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NATO should put troops in Ukraine on rotational basis to deter Russia, Bolton says

Former Ambassador John R. Bolton speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States and other members of NATO should rotate troops through Ukraine to deter Russia from pursuing military action against its smaller neighbor, former national-security adviser John Bolton said.

Bolton, who served under then-President Donald Trump from 2018 to 2019, also said that the United States should send more lethal weapons to Ukraine amid growing concerns Russia could soon invade the country.

“We need … to make sure the costs are so high that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his advisers will find it unacceptable. I think that’s the way to deter the military action that seems so imminent,” Bolton, an outspoken advocate of the use of American military power, told RFE/RL in an interview on December 6.

Russia has amassed more than 90,000 troops near its border with Ukraine for the second time this year, but this time around the concerns in the United States and Europe of a possible invasion are greater. Russia has denied it is planning military action against Ukraine.

A senior U.S. administration official said on December 6 that the current Russian troop and weapon movements “are consistent” with a planned military escalation in Ukraine, though the official said it was still unclear if Putin has ordered an invasion.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Putin on December 7 to discuss Russia’s troop buildup as well as other important bilateral issues.

The senior administration official said Washington “is not seeking” to make U.S. troop deployment to Ukraine “the focus of U.S. countermeasures” should Russia initiate military hostilities. The senior official declined to say under what circumstances U.S. troops could be sent to Ukraine.

The United States currently has several hundred military trainers stationed in western Ukraine while U.K. media reported last month that Britain has 600 troops ready to deploy to Ukraine should hostilities erupt.

Moldova Strategy

Russian aggression toward Ukraine has been building as Putin sees the country slowly slipping away from the Kremlin’s orbit, analysts say.

Ukraine continues to push ahead with plans to join the European Union and NATO, something the Kremlin has called a red line.

Bolton said Russian aggression against Ukraine is just part of Putin’s wider strategy for maintaining the Kremlin’s influence in Russia’s near abroad.

He said the Russian leader keeps “probing” the six former Soviet states in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus — Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan — that are not in the Western military alliance and that NATO has to end the ambiguity over their future.

Only the governments of Georgia and Ukraine have expressed clear interest in joining NATO. Moldova has neutrality written into its constitution, while Belarus and Armenia are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

He said leaving any of six out of possible NATO membership is “basically saying to the Russians: ‘you can have suzerainty or even reannexation,’ which is something very, very dangerous.”

Russia uses so-called “frozen conflicts” in some of these nations, including Georgia and Moldova, to prevent those nations from moving forward with NATO membership.

Bolton said now is “the most favorable moment we’ve had in a long time” for NATO to end the frozen conflict in Moldova following the election of a West-leaning government.

Russia continues to back the Moldovan breakaway region of Transdniester, a sliver of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine.

Bolton called Transdniester a “totally unnatural, artificial” republic that is on its “last legs” and said NATO members should threaten the breakaway region and Russia with economic sanctions to bring about an end to the standoff.

“I think economic pressure here is the way to go…to say we don’t accept that Russia can create these frozen conflicts with this turmoil and uncertainty,” he said.

While not dismissing the difficulty of ending the frozen conflict in Moldova, Bolton said Russia’s hand was more vulnerable there than in the other five nations due to geographical distance.

“I’m confident we can make progress [on Moldova] and I think it’s important that we try because that’s one way of releasing [Russian] pressure on Ukraine,” he said.