(USA Today) KIEV, Ukraine — NATO said Tuesday that Russia has not withdrawn any of the tens of thousands of troops it has lined on the Ukraine border and its foreign ministers called for an end to civilian and military cooperation with Russia.
Moscow, meanwhile, retaliated against Ukraine by hiking gas prices to Ukrainians and demanding reimbursement for past discounts.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the European-U.S. defense alliance saw no evidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he withdrew a battalion to calm tensions.
"This is not what we are seeing," Rasmussen told journalists at the meeting of foreign ministers of NATO countries. "I continue to urge Russia to pull back its troops, live up to its international obligations and engage in a constructive dialogue with Ukraine."
Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there may have been "small signals of de-escalation" but Poland's Radek Sikorski reinforced Western suspicions when he said he hoped the withdrawal announcement wasn't an April Fools' joke.
Foreign ministers from the 28 members of NATO met in Brussels on Tuesday for the first time since Russia took over the Ukraine province of Crimea. Many European leaders have described the standoff as the worst Russian crisis since its predecessor, the communist Soviet Union, dissolved nearly a quarter century ago.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the other foreign ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels agreed Tuesday on a number of measures, according to the Associated Press. Among them:
- The suspension of "all practical civilian and military cooperation" between NATO and Russia. NATO officials said ambassadorial-level contacts will remain open to assure a reliable channel of communication.
- The possible deployment and reinforcement of military assets in eastern NATO members, such as Poland and the Baltic states, that feel menaced by Moscow's latest actions.
- A possible increase of readiness levels for the NATO rapid response force.
- A possible review of NATO's crisis response plans, as well as its military training and exercise schedules.
NATO said its members talked over whether to boost the military presence in former communist central and eastern Europe in light of Russia's aggression. Romanian President Traian Basescu, whose country was once under Soviet domination, said the Pentagon has asked to boost the number of troops and aircraft at a base in his country.
Poland's Sikorski said his country, also once under Soviet rule for decades, welcomed any forces NATO wanted to station there.
Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said that Putin told Merkel in a phone call that he was removing a battalion of troops from the border with east Ukraine, where Ukrainian cities are nervous that what happened to Crimea may happen to them. Ukrainians here say Russia looks like it is preparing for an invasion.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry has estimated that Putin has moved as many as 100,000 Russian troops to the border. On Tuesday, the ministry could not verify that any troops had departed and said it is "constantly watching the situation."
"My mother is greatly disturbed," said Iryna Aleshchenko, 24. "She goes 'What's going to happen?' all the time, hysterically."
The Kiev student said she was worried about family members, who live in her home town of Sumy, close to the border.
"It's a lot of tension for people to know that there are military vehicles so close to their homes," Aleshchenko said.
"As the last few months showed us, words and statements can't be trusted at all. I will believe the troops were withdrawn when I see them leaving with my own eyes," she added.
In addition to the situation of troops on the ground, Russia is also attempting to pressure Ukraine through gas prices, say analysts.
Alexei Miller, head of Russia's state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom, said that the company has withdrawn December's discount that put the price of gas at $268.50 per 1,000 cubic meters and set the price at $385.50 per 1,000 cubic meters for the second quarter.
The move is expected to hit normal Ukrainians hard with prices set to rise by 50 percent by the beginning of May.
"This is quite clearly a Russian strategy to put pressure on Ukraine and they could do it by putting troops on the border or by controlling the gas price," said Hans-Henning Schroeder, senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "The aim of course is to destabilize the situation within Ukraine."
The discount was part of deal offered by Putin to Ukraine's former president, Viktor Yanukovych, in return for his having spurned an economic pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow.
The deal sparked months of protests in which more than 80 people were shot dead in February. Yanukovych fled to Russia as the Ukraine parliament ousted him and an arrest warrant was issued for him.
Russia has used such financial pressure in the past to get Ukraine to bend to its will. But Gazprom said that the decision to charge a higher price in the second quarter was made because Ukraine has failed to pay off its debt for past supplies, which now stands at $1.7 billion.
Contributing: Luigi Serenelli in Berlin; The Associated Press