NATO boosts eastern presence ahead of key summit

14th June 2016, Comments 0 comments

NATO defence ministers were set Tuesday to approve sending battalions to the three Baltic states and Poland just weeks before a landmark summit in Warsaw endorses a major build-up to counter a more assertive Russia.

Russia's 2014 intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea stung NATO out of its post-Cold War complacency and into a major revamp to boost its readiness and resources to meet a host of new security challenges.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the message for Moscow was clear.

"NATO will continue to protect all allies against any threat coming from any direction," he told reporters at the alliance's Brussels headquarters.

"That is the reason why we implemented the biggest reinforcement of collective defence since the end of the Cold War."

At the same time, NATO "does not seek confrontation with Russia, we don't want a new Cold War", Stoltenberg said, stressing the US-led alliance "continues (to seek) more constructive and cooperative relations with Russia."

He said defence ministers would formally approve deployment of four "robust" multinational battalions in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, all once ruled from Moscow and deeply suspicious of Russian intentions.

They would also take up an offer by Romania to host a similar unit which would help "organise and facilitate NATO activities in the region related to exercises and also assurance measures," he said.

- Russia opposes NATO expansion -

Russia bitterly opposes NATO's expansion into its Soviet-era satellites and last month said it would create three new divisions in its southwest region to counter what is described as a dangerous military build-up along its borders.

NATO opened a missile defence base in Romania last month, sparking furious Russian warnings it would have to counter this threat to its nuclear deterrent.

Stoltenberg said the Romania unit, likely to include troops from neighbour Bulgaria, would be land-based only, not maritime -- apparently a nod to sensitivities over the Black Sea where international conventions limit naval deployments.

Russia's key Black Sea fleet has its historic base in Crimea.

Stoltenberg gave no details as to how many troops could be deployed in Romania.

Diplomatic sources say the four battalions in the Baltic states and Poland are likely to number 2,500-3,000 troops in total, with the small force designed to act as a tripwire once deployed from next year.

The United States, Britain and Germany have agreed to be lead nations for the battalions with Canada expected to be the fourth, according to diplomatic sources.

- Warsaw Summit, defence spending -

NATO leaders meet in Warsaw July 8-9 to sign off on the alliance upgrade, which on top of a new fast response force plus increased troop and equipment deployments, includes a commitment by member states to increase defence spending to two percent of annual economic output.

Stoltenberg said the alliance had finally reversed years of defence cuts in 2015, with spending up 0.6 percent and expected to increase another 1.5 percent in 2015.

"This is progress but I call on the allies to keep up the momentum and to do more because we need to match our defence spending with the challenges we face," he said.

The Warsaw summit will be hugely symbolic since the Polish capital gave its name to the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact, NATO's military adversary for nearly 50 years until the fall of Communism.

Poland and the Baltic states have pressed a very hard line on Moscow, including establishing permanent NATO bases in the east, but not all member states want to go that far given the need for Russia's help with other issues, such as the Syria conflict and terrorism.

"Our wish is that the summit is not seen as anti-Russia even if you cannot deny the symbolic importance of it being held in Warsaw," one diplomatic source said.


© 2016 AFP

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