NATO bolstered the defense of frontline member states in eastern Europe, recommitting to its original mission of fending off Russia in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s menace to Ukraine.
The U.S.-led alliance will upgrade contingency plans, hold more military drills in eastern Europe and step up air and naval policing on its flanks, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land,” Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels today after the 28 North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies approved the bulked-up defense posture.
As Ukraine’s prime minister warned of a new Berlin Wall in Europe, NATO dusted off the script used to break down the old one. It emphasized that the point is to defend alliance territory, not extend it further into Russia’s borderlands.
NATO stopped short of setting up permanent bases in eastern Europe, an idea that caused discomfort in Germany when it was floated by eastern officials. Instead, the alliance decided to step up training of eastern forces and conduct more military maneuvers in the region. The NATO chief declined to reveal exact operational details or how many extra troops, planes and ships are involved.
There were hints that a permanent footprint might follow. Rasmussen spoke of “more medium-term and long-term measures” on the drawing board. NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said Russia has created a “new paradigm” that requires the Pentagon to rethink its European deployments.
For now, the allies were on guard against provoking the Kremlin on the eve of talks over a political settlement to the Ukraine crisis in Geneva. Diplomats from the U.S., the European Union, Ukraine and Russia are slated to take part.
“We do hope that the Geneva talks will pave the way to a peaceful and political solution,” Rasmussen said.
Today’s decision also reflected a 1997 commitment by NATO to refrain from any new “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in eastern European countries that were then set to join the alliance after almost a half-century under the domination of the Soviet Union.
NATO opened its doors to former Warsaw Pact countries starting in 1999. The easterners spent their early years as members of the trans-Atlantic self-defense club supporting campaigns outside the alliance’s traditional area of operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya.
During that phase, NATO harbored intentions of warmer ties with Russia in a demilitarized, post-Cold War world. The Kremlin shook that policy by invading NATO aspirant Georgia in 2008 and shattered it with this year’s annexation of Crimea and intimidation of Ukraine.
“The thorniest question is how to counter Russia without contributing to an escalation of the conflict or giving Russia an excuse to provoke such an escalation,” Constanze Stelzenmueller, senior trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, said in comments posted today on Carnegie Europe’s blog.
Russia’s forces on Ukraine’s eastern border remain in “very high” readiness, Breedlove, the supreme NATO commander, told reporters in Brussels. “It is either a very large coercive force or it is a force absolutely capable and able of crossing the border and accomplishing the objectives it might be given.”
In response to Russia’s takeover of Crimea and mobilization of roughly 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, NATO has already stepped up air surveillance over the three Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It increased the contingent from four fighter jets to as many as a dozen and said today that it will maintain the higher operating tempo.
Baltic-based fighters now “scramble” into the skies on a 10-minute deadline two or more times a day, compared to the twice-a-week practice missions that were the norm before the Ukraine crisis. Britain and Denmark are among the countries that have offered to send more warplanes once the current U.S. rotation ends. Breedlove said NATO should consider adding air-policing bases, noting that Estonia has offered to make an airfield available.
AWACS air surveillance flights will continue over Poland and Romania, prolonging another measure taken in response to the Ukraine crisis. Military officials will also arrange more naval patrols in the Baltic Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.
Breedlove said ground forces offered by “multiple nations” will be part of the ramped-up deployments, which will run until the end of the year and could be prolonged.
As NATO’s strengthened defenses took shape in recent weeks, Russia accused it of violating the 1997 pledge to limit its military profile in eastern Europe. NATO responded that it was compelled by Russia’s territorial appetite to take defensive steps. The 1997 accord also tied NATO’s force posture to “the current and foreseeable security environment,” something altered by Russia’s military buildup.
Breedlove said he will call his Russian counterpart, Valery Gerasimov, “to emphasize the defensive nature and the assurance that we’re trying to achieve.” A call couldn’t be set up earlier today and he will try again later, Breedlove said.