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Ukraine

German defense chief von der Leyen calls for stronger NATO backing in Ukraine crisis

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has called for greater NATO backing of the Baltic states amid the Crimean dispute. Meanwhile, the head of NATO has warned of Russia’s sizeable troop presence near Ukraine.

Germany's defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Sunday that NATO should show greater support for member countries who could face military aggression from Russia. However, the comments were met with sharp criticism from some German parliamentarians, who accused her of contributing to the escalation of tension around Russia's actions in Crimea. In an interview with German public broadcaster ARD, the defense chief dismissed those critics and stood by her position.

"It's important to make clear that NATO isn't just something on paper, but that we are there for each other," von der Leyen said in comments that were broadcast on Sunday evening.

NATO showing its support for the Baltic states – who are concerned -that Moscow's recent activities in Crimea could spill over into their territories - would be carried out "within the parameters we already have [under NATO]," she said, adding that her own support for additional measures was not contributing to the "escalation."

The German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel has advocated pursuing diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, it has backed recent EU and US sanctions against Russian individuals involved in the political unrest that most recently led Crimea to join the Russian Federation after holding a referendum to secede from Ukraine. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said this weekend that further sanctions would follow if Russia attempted to claim any more territory.

Talks need to start with Russia

The defense minister contended in her interview with ARD that NATO was an instrument toward driving diplomacy and that it was time to bring Russia to negotiations. She said that NATO couldn't allow Putin's "might makes right" policies to become the norm, but rather that they needed to discuss the might of international law.

Watch video 01:34

Tensions in Ukraine as fears over Russia mount

When asked about the threat of a return of a divided Europe – similar to during the Cold War – von der Leyen said: "We can't allow that to happen again."

She also emphasized previous examples of successful cooperative efforts with Russia, such as in Syria and the horn of Africa, which showed "how much we have in common."

NATO member states Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland have all recently expressed concerned at President Putin's actions in Ukraine. During his visit to the region this week, US Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed US and NATO support, reassuring the partnering countries that the Alliance would fulfill military commitments to those countries if needed. Biden said the US has already deployed extra F-15 and F-16 fighter jets to Poland.

Von der Leyen's comments 'irresponsible'

On Sunday, von der Leyen's comments regarding NATO raised concern among other German politicians, including among Merkel's center-left coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD).

SPD foreign policy expert Niels Annen told German news outlet Spiegel Online that von der Leyen's suggestion would play into the hands of "hardliners in Moscow ."

Criticism also emanated from the opposition Greens party leader, Anton Hofreiter, who called the defense minister's comments "irresponsible," saying that NATO wasn't the right framework to "reach an agreement."

"I can't imagine that she cleared that in advance with [Foreign Minister Steinmeier]," the Greens leader told Spiegel Online.

NATO warns of Russian troops

Meanwhile on Sunday, NATO's top commander, General Philip Breedlove, warned that Russia had amassed a "very sizeable" troop presence along its southwestern border with Ukraine.

"The force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready," Breedlove said in Brussels.

The allies "don't know about [Russia's] intent," Breedlove added, but said that it was possible Moscow could be planning a similar take-over in Transdniestr, a separatist territory which lies between Ukraine and its western neighbor Moldova. The roughly 4,000-square-kilometer (1,600-square-mile) territory is also often referred to as Transnistria; Russia has maintained a troop presence there since the end of the Cold War. Last week, Transdienstr's assembly expressed interest in joining the Russian Federation, a move which alarmed Moldova's president, Nicolae Timofti.

"There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestr if the decision was made [in Moscow] to do that," Breedlove said, calling this "very worrisome."

However, Russia's Defense Ministry denied reports that its troop levels near Ukraine exceeded the number it was allowed under an international agreement, Russian media reported. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, furthermore, called on Western countries not to escalate tensions, but instead to view Russia's military activities “objectively.”

Since the secession of Crimea last week, the EU and US have watched the gradual takeover of the Black Sea peninsula by pro-Moscow soldiers with concern. Fears continue to run high in Ukraine, where the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk saw pro-Russia rallies over the weekend calling for a similar secession referendum from Kyiv.

kms/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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