Half of all Afghan district centers under Taliban control -U.S. general

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Taliban insurgents control about half of Afghanistan’s district centers, the senior U.S. general said on Wednesday, indicating a rapidly deteriorating security situation.

Insecurity has been growing in Afghanistan in recent weeks, largely spurred by fighting in its provinces as U.S.-led foreign troops complete their withdrawal and the Taliban launch major offensives, taking districts and border crossings.

“Strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban,” General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.

Milley said more than 200 of the 419 district centers were under Taliban control. Last month, he had said the Taliban controlled 81 district centers in Afghanistan.

While the insurgent group had not taken over any provincial capitals, they were putting pressure on the outskirts of half of them, he said.

The government has accused the Taliban of destroying hundreds of government buildings in 29 of the country’s 34 provinces. The Taliban deny accusations of extensive destruction by their fighters.

Fifteen diplomatic missions and the NATO representative in Afghanistan urged the Taliban on Monday to halt its offensives just hours after the rival Afghan sides failed to agree on a ceasefire at a peace meeting in Doha.

Biden has set a formal end to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan for Aug. 31 as he looks to disengage from a conflict that began after al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

Almost all U.S. troops, except those protecting the embassy in Kabul and airport, have left the country.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil StewartEditing by Chris Reese and Angus MacSwan)

U.S. and allies accuse China of global hacking spree

By Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and its allies accused China on Monday of a global cyberespionage campaign, mustering an unusually broad coalition of countries to publicly call out Beijing for hacking.

The United States was joined by NATO, the European Union, Britain, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada in condemning the spying, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said posed “a major threat to our economic and national security.”

Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Justice charged four Chinese nationals – three security officials and one contract hacker – with targeting dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in the United States and abroad.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chinese officials have previously said China is also a victim of hacking and opposes all forms of cyberattacks.

While a flurry of statements from Western powers represent a broad alliance, cyber experts said the lack of consequences for China beyond the U.S. indictment was conspicuous. Just a month ago, summit statements by G7 and NATO warned China and said it posed threats to the international order.

Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, called Monday’s announcement a “successful effort to get friends and allies to attribute the action to Beijing, but not very useful without any concrete follow-up.”

Some of Monday’s statements even seemed to pull their punches. While Washington and its close allies such as the United Kingdom and Canada held the Chinese state directly responsible for the hacking, others were more circumspect.

NATO merely said that its members “acknowledge” the allegations being leveled against Beijing by the U.S., Canada, and the UK. The European Union said it was urging Chinese officials to rein in “malicious cyber activities undertaken from its territory” – a statement that left open the possibility that the Chinese government was itself innocent of directing the espionage.

The United States was much more specific, formally attributing intrusions such as the one that affected servers running Microsoft Exchange earlier this year to hackers affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security. Microsoft had already blamed China.

U.S. officials said the scope and scale of hacking attributed to China has surprised them, along with China’s use of “criminal contract hackers.”

“The PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain,” Blinken said.

U.S. security and intelligence agencies outlined more than 50 techniques and procedures that “China state-sponsored actors” use against U.S. networks, a senior administration official said.

Washington in recent months has focused heavy attention on Russia in accusing Russian hackers of a string of ransomware attacks in the United States.

The senior administration official said U.S. concerns about Chinese cyber activities have been raised with senior Chinese officials. “We’re not ruling out further action to hold the PRC accountable,” the official said.

The United States and China have already been at loggerheads over trade, China’s military buildup, disputes about the South China Sea, a crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.

Blinken cited the Justice Department indictments as an example of how the United States will impose consequences.

The defendants and officials in the Hainan State Security Department, a regional state security office, tried to hide the Chinese government’s role in the information theft by using a front company, according to the indictment.

The campaign targeted trade secrets in industries including aviation, defense, education, government, health care, biopharmaceutical and maritime industries, the Justice Department said.

