NATO meets on Ukraine; plans to reassure Baltics

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NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gestures while speaking during a media conference ahead of a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. NATO foreign ministers begin a two-day meeting on Tuesday in which they will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gestures while speaking during a media conference ahead of a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. NATO foreign ministers begin a two-day meeting on Tuesday in which they will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gestures while speaking during a media conference ahead of a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. NATO foreign ministers begin a two-day meeting on Tuesday in which they will discuss, among other issues, the situation in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

People pass by barricades near the Dnipro Hotel in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. A tense standoff between Ukrainian police and a radical nationalist group Right Sector ended Tuesday, when its members surrendered their weapons and left a downtown hotel. Their departure followed a shooting spree in the capital, in which a Right Sector member shot and wounded three people outside a restaurant adjacent to the capital’s main Independence Square, including a deputy mayor of the capital. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

A woman speaks to riot police officers at the Hotel Dnipro in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. A tense standoff between Ukrainian police and a radical nationalist group Right Sector ended Tuesday, when its members surrendered their weapons and left a downtown hotel. Their departure followed a shooting spree in the capital, in which a Right Sector member shot and wounded three people outside a restaurant adjacent to the capital’s main Independence Square, including a deputy mayor of the capital. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Self-Defense activists pass by the Dnipro Hotel in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. A tense standoff between Ukrainian police and a radical nationalist group Right Sector ended Tuesday, when its members surrendered their weapons and left a downtown hotel. Their departure followed a shooting spree in the capital, in which a Right Sector member shot and wounded three people outside a restaurant adjacent to the capital’s main Independence Square, including a deputy mayor of the capital. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Facing their biggest security challenge in years, NATO foreign ministers discussed how to react to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and what measures to take reassure the alliance’s rattled eastern members in the face of a newly assertive Russia.

As the two-day meeting began Tuesday in Brussels, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization downplayed reports of a Russian troop pullback from border areas with Ukraine. Russia’s Defense Ministry on Monday said one battalion — about 500 troops — had pulled back.

“This is not what we have seen,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters. “And this massive military buildup can in no way contribute to a de-escalation of the situation — a de-escalation that we all want to see — so I continue to urge Russia to pull back its troops, live up to its international obligation and engage in a constructive dialogue with Ukraine.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking to reporters in Berlin, echoed those comments.

“(Even if some troops left) it’s certainly not the final step,” she said. “The troop concentration on the Ukrainian border is very high.”

An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops equipped with tanks, other armored vehicles and fixed and rotary wing aircraft remained deployed near the border with Ukraine, a NATO military official told The Associated Press on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

The official described the Russian buildup as “a complete combat force” that was highly threatening to Ukraine.

The NATO meeting, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew in from Israel to attend, was expected to agree on stepped-up security measures to reassure Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, including further increases in air patrols already being conducted by other NATO members over the Baltic Sea.

Ministers of the alliance’s 28 member nations were also expected to formally end practical defense cooperation with Russia and decide on some form of assistance to Ukraine’s government. Ukraine’s foreign minister was invited to attend part of the proceedings,

In other developments, Russia on Tuesday sharply hiked the price for natural gas to Ukraine and threatened to reclaim billions in previous discounts, raising the heat on Ukraine’s cash-strapped government. In Kiev, Ukrainian police moved to disarm members of a radical nationalist group after a shooting spree in the capital.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier renewed a push for internationally backed direct talks between Russia and Ukraine to defuse one of Europe’s gravest crises since the end of the Cold War.

“What will be important in the coming days is getting Russia and Ukraine around a table together,” Steinmeier said at a meeting with his French and Polish counterparts in Weimar, Germany, before heading to Brussels.

Despite annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin officials have said that Russia has no intention of invading other areas of Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted Tuesday the Kremlin wants a “political settlement that would take interests and rights of the entire Ukrainian people into account.”

Alexei Miller, the head of Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant, said Tuesday that the company has withdrawn December’s discount that put the price of gas at $268.50 per 1,000 cubic meters and set the price at $385.50 per 1,000 cubic meters for the second quarter.

The move is expected to eventually hit Ukrainian consumers hard. Household gas prices in Ukraine are set to rise 50 percent beginning

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