Satellite imagery disproves Russian claims it is withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s border, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has said – as he expressed concern that yesterday’s large cyberattack could be a possible precursor to an invasion.
Speaking after a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels, Mr Stoltenberg stressed there was no sign of a military de-escalation from Russia.
But the NATO secretary general added it was “not too late for Russia to step back from the brink of conflict”.
UK troops heading to Estonia from today
It was confirmed after the NATO meeting that the UK is doubling the number of military personnel in Estonia and sending additional tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.
The troops and equipment begun moving today, with the Royal Welsh battlegroup leaving Sennelager in Germany and bases in the UK in order to begin arriving in Estonia during the coming week.
The Ministry of Defence said Apache helicopters would also soon be making their way to eastern Europe in order to take part in exercises with allies, while four additional Typhoon jets were due to be landing in Cyprus to begin patrols of eastern Europe.
Meanwhile HMS Diamond, a Type 45 air defence destroyer, will set sail in the coming days for the eastern Mediterranean.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “Alongside our NATO allies, we are deploying troops and assets on land, sea and air to bolster European defences in response to the build-up of Russian military forces on the border of Ukraine.
“NATO and our allies have been clear that an invasion of Ukraine will be met with severe consequences.”
NATO chief rejects Russian claims of troop withdrawals
The Russian defence ministry has released a video showing a trainload of armoured vehicles moving across a bridge away from Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
It said the movement was part of a return of forces to their permanent bases, which Moscow has claimed started on Tuesday.
But there is widespread scepticism over the Russian claims among NATO allies.
Mr Stoltenberg said that Russia’s failure to withdraw troops had been confirmed through commercial satellite imagery, which made it “quite hard to dispute”.
He also expressed his concern at what have been described as the largest cyberattacks of their kind on Ukraine on Tuesday.
These downed the web portal of the country’s defence ministry and disrupted some banking services.
Ukraine said Russia was likely behind the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, although the Kremlin denied involvement.
Mr Stoltenberg said: “What we see on the ground is no withdrawal of troops, forces and equipment. Actually what we see is Russian troops are moving into position and we saw the cyberattack.
“These are the kinds of actions and measures that we expect will come in advance of a bigger military intervention into Ukraine.
“So of course this is of concern and that’s the reason why we continue to call on Russia to de-escalate.”
Stoltenberg warns of ‘new normal in Europe’
Yet the NATO secretary general added there was some “cautious optimism” that Russia had “indicated their willingness to engage in diplomatic efforts”.
Mr Stoltenberg revealed the alliance’s defence ministers had agreed to establish new NATO battle groups in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe.
France has offered to lead such a battle group in Romania, he added.
He also expressed his regret at a “new normal in Europe” whereby Russia “has made it clear that it is prepared to contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades, and to do so by using force”.
“We do not know what will happen in Ukraine, but the situation has already demonstrated that we face a crisis in European security,” he said.
Russia vows to respond to new UK sanctions
Earlier on Wednesday, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov vowed his country would retaliate if new sanctions are imposed by Britain.
UK ministers last week gained powers to impose tough new sanctions on Russian oligarchs and businesses.
But Mr Lavrov, who last week held a stormy meeting with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, has vowed Moscow will respond to any action taken by London.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the “very, very tough” package of sanctions is “ready to go” should Russia launch a “reckless” invasion of Ukraine.
The Foreign Office said legislation laid in parliament last week would allow the UK to sanction those linked directly to Russia’s agitation over Ukraine, as well as Kremlin-linked organisations and businesses of “economic and strategic significance” to the Russian government.
This includes their owners, directors and trustees.
The US and EU have also threatened increased sanctions against Russia should it invade Ukraine.