Victims were in Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“These criminal charges once again highlight that China continues to use cyber-enabled attacks to steal what other countries make, in flagrant disregard of its bilateral and multilateral commitments,” Deputy U.S. Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in the statement.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, David Shepardson, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

Afghan civilians take up arms as U.S.-led forces leave

PARWAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Gun in hand, 55-year-old Dost Mohammad Salangi recites poetry as he leads a small group of men to a look-out post high in the rugged hills of Parwan province, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.

Heavily bearded and wearing a traditional circular pakol hat to keep off the sun, he has a warning for the Islamist militant Taliban movement, which has increased attacks on Afghan forces and claimed more territory as foreign troops withdraw.

“If they impose war on us, oppress us and encroach on women and people’s property, even our seven-year-old children will be armed and will stand against them,” he told Reuters.

Salangi is one of hundreds of former “mujahideen” fighters and civilians who have felt compelled to take up arms to help the army repel a growing Taliban insurgency.

The group’s ascendancy on the ground comes as the last U.S.-led international forces prepare to leave after two decades of fighting that ended with no clear victory for either side.

“We have to protect our country … now there is no choice as the foreign forces abandon us,” said Farid Mohammed, a young student who joined a local anti-Taliban leader from Parwan.

He was speaking as the German military concluded the withdrawal of the second largest contingent of foreign troops after the United States with around 150,000 soldiers deployed over the past two decades, many of them serving more than one tour in the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO said in mid-April they would pull out the roughly 10,000 foreign troops still in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York that prompted the mission.

The United Nations envoy for Afghanistan said this week the Taliban had taken more than 50 of 370 districts and was positioned to control provincial capitals as the country looked increasingly unstable as foreign military support ended.

Armed mainly with old assault rifles, pistols and grenade launchers, men like Salangi and Mohammed have joined local shopkeepers and traders as part of a loosely-formed Public Uprising Force trying to reclaim some of those areas.

Ajmal Omar Shinwari, a spokesman for the Afghan defense and security forces, said Afghans keen to take up arms against the Taliban were being absorbed intro the structure of territorial army forces.

But some political analysts warn of the growing risk of a return to civil war as more groups took up arms.

Faced with rising violence, President Ashraf Ghani visited Washington in June to meet Biden, who pledged U.S. support to Afghanistan but said Afghans must decide their own future.

Talks to try and find a political settlement in Afghanistan have stalled, although the head of the Afghan peace council has said they should not be abandoned despite the surge in Taliban attacks.

(Reporting by Afghanistan bureau, Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Quoting Irish poet, Biden ends EU trade war in renewal of transatlantic ties

By Steve Holland, Philip Blenkinsop, Marine Strauss and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden ended one front in a Trump-era trade war when he met European Union leaders on Tuesday by agreeing a truce in a transatlantic dispute over aircraft subsidies that had dragged on for 17 years.

The EU also lifted its tariffs on U.S. steel and aluminum for six months in the hope that the United States will do the same for Europe.

Quoting Irish poet W. B. Yeats at the start of his first EU-U.S. summit as president, Biden also said the world was shifting and that Western democracies needed to come together.

“The world has changed, changed utterly,” Biden, an Irish-American, said, citing from the poem Easter 1916, in remarks that pointed towards the themes of his eight day trip through Europe: China, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

Sitting at an oval table in the EU’s headquarters with U.S. cabinet officials, Biden told EU institution leaders that the EU and the United States working together was “the best answer to deal with these changes” that he said brought “great anxiety.”

He earlier told reporters he had very different opinions from his predecessor. Former president Donald Trump also visited the EU institutions, in May 2017, but later imposed tariffs on the EU and promoted Britain’s departure from the bloc.

“I think we have great opportunities to work closely with the EU as well as NATO and we feel quite good about it,” Biden said after walking through the futuristic glass Europa Building, also known as “The Egg”, to the summit meeting room with EU institution leaders.

“It’s overwhelmingly in the interest of the USA to have a great relationship with NATO and the EU,” he said, accompanied by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and the EU’s chairman Charles Michel, who represents EU governments.

The EU and the United States are the world’s top trading powers, along with China, but Trump sought to sideline the EU.

