Further Russian intervention in Ukraine, following its annexation of Crimea, would be a “historic mistake” that would deepen Russia's international isolation, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday.
“If Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine, I wouldn't hesitate to call it an historic mistake. That would lead to further international isolation of Russia. It would have far reaching consequences for the relations between Russia and ... the Western world. It would be a miscalculation with huge strategic implications,” he told a news conference after a meeting of alliance foreign ministers.
'Three to five days'
Russia has massed all the forces it needs on Ukraine's border if it were to decide to carry out an “incursion” into the country and it could achieve its objective "in three to five days," NATO's top military commander said on Wednesday.
“This is a very large and very capable and very ready force,” said NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, referring to the presence of an estimated 40,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's border.
Calling the situation “incredibly concerning”, Breedlove said NATO had spotted signs of movement by a very small part of the Russian force overnight but had no indication that it was returning to barracks.
FILE - NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove.
Breedlove made his remarks an interview with Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.
Russia's seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region has caused the deepest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War, leading the United States and Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow. They have said they will strengthen those sanctions if Russia moves beyond Crimea.
NATO military chiefs are concerned that the Russian troops on Ukraine's border could pose a threat to eastern and southern Ukraine.
Breedlove said Russia could have several potential objectives, including an incursion into southern Ukraine to establish a land corridor to Crimea, pushing beyond Crimea to Ukraine's Black Sea port of Odessa or even threatening to connect to Transdniestria, the mainly Russian-speaking, separatist region of Moldova that lies to the west of Ukraine.
Russia also has forces to the north and northeast of Ukraine that could enter eastern Ukraine if Moscow ordered them to do so, Breedlove said.
Return to Cold War mode
Russia is accusing NATO of slipping back into Cold War thinking by suspending cooperation with Russia over its seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region.
Alliance foreign ministers are seen during a NATO-Ukraine commission meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels April 1, 2014.
Russia is accusing NATO of reverting to Cold War rhetoric and tactics by suspending cooperation with Russia over its seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement Wednesday that NATO's language on the issue resembled "the verbal jousting of the Cold War era."
NATO foreign ministers announced Tuesday during a summit on Ukraine taking place in Brussels that they would officially end all civilian and military cooperation with Russia. They said they do not recognize its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and urged Russia to immediately comply with international law.
Diplomatic channels between NATO and Moscow remain open.
U.S. Secretary of State of State John Kerry discussed the crisis with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in a brief telephone call this morning.
According to a State Department official, Kerry used the call to convey the strong support he was hearing for the people of Ukraine and the legitimate government of Ukraine from his counterparts during the NATO meeting in Brussels.
Kerry also reiterated the objective of de-escalating tensions in Ukraine, including through direct engagement between Ukrainian and Russian officials, and the return of Russian troops to their barracks, the official said.
In related developments, the United States has temporarily suspended several projects planned under the auspices of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission as well as some cooperative law enforcement activities, according to a release
published on the U.S. State Department’s website.
“Funding for these activities will instead be used to contribute to a package of U.S. assistance to Ukraine, following consultation with Congress, which will support economic reform and address other pressing needs, including combatting corruption and recovering stolen assets,” the release says.
Latest from Yanukovych
Meanwhile, ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych says he was "wrong" to invite Russian troops into Ukraine's Crimean peninsula - a move that led to Moscow's annexation of the Black Sea territory.
Yanukovych, who fled Kyiv in February after months of anti-government protests, spoke Wednesday, two weeks after Russia's parliament voted to make the peninsula a part of the Russian Federation.
In his first interview since he sought refuge in Russia, Yanukovych told the Associated Press and Russian NTV television that he will try to persuade Moscow to return the territory to Ukrainian control.
His comments come just weeks after Moscow drew international rebuke for sending thousands of troops into Crimea. He described Russia's subsequent annexation as "a tragedy, a major tragedy."
Western analysts largely described the ex-president's statements as an apparent effort to salvage some support in Ukraine, where even his one-time political allies have abandoned him.
The ex-president argued that the Russian takeover would not have occurred if he had remained in office. He also denied widespread allegations of corruption from by pro-Western protesters who sought to drive him from power.
VOA's Scott Stearns contributed to this story; some reporting by Reuters