NATO defence ministers on Tuesday paved the way for their military alliance to step up its troop presence in Eastern Europe, in a move likely to further ratchet up tensions with Russia.
NATO has been working on bolstering its eastern flank ever since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, which left the eastern-most countries in the Western military alliance feeling threatened by Moscow.
The 28-country NATO has organized more military exercises in the region and helped with air policing and naval operations. Ministers have now agreed to also deploy four battalions of soldiers to Poland and the Baltic countries, as well as supporting a brigade in Romania.
"This sends a clear message: if any of our allies is attacked, the whole alliance will respond as one," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists in Brussels.
NATO does not want to "fight a war" or "provoke a conflict," he added. Rather, "strong deterrence is the best way to prevent the war," Stoltenberg argued.
But Russia has repeatedly warned that an eastward NATO expansion threatens its national security. The country's military began a snap combat-readiness check on Tuesday, although it did not link it with NATO activity.
"We don't seek confrontation with Russia," Stoltenberg said. "We don't want a new Cold War, and we will continue to strive for a more constructive and cooperative relationship with Russia."
Each of the multinational battalions being deployed to Poland and the Baltics is expected to feature 800 to 1,000 troops which will be on six- to nine-month rotations. It is not yet clear whether troops already present in the area could be reassigned to the new effort.
Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said the move would be of "fundamental importance for our security," while Latvian Defence Minister Raimonds Bergmanis spoke of a "historic moment."
The United States will lead one battalion, while Britain and Germany announced on Tuesday that they would head two others. Canada is said to be in line to lead the fourth.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon spoke of "a very strong signal of unity and resolve in our determination to defend the Baltic states and Poland in the face of continued Russian aggression."
Details are still to be finalized, but German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the deployments will be in line with a NATO-Russia agreement that foresees the alliance refraining from the "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" in Eastern Europe.
Expectations are high that the Canadian-led battalion would be in Latvia, the US-led battalion in Poland, the British-led battalion in Estonia and the German-led battalion in Lithuania.
But final decisions are not expected until the alliance's leaders meet in Warsaw next month.
Romania, meanwhile, has offered to provide the headquarters for and lead a multinational brigade on its territory. It will "organize and facilitate NATO activities in the region related to exercises and also assurance measures," Stoltenberg said.
Neighbouring Bulgaria is expected to contribute 400 troops, a source said on condition of anonymity.
The defence ministers will also consider how to handle crises to NATO's south during their two-day meeting in Brussels.
They are expected to pave the way Wednesday for the deployment of AWACS surveillance planes in Turkish and international airspace to help the international coalition fighting the Islamic State extremist group in Syria and Iraq.
On Tuesday, they decided to add cyberspace to NATO's air, sea and land operational domains. This will allow NATO allies to "coordinate and organize our efforts to protect against cyber attacks in a better and more efficient way," Stoltenberg said.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - 15:05
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