JOBS PROVIDE DIGNITY

Biden also repeated his mantra: “America is back” and spoke of the need to provide good jobs for European and American workers, particularly after the economic impact of COVID-19. He spoke of his father saying that a job “was more than just a pay-check” because it brought dignity.

He is seeking European support to defend Western liberal democracies in the face of a more assertive Russia and China’s military and economic rise.

Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken earlier met with Belgian King Philippe, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes in Brussels’ royal palace. Biden will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva.

“We’re facing a once in a century global health crisis,” Biden said at NATO, while adding “Russia and China are both seeking to drive a wedge in our transatlantic solidarity.”

NATO leaders for the first time said on Monday China’s military rise presented “systemic challenges”. China’s diplomatic mission to the EU on Tuesday called on NATO to “stop hyping up in any form the so-called China threat,” and accused the alliance of “slandering China’s peaceful development”.

TRADE TRUCE, STEEL DEADLINE

Biden and the EU side agreed to remove tariffs on $11.5 billion of goods from EU wine to U.S. tobacco and spirits for five years. The tariffs were imposed on a tit-for-tat basis over mutual frustration with state subsidies for U.S. plane maker Boeing and European rival Airbus.

Both sides committed to provide financing to their large civil aircraft producers on market terms and not to fund research in a way that would harm one another.

“I am happy to see that after intensive work between the European Commission and the U.S. administration, our transatlantic partnership is on its way to reaching cruising speed,” von der Leyen said.

In a reference to China, Washington and Brussels will “collaborate on addressing non-market practices of third parties that may harm their respective large civil aircraft industries”.

While Airbus and Boeing have factories in China, they accuse Beijing of massive state subsidies to try to develop rival passenger aircrafts, China’s home-built C919 jets.

However, Washington did not commit to ending another row over its punitive tariffs related to steel and aluminum, as the EU has demanded. The EU has now suspended its countermeasures for six months, von der Leyen said, effectively giving Washington a December deadline to remove its Trump-era duties. “Let’s sort out, within this time period, how we can get rid of this nuisance,” von der Leyen told reporters.

Resolving the steel conflict gives both sides more time to focus on concerns over China’s overproduction of metals, diplomats said.

There was no firm new transatlantic pledge on climate at the summit, however, and both sides steered clear of setting a date to stop burning coal.

(Additional reporting by Kate Abnett, Gabriela Baczynska and John Chalmers in Brussels, writing by Robin Emmott; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. tells Russia it will not rejoin Open Skies arms control pact

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States told Russia on Thursday it will not rejoin the Open Skies arms control pact, which allows unarmed surveillance flights over member countries, a U.S. official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was confirming a report by the Associated Press.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman conveyed the decision to her Russian counterpart the official said, saying U.S. allies in the NATO Western security alliance and other partners had been informed.

The United States left the Open Skies arms control and verification treaty in November, accusing Russia of violating it, something Moscow denied.

The Russian government, which in January announced plans to leave the pact, on May 11 submitted legislation to parliament to formalize its departure. At that time, a Kremlin spokesman said one reason was that the United States was still able to receive information acquired via the treaty from its NATO allies.

The treaty, which was signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, permits nations to carry out short-notice, unarmed surveillance flights over the entire territory of the other parties.

The purpose of the treaty, which allows nations to collect information on one another’s military forces, is to increase transparency and build confidence among countries.

(Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Susan Heavey; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. stands by Ukraine against ‘reckless’ Russian actions – Blinken

By Matthias Williams and Natalia Zinets

KYIV (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday Washington could increase security assistance for Ukraine after what he called Russia’s “reckless and aggressive” actions in massing troops near its border.

During a visit to Kyiv intended to show support for Ukraine, Blinken said Russia had left behind significant numbers of troops and equipment despite announcing a withdrawal of its forces from close to the border after a standoff that alarmed the West.

Blinken also said President Joe Biden was keen to visit Ukraine and meet President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but gave no details on that or on Ukraine’s aspirations to join the NATO military alliance.

“We are aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there, significant equipment remains there,” Blinken said, speaking alongside Zelenskiy.

