Nato chief warns no de-escalation in Ukraine as he urges Russia to 'choose path of peace'

16 February 2022, 06:19 | Updated: 16 February 2022, 16:35

By Daisy Stephens

Nato's secretary general today warned there has been no de-escalation on the Ukraine border, but added: “It is not too late for Russia to step back from the brink of conflict and choose the path of peace.”

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Jens Stoltenberg made the statement from Nato headquarters in Brussels as diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis continue.

Nato defence ministers including the UK's Ben Wallace have been meeting on Wednesday as the alliance considers its response to the 130,000 Russian troops massing at Ukraine's borders.

Mr Stoltenberg said although "there are signs from Russia diplomacy could continue... we do not see any de-escalation on the ground, no withdrawal of troops or equipment.

"This may of course change, but what we see today is that Russia retains a massive invasion force ready to attack."

He said the Russia build-up of troops was "the biggest concentration of forces in Europe since the Cold War".

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"It is not too late for Russia to step back from the brink of conflict and choose the path of peace," he added.

He said: "Nato has sent concrete written proposals to Russia on transparency, risk reduction and arms control and we have yet to receive a response."

Mr Stoltenberg announced Nato was considering establishing new battlegroups in central and eastern Europe, adding the situation with Russia was the “new normal in Europe”.

It comes after Moscow's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov hit back at Boris Johnson after the PM declared Russia would be hit with "very tough" new sanctions in the event an invasion takes place.

Mr Lavrov warned the UK would face reciprocal action if this was to happen.

"Sanctions could be imposed against any legal entities and individuals just for being Russian," he claimed about the UK plans at a press conference in Moscow.

Warning against a new round of "sanction wars", he said: "Both the Russian government and our parliament, they won't be idle when they see such things are happening in the West."

Earlier, Mr Wallace told LBC Russia is "locked and loaded" and "ready" to invade Ukraine if they choose to, despite claims yesterday some troops were being withdrawn

Speaking to Nick Ferrari at Breakfast with Tom Swarbrick, he defended estimates of an invasion taking place on February 15, saying the prediction was "from" that date, not necessarily "on" it.

"Russia has the size of forces now gathered and at readiness, locked and loaded to some extent, ready to go should they wish to do so from yesterday, and that has proved to be exactly right," he said.

"The American intelligence, or the American briefing to allies, said 'from' the 15th of February, not 'on' the 15th of February.

"The Russian build-up would have been sufficient from the 15th of February to have conducted an overwhelming invasion of Ukraine, that is exactly correct."

He said the signs were there that Russia was ready to invade, saying: "Yesterday we saw Russian forces in some areas leave their assembly areas and go to a more forward deployment area, and also the deployment of field hospitals continuing so it wasn't a fixed date, so before the false narrative gets going that everyone's wrong... it was a 'from'. That's correct."

Tom asked if there was no sign of any Russian climbdowns, and Mr Wallace said they "haven't verified the claims".

"We will take them at their word, but we will judge them by their actions," he added.

Today's Nato meeting comes after President Putin said on Tuesday that Russia did not want another war, and was open to further dialogue with the US and its Nato allies.

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In the UK, armed forces minister James Heappey said he was cautiously optimistic about news some troops were withdrawing from the Ukrainian border but added he would "continue to be very vigilant" of Russia's actions.

President Joe Biden, meanwhile, gave a televised address in the United States, in which he said an invasion was still possible and stressed the US would defend all Nato territory.

According to reports, US intelligence sources believed an invasion could commence at 3am local time - 1am in the UK - on Wednesday, however this did not eventuate.

The ex-US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, who was posted to the country between 2003 and 2006, said the Russians were "saying two contradictory things officially" by threatening an invasion.

"The buildup of now over 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's borders and a flotilla of 30 or 40 Russian ships near Ukrainian territorial waters in the Black Sea, suggests intimidation at a minimum," he told the BBC.

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Following a Cobra emergency committee meeting on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said the intelligence he has received about Russian military activity is "not encouraging", with the construction of field hospitals and the movement of extra forces closer to the border suggesting preparations are still being made for an invasion.

While the PM acknowledged Russia had claimed it was withdrawing troops from the border, he added there were "more battalion tactical groups being brought closer to the border".

"So, mixed signals, I think, at the moment," he said.

Mr Johnson also said he would bring forward a new Economic Crime Bill in order to deal with "dirty" Russian money in the City of London.

The news was welcomed by both Labour and Conservative MPs, but Labour opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer warned the Prime Minister should "get his own house in order" by investigating whether the Tories had received any donations linked to Mr Putin.

Sir Keir also also encouraged the Government to "go now and go hard" in using economic sanctions against Russia.

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Speaking after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, President Putin said Russia was ready for talks and emphasised the need for the West to heed his main demands.

He claimed the US and Nato had rejected Moscow's demand to keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations out of Nato, and to roll back alliance forces from eastern Europe.

The statement followed the Russian Defence Ministry's announcement of a partial pullback of troops after military drills, adding to hopes the Kremlin might not invade Ukraine imminently.

However, the Russian military did not give details of where the troops were pulling back from, or how many troops were involved.

In the US, President Biden said in a televised address that an invasion of Ukraine "remains very much a possibility" and promised to defend Nato allies from attack.

Russia was also admonished by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss for failing to send a representative to a European security meeting about the tensions at the Ukrainian border.

She called for the Kremlin to "commit to meaningful talks" after it failed to send a representative to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting about its military build-up.