WARSAW Aug 13 NATO member states are close to
reaching consensus over steps to beef up the alliance's military
presence in eastern Europe in response to Russia's intervention
in Ukraine, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on
Wednesday in an interview.
Sikorski told Reuters he believed the Kremlin could still
invade eastern Ukraine, though he said the possibility of
Russian troops entering under cover of a humanitarian aid convoy
now heading towards the Ukrainian border had receded somewhat in
the past few days.
Poland, the biggest of the former Communist states to join
NATO after the end of the Cold War, has been a leading voice in
calling for sanctions on Russia and for NATO to shift troops and
equipment eastwards to reassure members on Russia's flanks.
NATO's leadership has proposed pre-positioning supplies and
equipment at bases in the east in readiness for sending troops
if needed, and said one option was to enhance an existing NATO
regional headquarters in north-western Poland.
"Until this year we did not have war between two of our
neighbours, and now we do. So our perception of the need for
reassurance is even higher," Sikorski said in the interview.
"We've welcomed the proposals by the military authorities of
the alliance who have formulated what they think a reasonable
reassurance package is, and we believe that's a good proposal."
He said he did not want to go into details about what the
likely options were, because diplomats and military officials
needed more time to prepare a consensus view that can be
approved at a Sept. 4 NATO summit in Wales.
Asked how close alliance members were to reaching that
consensus, Sikorski said: "I think we're quite close," and that
it should be achieved in time for the summit.
The proposals under consideration by NATO fall well short of
what Sikorski himself had earlier proposed, for the alliance to
permanently station two brigades in eastern member states.
Some NATO members have resisted increasing the alliance's
military presence in the east.
Sikorski, who is Poland's nominee for the soon-to-be-vacant
post of the European Union's chief diplomat, said it was a
positive sign that Moscow has been negotiating with Kiev and the
Red Cross over sending aid into eastern Ukraine.
Several EU leaders have warned the planned Russian aid
convoy on its way to the border with Ukraine could have been
used as a cover for a military attack. Russia denies any such
The fact that Russia is talking with others about the convoy
means "there is hope the whole initiative will be put within
some kind of agreed procedures," said Sikorski, who was educated
at Britain's Oxford University.
However he cautioned that "a negative scenario" with the
convoy could still be played out.
He had previously said Russia had stationed large numbers of
troops on its border with Ukraine because it either wanted to
pressure the Western-backed government in Kiev, or because it
wanted to attack.
Asked if this was still his view, Sikorski replied: "Yes,"
though he said only Russian President Vladimir Putin knew what
Moscow's next move would be.
He said he believed Putin's latest strategy was to foment in
eastern Ukraine a "frozen conflict" similar to the one in
Moldova's Transdniestria region, which has for decades now been
controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
The aim is "to distract Ukraine from implementing the
association agreement (with the EU) and thereby making it more
difficult for Ukraine to become a successful free market
democracy," Sikorski said.
Polish farmers have warned of heavy losses after Russia, a
major importer of Polish agricultural produce, responded to new
EU sanctions by imposing an embargo on imports of many food
items from Europe.
"We knew all along that, having a much higher proportion of
trade, exports to Russia than other countries, double the rate
of Germany for example, we would pay a higher price, which is
why we were not gung-ho about sanctions," Sikorski said.
Asked if, despite the cost, Poland would stand firmly by the
sanctions on Russia, he said: "Sure, of course."
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)