“We are monitoring the situation very, very closely,” he said. “And I can tell you, Mr President, that we stand strongly with you, partners do as well. I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago and we look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions.”

Washington is “actively looking at strengthening even further our security cooperation and our security assistance”, he said, without giving details.

Zelenskiy said Russia had withdrawn only about 3,500 of the tens of thousands of troops deployed to the Crimea peninsula which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

“There may be a threat. Nobody wants these surprises,” he said.

Blinken mixed solidarity with calls for Ukraine to stick to a path of reforms and fighting corruption and the influence of oligarchs. The State Department expressed concern about the firing of a reformist energy official last week.

TALK ABOUT FUTURE, NOT PAST

Biden had pledged “unwavering support” to Zelenskiy in April as Kyiv and Moscow traded blame for clashes in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and Russia’s troop deployment.

Moscow announced a withdrawal of its forces on April 22, helping pave the way for a summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, possibly as early as June.

The standoff prompted Ukraine to call for the United States and Europe to help accelerate Kyiv’s NATO entry. Zelenskiy asked Blinken for support in securing a Membership Action Plan at a NATO summit in June.

Washington has been Kyiv’s most powerful backer since Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists began. Kyiv says the fighting has killed 14,000 people in seven years.

The relationship was tested in 2019 when then-President Donald Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and the business activities of his son Hunter in Ukraine, and the Trump administration temporarily froze security aid to Kyiv.

The fallout from those events, which led to Trump’s impeachment trial, continued last week as federal agents raided the apartment and office of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in relation to his activities in Ukraine.

“I don’t want to waste your time on the past, let’s talk about the future,” Zelenskiy said when asked about Giuliani.

Kyiv would like Washington to supply more military hardware to Ukraine. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters last month that this included equipment to counter Russia’s capacity to jam Ukrainian communications.

In a CNN interview, Kuleba said Ukraine was also asking for air defense systems and anti-sniper technology.

After meeting Blinken on Thursday, Kuleba said he had been assured that nothing would be decided at a meeting between Putin and Biden without taking into account Ukraine’s interests.

(Reporting by Matthias Williams, Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk; writing by Matthias Williams, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Timothy Heritage)

Czechs order Russia to cut more embassy staff in worsening spy row

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Robert Muller

MOSCOW/PRAGUE (Reuters) -The Czech Republic on Thursday ordered Russia to remove more of its diplomatic staff from Prague in an escalation of the worst dispute between the two countries in decades. Moscow said it would swiftly respond.

The spy row flared on Saturday when Prague expelled 18 Russian staff, whom it identified as intelligence officers, saying two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were behind an earlier explosion at a Czech ammunition depot that killed two people.

Russia has denied the Czech accusations and on Sunday ordered out 20 Czech staff in retaliation.

Thursday’s decision, announced by Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek, requires Russia to match the number of Czech envoys in Moscow, meaning Russia will have to pull around 20 diplomats and dozens of other staff from Prague by the end of May.

“We will put a ceiling on the number of diplomats at the Russian embassy in Prague at the current level of our embassy in Moscow,” Kulhanek said. A ministry spokeswoman said the decision included both diplomats and other staff.

“At the moment Prague is on the path to destroying relations,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at her weekly briefing.

“We will respond shortly.”

At a time of acute tensions in Russia’s relations with the West, the dispute has prompted NATO and the European Union to throw their support behind the Czech Republic, which is a member of both blocs.

“Allies express deep concern over the destabilizing actions Russia continues to carry out across the Euro-Atlantic area, including on alliance territory, and stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic,” NATO’s 30 allies said in a statement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow took a negative view of Prague’s “hysteria”.

In the past week, Moscow has also kicked out diplomats from Bulgaria, Poland and the United States in retaliation for expulsions of its own staff.

President Vladimir Putin warned foreign powers in his state of the nation speech on Wednesday not to cross Russia’s “red lines”, saying Moscow would make them regret it.

