Nato is ramping up its defence of member states in eastern Europe amid mounting fears of a new Russian attack on Ukraine, moves that the Kremlin has warned will only fuel tensions and increase the risk of dangerous miscalculation.
US president Joe Biden planned to speak to several European leaders about the security situation around Ukraine as Russia continued to mass more than 100,000 troops and echelons of armour close to its pro-western neighbour.
Moscow says it is not planning to attack Ukraine – almost eight years after annexing Crimea and fomenting war in the east of the country – but could take unspecified military steps if the West rejects its sweeping security demands.
The growing tension has sent reverberations across Europe, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney described as “not welcome” Russia’s plan to hold naval drills next month in waters that are part of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.
There is concern among Irish military planners that the Russian naval exercises off the coast of Ireland may be a cover for interfering with subsea communications cables.
The possibility of interference to these cables, which run underneath the area where Russian warships are due to conduct live-fire drills in February, is considered a worst-case scenario by military officers tasked with monitoring foreign warships in Ireland’s area of operations.
Retired vice-admiral Mark Mellett, who stepped down as the head of the Defence Forces last summer, called the exercise “provocative in both its timing and nature”.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said the bloc “is a defensive alliance which does not threaten Russia...but we will always do what is necessary to protect and defend all our allies. And I welcome that allies are stepping up.”
He said Denmark was deploying a frigate to the Baltic Sea and more jets to Lithuania; the Netherlands was dispatching fighter aircraft to Bulgaria and putting units on standby for a Nato response force; and France was ready to send troops to Romania under Nato command.
He said Spain was sending ships to join Nato forces in the Black Sea and Mediterranean and was considering deploying jets to Bulgaria, and the US “for the first time in decades put a carrier strike group under Nato command”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced western “hysteria”, and said Nato’s plan to reinforce eastern Europe “leads to an escalation of tensions”.
About 14,000 people have died in fighting since Russia created a separatist army in 2014 that seized swathes of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Some analysts suspect the Kremlin now intends to recognise the self-declared independence of two de facto Moscow-led “people’s republics” in Donbas and deploy troops to “protect” their residents, hundreds of thousands of whom have been given Russian passports.
Days after Britain sent 2,000 anti-tank rockets to Ukraine, its prime minister Boris Johnson said there was “very clear” intelligence that Russia may be planning “a lightning war that could take out Kyiv”.
In Dublin the Russian ambassador to Ireland, Yuri Filatov, called its planned navy drills off the Irish coast a “non-story”, and said no harm would be caused to infrastructure or the environment.
However, one senior military source said the location of the exercises where many of the transatlantic cables converge off the coast of Europe “is too much of a coincidence” , and any damage to these communication cables would immediately and severely impact on the economies of Europe, particularly Ireland.
Another senior source said the possibility of Russia damaging or interfering with the cables was “perhaps remote”, but “something which must be considered given the current international context”.