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Russian military build-up triggers European defense fears

PARIS - Russia's military armament is reviving tensions over whether Europe should play a greater role in its own defense, apart from the transatlantic alliance with the United States, which has supported the region's security in the post-war period.

The split emerged on Wednesday as French President Emmanuel Macron marked his turn at the helm of the EU rotating presidency with a comprehensive speech calling on Europe to set its own course.

"Security on our continent requires a strategic rearmament of Europe as a power for peace and balance, especially when it comes to dialogue with Russia," he said. Macron to attend a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The French leader said the EU should spend the coming weeks developing a proposal to create "a new order of security and stability" while consulting with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "We have to build it between Europeans and then share it with our allies within the framework of NATO. And then offer it for negotiation to Russia," he said.

Mr. Macron's remarks troubled officials in the bloc's eastern nations, who have been wary of Europe's development of its own separate defense capability. They fear that the effort could weaken the US-backed security umbrella provided by NATO.

"It can not be the situation that the EU has one position and NATO has a completely different one," said Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia's veteran foreign minister. "Let's face it, the way the United States conducts this business - the level of transparency and coordination - is something I can really commend."

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived to hold a press conference in Kiev on Wednesday after meeting with Ukrainian officials about the crisis with Russia.

Photo: alex brandon / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Russia has gathered about 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, and U.S. officials say Moscow could quickly expand that force. Military build-up has continued in recent days, with Russia moving troops to Belarus near the Ukrainian border. Moscow says the troops are there for joint exercises.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the President of Ukraine in Kiev on Wednesday to assure him of full Western support, while warning of a possible Russian invasion. Mr. Blinken is scheduled to meet his colleagues from Germany, France and the UK on Thursday.

Mr. Macron has been pushing the EU for years to develop his own defense capabilities, and France's presidency of the bloc has given him a new lever to advance the idea. Such plans, however, have been met with little enthusiasm by Germany and other major European economies, who have been happy to let the United States take the lead in deterring Russian aggression on the bloc's eastern flank.

US officials have said they believe a Russian attack on Ukraine could be launched at any time between now and mid-February, although they acknowledge that it is unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to attack Russia's neighbor again. In 2014, Moscow sent troops in to annex Crimea from Ukraine and has supported separatists in the country's eastern provinces.

At a meeting last week in Brest, France, European foreign ministers said they remained open to dialogue with Russia, but stressed that their response to the Ukraine crisis lay through close coordination with NATO and the United States and by defending "key principles". , which supports European security. "

There was no consensus on what the role of the EU should be, nor on setting European requirements for Russia that would run on an independent track, according to people involved in discussions.

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President Emmanuel Macron reviewed troops on Wednesday during a welcoming ceremony at a military camp in Haguenau, France.

Photo: bertrand guay / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Europe-led efforts to resolve the crisis have crashed into a wall of Russian opposition.

Moscow has ignored calls from Paris and Berlin to resume Normandy peace talks on Ukraine, in which France and Germany are directly involved. European officials say the Kremlin is trying to equate European powers and negotiate directly with Washington.

Countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Estonia are in doubt about how much Europe's largest countries - especially France and Germany - share their more lofty views on how to govern Russia. These governments feel they want more to say and find more like-minded allies within NATO, who have their own direct ties with Moscow, than within a French-led attempt to negotiate with Russia.

"We are really looking to keep this within NATO's framework," said a Polish official. "We think it sends mixed signals."

At worst, Eastern governments worry that Mr Macron has helped Mr Putin achieve a major victory by exposing cracks in the Eastern alliance. Europe is in a state of political change, with a new German government still in power, while France, Italy and Hungary are all heading into national elections.

"We need to stand firm and be united," said Sławomir Dębski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank close to the ruling party. "Clearly, what Putin wants to see is a kind of space to drive a wedge between European allies or between the United States and Europe, or the West and Ukraine."

A military build-up along the Ukrainian border further strains ties between Russia and the United States following clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. The WSJ explains what deepens the rift between Washington and Moscow. Photo composite / video: Michelle Inez Simon

Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com, Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com and Drew Hinshaw at drew.hinshaw@wsj.com

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