CZECHS SAY THEIR EMBASSY PARALYSED

On Wednesday the Czech Republic demanded that Moscow allow the return of all 20 staff to Moscow by Thursday or face further evictions of its diplomats from Prague, but Kulhanek said Moscow did not respond.

The Czechs say the loss of the 20 staff has effectively paralyzed the functioning of their Moscow embassy, which is much smaller than the Russian mission in Prague.

The Czechs have 5 diplomats and 19 other staff in Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday, while Russia has 27 diplomats and 67 other staff in Prague after the previous expulsions. That would mean the Czechs ordered a reduction of 70. The ministry did not spell out exact numbers on Thursday.

The two suspects named by Prague, known under the aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, are reportedly part of the elite Unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service.

Britain charged them in absentia with attempted murder after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.

The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died. The Kremlin denied involvement in the incident.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov, Tom Balmforth and Dmitry Antonov; Robert mulle rand Jan Lopatka in Prague; additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

Ukraine says Russia will soon have over 120,000 troops on its borders

By Matthias Williams and Robin Emmott

KYIV/BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Russia will soon have more than 120,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday, calling for new Western economic sanctions to deter Moscow from “further escalation.”

Washington and NATO have been alarmed by the large build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Western officials say the concentration of forces is now larger than during that annexation. The figure given by Kuleba is higher than Ukraine’s previous estimate of 80,000 Russian troops, of which 50,000 were new deployments.

“Russian troops continue to arrive in close proximity to our borders in the northeast, in the east and in the south. In about a week, they are expected to reach a combined force of over 120,000 troops,” Kuleba told an online news conference.

“This does not mean they will stop building up their forces at that number,” Kuleba said, warning of what he said was Moscow’s unpredictability although he said Ukraine did not want conflict with Russia.

“The cost of preventing Russia’s further escalation will always be lower than the cost of stopping it and mitigating its consequences … It is way more effective to clearly make Moscow understand that a new stage of aggression will have dire consequences for Russia, international isolation and painful economic sanctions.”

Kuleba also called for Moscow to re-commit to a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces have fought Ukrainian troops in a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.

Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame for a rise in casualties in the conflict in recent weeks. Kuleba said Russian snipers were killing Ukrainian soldiers to provoke Ukraine to counterattack.

Russia has said its troop build-up is a three-week snap military drill to test combat readiness in response to what it calls threatening behavior from NATO. Moscow on Tuesday also accused the U.S. and NATO of “provocative activity” in the waters and airspace of the Black Sea.

Kuleba attended a video conference with EU foreign ministers and said he openly “called on colleagues to start considering a new round of sectoral sanctions against Russia”.

He said he did not feel EU ministers were ready for such a move but he told them that individual sanctions on Russian officials were insufficient.

(Editing by Alison Williams and Timothy Heritage)

Russia calls U.S. ‘adversary,’ rejects NATO call to end Ukraine build-up

By Robin Emmott and Andrew Osborn

BRUSSELS/MOSCOW (Reuters) -The United States called on Russia to halt a military build-up on Ukraine’s border on Tuesday as Moscow, in words recalling the Cold War, said its “adversary” should keep U.S. warships well away from annexed Crimea.

Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and fighting has escalated in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

Two U.S. warships are due to arrive in the Black Sea this week.

In Brussels for talks with NATO leaders and Ukraine’s foreign minister, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington stood firmly behind Ukraine.

He also said he would discuss Kyiv’s ambitions to one day join NATO – although France and Germany have long worried that bringing the former Soviet republic into the Western alliance would antagonize Russia.

“The United States is our adversary and does everything it can to undermine Russia’s position on the world stage,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies on Tuesday.

Ryabkov’s remarks suggest that the diplomatic niceties which the former Cold War enemies have generally sought to observe in recent decades is fraying, and that Russia would robustly push back against what it regards as unacceptable U.S. interference in its sphere of influence.

“We warn the United States that it will be better for them to stay far away from Crimea and our Black Sea coast. It will be for their own good,” Ryabkov said, calling the U.S. deployment a provocation designed to test Russian nerves.

