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BRUSSELS.- NATO has put more forces on alert and will send more ships and fighters to Eastern Europe, as announced this Monday, while Ireland warned that the new Russian maneuvers near its coast were not well received given tensions over whether Moscow intends to attack Ukraine.

The US-led military organization said would reinforce its “deterrent” presence in the Baltic Sea area. Denmark would send a frigate and deploy F-16s to Lithuania, Spain would send military ships and could send fighters to Bulgaria, and France was ready to send troops to Romania.

NATO “will take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies”said the group’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg. “We will always respond to any deterioration in our security environment, including strengthening our collective defense.”

The announcement was made as European Union foreign ministers were trying to offer a show of resolve and support for Ukraine, putting internal divisions over the best way to respond to Russian aggression into the background. “We are showing unprecedented unity on the situation in Ukraine, with strong coordination from the United States,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who was chairing the meeting, told reporters in Brussels.

Asked if the EU would follow the American example and order the families of European embassy staff in Ukraine to leave, Borrell said: “We are not going to do the same” and expressed interest in discussing that decision with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Britain also announced today that it would withdraw some diplomats and associated staff from its embassy in Kiev. The British Foreign Office said the move had been taken “in response to the growing threat from Russia”.

The spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Oleg Nikolenko described the US decision as “premature step” and indication of “excessive caution”. He added that Russia was sowing panic among Ukrainians and foreigners to destabilize Ukraine.

Germany is closely following the situation, although the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, stressed that “we must not contribute to further alter the situation. We must continue to support the government of Ukraine very clearly and above all maintain the stability of the country.”

However the Kremlin accused NATO of “exacerbating” tensions with the announced deployment of new Alliance forces in Eastern Europe, at the height of the Ukraine crisis.

Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Washington and NATO are ratcheting up tensions through “hysterical announcements” and “concrete actions,” adding that the risk of an offensive by Ukrainian troops against pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country is “very high”.

Upon arrival at the European summit, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he would inform his colleagues that Russia planned to carry out military exercises 240 kilometers from the south-eastern coast of Ireland, in international waters but also within the Irish exclusive economic zone.

“This is not the time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what is happening with and in Ukraine,” he said. “The fact that they decide to do it on the western borders … of the EU, close to the Irish coast, is something that in our opinion is simply not welcomed and not wanted right now, especially in the coming weeks.”

During this Monday’s meeting, which Blinken would attend virtually, the ministers planned reiterate the European condemnation of the mobilization of Russian forces near Ukraine, involving some 100,000 soldiers, tanks, artillery and heavy equipment, diplomats and officials said before the meeting.

The foreign ministers would once again invite dialogue, specifically through the “Normandy format” with European support, which helped defuse hostilities in 2015, the year after Putin ordered the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has left over 14,000 deaths and continue to this day.

The ministers would warn that if Putin attacks Ukraine again, Moscow would face “enormous consequences and serious costs”. Those costs would be of a financial and political nature. The EU insists it is ready to impose tough sanctions on Russia within days of any attack.

Over the weekend, some of Russia’s closest member states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – confirmed that they planned to send US-made anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, a move supported by Washington.

However, there are questions about how united the EU is. Differences in political, business and energy interests have long divided the 27-nation bloc over its approach to Moscow. Around 40% of European imports of natural gas come from Russia, much of it through gas pipelines that pass through Ukraine.

Gas prices have soared and the head of the International Energy Agency has said that Russian energy giant Gazprom was already cutting its exports to the EU at the end of 2021 despite high prices. Putin says that Gazprom is not putting pressure on Europe, but is fulfilling its contractual obligations.

The two biggest powers in the EU seem the most cautious. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which is already finished but does not yet carry gas, has become a factor in the negotiation. French President Emmanuel Macron has repeated previously rejected calls for the EU to hold a summit with Putin.

France and Germany expressed doubts late last year about US intelligence claims that Moscow might prepare to invade..

ANSA and AP Agencies

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