BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO’s top military commander played down tension with Russia over Ukraine on Thursday, saying the Western military alliance had made no plans to respond to any Russian intervention in Crimea and appealing for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered 150,000 troops on Wednesday to be ready for war games near the border of the former Soviet republic once ruled from Moscow after pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled by protests over his rejection of closer ties with the European Union.
In addition, an armed group seized government buildings in Ukraine’s ethnic Russian-majority region of Crimea on Thursday and raised the Russian flag.
“There just isn’t any reason for us and Russia to compete over the future of Ukraine. I think that we both want the same thing which is a prosperous, stable, peaceful Ukraine,” U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove said in an interview with Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.
“What we need to do now is just, in a calm way, work this out so that we understand what Russia is doing and how that affects other people in the region,” said Breedlove, who is NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander of U.S. forces in Europe.
Asked if he was concerned about the possibility of a Russian military intervention in Crimea, Breedlove said: “I think everybody might be concerned about that but right now that is not my primary concern.”
The occupation of the buildings in Simferopol, Crimea was “a troubling situation”, Breedlove said, adding: “We, like all the nations of NATO, want to see a peaceful resolution to all of the turmoil in Ukraine.”
Breedlove said neither the United States nor the 28-nation Western alliance had drawn up contingency plans for how to respond if Russian forces did move militarily in Crimea.
“Right now we are not planning contingencies on how to respond here. What we are doing is supporting the peaceful resolution of this business,” Breedlove said.
NATO had also not moved military equipment due to tensions over Ukraine, he said. “No, no, we have taken no actions to this moment. We are doing what everyone else is doing which is monitoring. We are trying to get to a full understanding of exactly what has transpired,” Breedlove said.
The United States sent two Navy ships to patrol the Black Sea during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia that ended on February 23.
Breedlove said one of these, the USS Mount Whitney, flagship for the Europe-headquartered U.S. Sixth Fleet, had left the Black Sea while the second ship, the USS Taylor, was in port in Turkey, and there were no plans to change their deployment.
Breedlove said the Russian “snap exercise” seemed to be one of a series of exercises that has been a new, but not unknown, feature of Russian strategy over the last couple of years.
Moscow had informed NATO it would conduct the exercise, he said. “We are watching that as it unfolds now.”
Breedlove said he had “open and constant contact” with both General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, and with the new head of Ukraine’s armed forces general staff, Admiral Yury Ilyin.
Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Mark Heinrich