UKRAINE CONFLICT

Putin weighs response to Nato troop movement in eastern Europe

Moscow

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin on Friday (Mar 11) asked his defence minister to prepare plans for possible fortification of Russia's western border in response to Nato troop movement in eastern Europe.

"As for the strengthening of our western borders because of the actions adopted by Nato countries... this needs to be considered separately, I ask you to prepare a report," Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during a televised meeting of Russia's Security Council.

Nato countries have deployed thousands of troops to central and eastern Europe in response to Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine and Moscow has demanded Nato pull back its troops in the east.

Nato members Poland and the 3 Baltic states share a common border with Russia. Ukraine borders several others: Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

Putin also gave the green light on Friday for up to 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East to be deployed alongside Russian-backed rebels to fight in Ukraine, doubling down an invasion that the West says has been losing momentum.

The move, just over 2 weeks since Putin ordered the invasion, allows Russia to deploy battle-hardened mercenaries from conflicts such as Syria without risking additional Russian military casualties.

At a meeting of Russia's Security Council, Shoigu said there were 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East who were ready to come to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in the breakaway Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

"If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord, not for money, to come to help the people living in Donbass, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone," Putin said from the Kremlin.

Shoigu also proposed that Western-made Javelin and Stinger missiles that were captured by the Russian army in Ukraine should be handed over to Donbass forces, along other weaponry such as man-portable air-defense systems, known as Manpads, and anti-tank rocket complexes.

US intelligence chiefs told lawmakers on Thursday that Russia had been surprised by the strength of Ukrainian resistance, which had deprived the Kremlin of a quick victory it thought would have prevented the United States and Nato from providing meaningful military aid.

That was causing concern in Beijing, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said. "I do believe that the Chinese leadership, President Xi in particular, is unsettled," Burns said.

"By what he's seen, partly because his own intelligence doesn't appear to have told him what was going to happen." AFP, REUTERS

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