Brussels - The European Union said Friday that it was alarmed by Russian military activities close to Ukraine's border. The bloc voiced its concern after Washington demanded an explanation from Moscow about the troop movements, and amid mounting tension between the U.S. and Europe in the west, and Russia and its small ally Belarus in the east.
"We continue to watch the situation and the information we gathered so far is rather worrying," EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano told journalists. He said the 27-nation bloc was monitoring the situation with partners including the United States and Britain and "we are open to look at further steps as necessary."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday warned Russia against making another "serious mistake" on Ukraine, as Washington sought clarity about Russian troop movements near the border.
"Unusual Russian activity"
Welcoming Ukraine's foreign minister to Washington, Blinken said the U.S. was "concerned with reports of the unusual Russian activity near Ukraine."
"We don't have clarity into Moscow's intentions, but we do know its playbook," Blinken told a joint news conference. "Our concern is that Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014, when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked."
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Russian movements were "unusual in its size and scope," and added that it was "not exactly clear what the Russian intentions are."
Ukraine has beenin its east since 2014 when Russia seized the Crimean peninsula.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen discussed the situation around Ukraine with U.S. President Joe Biden during a visit to Washington this week.
"The EU and the U.S. fully support the territorial integrity of Ukraine," von der Leyen tweeted after the meeting. "We are fully behind them in their efforts to modernize their economy and build up resilience."
An official at U.S.-led NATO said the alliance was "vigilant and routinely monitors Russian force movements. It's important to ensure transparency and avoid any miscalculation."
Russia downplayed the concerns as it did the last time it massed forces along Ukraine's border, with a Kremlin spokesman dismissing the reports as a "groundless escalation of tensions." He insisted that "Russia poses no threat to anyone," and accused NATO of stoking tensions by being "very, very active and assertive in the immediate vicinity of our borders, whether it is air, water, or whether it is land."
Russia and the Belarus-EU standoff
Europe and American concerns over Russia's military posturing along the Ukrainian border come amid another standoff between Eastern and Western powers, with innocent migrants and refugees caught in the middle.
Europe and the U.S. believe Belarus' Russian-backed autocratic regime has deliberately lured thousands of desperate people from conflict zones to travel to Belarus with the hope of then crossing the country's border onto EU soil in neighboring Poland.
Thousands of migrants, many from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and other war-torn nations, haveover the last week — along with hundreds of security forces on both sides — sleeping in makeshift camps in freezing conditions with little or no provision for their basic needs.
EU sanctions against Belarus, levied over the summer in response to strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko's treatment of dissidents and pro-democracy activists, are thought to be the motivation for his regime's "instrumentalization" of migration, which the EU sees as a means of retribution.
Speaking Friday during a visit to Paris, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said the Biden administration was "very concerned" about the Belarusian state's actions along the border, and "closely paying attention to it."
"The Lukashenko regime, I believe, is engaged in very troubling activity. It is something that I discussed with [French] President Macron, and the eyes of the world and its leaders are watching what is happening there," she said.
Lukashenko ratcheted up the pressure, meanwhile, warning he could cut off natural gas supplies to Western Europe, which flow through his country from Russia, bringing significant funds to the Belarusian state budget. But on Friday his Russian backers made it clear the threat from Lukashenko was made without consultation, and the Kremlin said Russian gas would keep flowing to Europe as the cold winter months approached.
Moscow and Belarus did, however, announce a sudden "surprise combat readiness" training exercise on Friday, for which Russian paratroopers were flown into the neighboring country.
Belarus' defense ministry said the exercise was planned due to "the build-up of military activity" near its border.