The Belgian army has troops on standby in the Baltic states if the situation at the Ukrainian border escalates and NATO becomes involved.
The United Kingdom and the United States are withdrawing staff from embassies in the country’s capital Kiev as tension in the region rises. Belgium is active in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, with troops and F-16 fighter jets, according to Chief Head of Defence (CHOD) Michel Hofman.
“There are already troops deployed in the Baltic States, but we also have units that are preparing to intervene within a certain period of time, but today it is far too early to say where and how they will be deployed and in what form,” he told Radio 1 on Monday.
Hofman stated that he is currently analysing the range of possible developments, from a positive outcome, such as de-escalation, to the worst. “Right now the situation is serious; we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, meaning that an attack by Russia would not automatically result in NATO taking action. Hofman said that any Belgian involvement will depend on the involvement of neighbouring countries and NATO. He added that decisions will be adapted according to the evolution of the situation.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine boiled over in early 2014 when Russian troops took control of Ukraine’s Crimean region. In March 2014, Russia formally annexed the peninsula after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation in a disputed referendum.
This gave way to violence in the region between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military. Around 13,000 people have been killed and nearly 24,000 injured, according to Global Conflict Tracker.
The situation further escalated and became an international crisis when a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over Ukrainian airspace in July 2014, killing all 298 civilians on board. An investigation later concluded that the plane had been brought down by a Russian-built surface-to-air missile.
Until 2021, the situation was at an uneasy stalemate. But in recent months, Russia has moved troops and military equipment to its border with Ukraine, reigniting concerns in the West that the Kremlin is planning an invasion.
Moscow denies this but social media posts and commercial satellite imagery have shown that missiles and other heavy weaponry were being moved towards Ukraine. The US has warned of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.
On Sunday, US President Biden said that he is considering sending between 1,000 and 5,000 troops to a number of Eastern European countries, such as Poland. The US also warned against travelling to Ukraine.
Unlike the US and the UK, Belgium is not withdrawing diplomatic personnel from Ukraine for the time being, the Foreign Ministry told Belga News Agency. Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès will discuss the situation in Ukraine with her EU counterparts at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.
Meanwhile, the EU announced a new financial assistance package of €1.2 billion for Ukraine composed of both emergency loans and grants. It aims to help the country address its financing needs due to the conflict.
“Last Friday, I spoke with President Zelensky to assess the situation in Ukraine. We discussed how the EU could continue to support Ukraine both in the immediate and medium-term. As ever, the EU stands by Ukraine in these difficult circumstances,” Commission President von der Leyen said on Monday.