggressive” and asked the U.S. and others to "make it very clear to Russia that the price of its aggression against Ukraine will be too heavy for it to bear.”

Earlier, at news conference with Kuleba at NATO headquarters, Stoltenberg said the alliance was united in its “unwavering” support for Ukraine. “NATO stands with Ukraine,” he said. “Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately."