Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press
Russia’s seizure last week of three Ukrainian naval ships and their 24 sailors promised to dominate a NATO foreign ministers meeting that starts Tuesday, with members on both sides of the Atlantic grappling to craft a robust response.
Russia’s action in the Black Sea looks set to eclipse a separate debate on Russia within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization over how to address Moscow’s alleged violation of a 31-year-old arms-control treaty.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NATO’s 28 other foreign ministers, gathering in Brussels on Tuesday for a regular meeting, had planned to hash out their positions on the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces in Europe. President Trump on Oct. 20 said the U.S. would exit the INF because of alleged Russian violations in developing its new 9M729 missile.
On Monday, U.S. officials suggested there would be no imminent American withdrawal from the treaty but that Russia was in “flagrant” violation of it.
They said the focus of this week’s meetings in Brussels would be to coordinate closely on a strong and unified response to Russian aggression. A senior State Department official described Russia’s actions against Ukraine as “unacceptable” and an “unmistakable escalation.” The official added that the U.S. was hoping to see a determined response from the EU and NATO.
“It’s a lot closer to home for them than it is for us,” the official said, adding that Mr. Pompeo planned to deliver a “big picture” speech on Tuesday that would lay out the administration’s vision for America’s place in the world.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said allies agree Russia is violating the treaty. But many Europeans have said a unilateral U.S. decision potentially weakens European security and plays into Russian positioning that Washington is abandoning arms-control, not Moscow. Some European diplomats have said the U.S. and its allies should take more time to make their case and better demonstrate Russian violations before definitively exiting the pact.
INF discussions now appear secondary to debates over Russia’s moves in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov near Crimea, which Russia took from Ukraine in 2014. NATO foreign ministers want to warn Russia that its actions won’t be tolerated—yet military escalation isn’t on the table and the U.S. position on Ukraine is clouded by domestic political fights.
“We are closely monitoring and assessing Russia’s military posture,” Mr. Stoltenberg said on Monday.
Mr. Stoltenberg listed NATO actions taken since Russia’s seizure of Crimea to support its members abutting the Black Sea—Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey—and bolster Ukraine, but gave no suggestion of new alliance measures.
Individual members are freer to take action. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires over the weekend urged Mr. Putin to release the 24 Ukrainian sailors and find a diplomatic solution.
Russia blames Ukraine for the ship seizures, calling their movements a provocation aimed at heightening tensions.
At the Group of 20 gathering in Buenos Aires on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to mock Western support for Ukraine, telling reporters that “two small boats gifted by the United States couldn’t pass through the Kerch Strait.” The U.S. Coast Guard transferred two boats to Ukraine, but they weren’t involved in the incident.
Mr. Putin lambasted the pro-Western government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as a “party of war,” adding that “as long as they are in power … war will continue,” a message that echoes the campaigns of pro-Russian candidates in a Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for March. Mr. Putin said there were no plans to release the 24 Ukrainian sailors.
Russia charged them with illegally crossing the Russian border, a lawyer for one of them said Monday, and transferred them from Crimea to a detention center in Moscow. Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, released videos of three Ukrainian sailors in which they appeared to read from scripts supporting the Kremlin’s version of events. Kiev denounced what it called forced confessions and has called them hostages.
In the U.S., the Trump administration faces pressure to show it is standing up to Mr. Putin as investigators probe Mr. Trump’s business relationship with Russia. Republicans and Democrats have called for the U.S. and NATO to take decisive action.
Sen. John Barrasso, the Senate Republican Conference chairman, called on Sunday for a decisive response such as sending ships to the Black Sea or giving Ukraine antiship and antiaircraft weapons to check Mr. Putin.
“Words don’t mean much to him. Action does,” Mr. Barrasso told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
Mr. Barrasso said that Mr. Putin was treating Ukraine like a “guinea pig” and would continue to escalate unless the U.S. and NATO took action. “And a deterrence has to be a forceful response,” Mr. Barrasso said. “I think we need NATO’s involvement, as well.”
Democrats have criticized Mr. Trump for appearing deferential to Mr. Putin and last week questioned his motives for canceling a meeting with the Russian president at the G-20 in Argentina. Mr. Trump canceled the meeting in a series of tweets after initially wavering on the decision, citing Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian ships.
Democrats and other critics speculated that Mr. Trump’s decision was linked to the continuing investigation into his business dealings with Russia. Mr. Trump’s decision to call off the meeting came several hours after his former attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress last year about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the presidential campaign. Mr. Trump has called the probe a “witch hunt.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.), who is set to chair the powerful Judiciary Committee, said on Sunday that Democrats were prepared to hold up government funding to protect the investigation into Mr. Trump’s business dealings with Russia.
“We are dependent on that investigation to get to the bottom of the corruption in the campaign, of the Russian role in the campaign, of the Trump campaign, of the president’s role in colluding with the Russians,” Mr. Nadler told NBC’s Meet the Press.
Last year, the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a report that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential race to help Mr. Trump and damage his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump has denied any collusion with Russia, and Moscow has denied any interference.
—James Marson in Moscow contributed to this article.