CALL FOR DE-ESCALATION

Blinken met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba after Group of Seven foreign ministers condemned what they said was the unexplained rise in Russian troop numbers.

Echoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who met Kuleba earlier, Blinken said Moscow was massing forces in its biggest build-up since 2014, since Moscow annexed Crimea. He called Russia’s actions “very provocative”.

“In recent weeks Russia has moved thousands of combat-ready troops to Ukraine’s borders, the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Stoltenberg said.

“Russia must end this military build-up in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with Kuleba.

Russia has said it moves its forces around as it sees fit, including for defensive purposes. It has regularly accused NATO of destabilizing Europe with its troop reinforcements in the Baltics and Poland since the annexation of Crimea.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday Russia had moved two armies and three paratrooper units to near its western borders in the last three weeks, responding to what it called threatening military action by NATO.

Shoigu, speaking on state television, said NATO was deploying 40,000 troops near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions.

“In total, 40,000 troops and 15,000 weapons and pieces of military equipment are concentrated near our territory, including strategic aircraft,” Shoigu said.

The Western alliance denies any such plans.

SANCTIONS, MILITARY HELP

Kuleba said Kyiv wanted a diplomatic solution.

Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame over the worsening situation in the eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops have battled Russian-backed separatist forces.

Kuleba appealed for further economic sanctions against Moscow and more military help to Kyiv.

“At the operational level, we need measures which will deter Russia and which will contain its aggressive intentions,” Kuleba said after the NATO-Ukraine Commission met at the alliance headquarters.

This could be direct support aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defense capabilities.

Separately, two diplomats said Stoltenberg would chair a video conference with allied defense and foreign ministers on Wednesday. Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were expected to be present at NATO headquarters in Brussels to brief the other 29 allies on Ukraine, as well as on Afghanistan, the diplomats said.

Austin, on a visit to Berlin, said the United States would ramp up its forces in Germany in light of the friction with Moscow, abandoning former President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw about round 12,000 of the 36,000 troops from there.

Kyiv has welcomed the show of Western support, but it falls short of Ukraine’s desire for full membership of NATO.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow in Moscow, Editing by Mark Heinrich and Angus MacSwan)

Merkel tells Putin to pull back troops as Kremlin accuses Ukraine of provocations

By Thomas Escritt and Tom Balmforth

BERLIN/MOSCOW (Reuters) -German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to pull back the Kremlin’s military buildup near the border with Ukraine, while he in turn accused Kyiv of “provocative actions” in the conflict region.

Ukraine has raised the alarm over an increase in Russian forces near its eastern border as violence has risen along the line of contact separating its troops from Russia-backed separatists in its Donbass region.

“The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,” Germany’s government said in a readout of a telephone call between Merkel and Putin.

Russia has said its forces pose no threat and were defensive, but that they would stay there as long as Moscow saw fit.

A senior Kremlin official said on Thursday that Moscow could under certain circumstances be forced to defend its citizens in Donbass and that major hostilities could mark the beginning of the end of Ukraine as a country.

The Kremlin said in its readout of the Merkel phone call that “Vladimir Putin noted provocative actions by Kyiv which is is deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday two days after he called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the military bloc, whose expansion Moscow fiercely opposes.

The rouble hit a five-month low on Wednesday a day after Russia said it had begun a planned inspection of its army’s combat readiness involving thousands of drills.

On Thursday, Dmitry Kozak, a senior Kremlin official, said Ukraine’s government were like “children playing with matches.”

“I support the assessment that the start of military action – this would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration said.

At a news conference, Kozak was asked if Russia would protect its citizens in eastern Ukraine.

Referring in his reply to Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, he said: “It all depends on the scale of the fire. If there is, as our president says, Srebrenica, apparently we will have to step in to defend (them).”

Ukraine and Western countries say Donbass separatists have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russians. Moscow has denied interfering. While a ceasefire halted full-scale warfare in 2015, sporadic fighting never ceased.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, Thomas Escritt in Berlin; additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Toby Chopra and Timothy Heritage)