NATO warns on Russian troops amid call to honour Ukraine peace plan
NATO warned on Tuesday of a "very serious" build-up of Russian soldiers and weapons inside Ukraine and on its border as Germany's foreign minister urged Kiev and Moscow to respect a tattered peace plan.
The West is keeping up pressure on Russia over Ukraine following a bad-tempered G20 summit in Australia at the weekend which Russian President Vladimir Putin left early.
In Brussels, NATO's head Jens Stoltenberg issued a stark warning to Moscow over the seven-month conflict in Ukraine's east which has killed over 4,100 people and plunged relations between the West and Russia to a post-Cold War low.
Stoltenberg said there was a "very serious build-up" of troops, artillery and air defence systems inside Ukraine and on the Russian side of the border as he arrived to meet European Union defence ministers in Brussels.
"Russia has a choice. Russia can either be part of a peaceful negotiated solution or Russia can continue on a path of isolation," Stoltenberg said. "The international community calls on Russia to be part of the solution."
At the same time, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met Ukraine's pro-Western leaders, before crunch talks later Tuesday in Moscow with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
The meeting will be the first by a senior European minister since July. Germany is playing the lead role in mediating the crisis with Russia.
Steinmeier said a peace plan agreed in Belarus in September, including a frequently violated ceasefire, "were not perfect but they do form a basis. We have to fulfil the agreements."
Following a meeting with Berlin's top diplomat, Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk repeated calls for US-backed negotiations with Russia on a "neutral territory".
But Moscow quickly told Kiev that it needs to deal directly with pro-Russian rebels in the region instead.
"The authorities in Kiev do not need to hold talks with Moscow but with representatives of southeast Ukraine," deputy Russian foreign minister Grigory Karasin told Interfax.
- Point of no return? -
As the unrest in eastern Ukraine drags on into the ex-Soviet state's harsh winter, Ukraine's military said Tuesday that fresh clashes over the past 24 hours between government forces and rebels killed six of its soldiers.
The latest deaths came despite the nominal truce that has halted fighting along much of the frontline but failed to stop bombardments at key flashpoints.
Russia rejects claims that it provides military backing for the heavily armed separatist rebels in the east.
It also denies that it supplied the anti-aircraft missile which downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine in July, killing 298 people, an incident which sharpened the West's focus on the unrest.
As the race to defuse the conflict steps up, the European Union on Monday agreed to blacklist more Kremlin-backed rebels in Ukraine.
However, it stopped short of fresh sanctions against Moscow, saying there was hope of restarting dialogue.
New European Union diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers meeting in Brussels had raised the possibility of her visiting Moscow to "re-engage in a dialogue" in search of a solution.
Ahead of Steinmeier's visit to Moscow later Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his government hoped "that the 'point of no return' has not yet been crossed" in Russia-Europe relations.
The comment came as Russia engaged with Germany and Poland in a tit-for-tat series of expulsions of diplomats which has further heightened tensions between the 28-nation EU and its vast eastern neighbour.
In unusually strong remarks in Australia on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed the Kremlin "will not prevail". She called on Western leaders not to lose hope in what may be a long struggle with Russia over Ukraine.
Ukraine has urged Brussels to go further to send a clear message to Moscow.
During the meeting with Steinmeier, Yatsenyuk lashed out at Russia, insisting that the September peace agreement "is being observed by Ukraine and blatantly violated by the Russian side".
© 2014 AFP