NATO’s Eastern Members Seek Bases to Deter Russian Threat

NATO’s newer eastern members are pushing to have alliance forces stationed permanently in their nations, a move at odds with a 1997 understanding with Russia that limits NATO bases on Russia’s periphery.

Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma, speaking in Washington at a Bloomberg Government breakfast yesterday, said she’d like to see U.S. forces permanently based in her Baltic nation. Such a move, she said, would be justified in light of Russia’s recent actions. Leaders in Estonia, Romania and Poland, also NATO members, have voiced similar sentiments.

A senior NATO official said yesterday that the alliance isn’t bound by its 1997 agreement with Russia. That document states that NATO, given the “current and foreseeable security environment,” wouldn’t pursue “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in eastern and central Europe.

While the alliance intends to honor that pledge “for now,” it isn’t legally binding, Alexander Vershbow, NATO’s deputy secretary general, said at a breakfast with defense reporters in Washington. “We would be within our rights even now” to reconsider the political commitment in light of Russia’s moves into Ukraine, he said.

“Whether we need to do that is to be determined,” he said.

Hagel’s Speech

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today that the crisis in Ukraine presents a “clarifying moment” for the transatlantic alliance, most of whose member nations are failing to meet their targets of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.

“Future generations will note whether, at this moment of challenge, we summoned the will to invest in our alliance,” he said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

The U.S. for years has been pressing its European allies to increase their spending to modernize defenses. The U.S. spent an estimated 4.1 percent of GDP on defense last year, according to NATO data. European allies together spent 1.6 percent, down from 2 percent a decade ago, as only the U.K., Estonia, and Greece met the 2 percent target, according to NATO.

“This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability,” Hagel said.

Russia’s recent actions require that “NATO must stand ready to revisit the basic principles underlying its relationship with Russia,” he said.

‘Founding Act’

The 1997 “Founding Act” set out a basis for cooperation between NATO and post-Soviet Russia. The accord was a step toward ending the Cold War division of Europe and said Russia’s actions would reflect “shared values, commitments and norms of behavior” that include not threatening others or using force.

Considering Russia’s actions in Ukraine, “we should not be concerned about abrogating that particular agreement, but the question that we really need to ask is what are the specific purposes that more forces in those countries would serve,” said Christopher Chivvis, a European security analyst at the Rand Corp. in Washington.

“We need to recognize that the challenge that the Baltic states in particular face is not of a massive ground invasion on the model of the Cold War,” Chivvis said on a conference call with reporters. Rather, the challenge is “either a very, very small-scale incursion or the sort of meddling we have seen obviously before in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine.”

Temporary Moves

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March, and Ukrainian officials blame their neighbor for fomenting the separatist movement that is roiling the country’s eastern regions.

In an effort to reassure some of the newer NATO members, the alliance has moved to bolster defenses in the Baltics and Poland temporarily. Those nations, like all NATO members, are covered by the mutual defense treaty that regards an attack on any one nation as an attack on all 28 members.

The U.K., Denmark, France and Poland are flying defensive air patrols over the Baltic nations. Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas held a welcoming ceremony this week for four Danish F-16 warplanes and a 60-member support team at his nation’s Amari air base, during which he said he hopes to make the NATO presence permanent.

Estonia Exercises

An infantry company with about 150 troops from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, landed in Estonia on April 28 for military exercises. A total of about 600 soldiers from the brigade are deploying to Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Estonia, to train with local forces, according to the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

“We would of course like to see this presence being on a permanent basis because at the moment it is unclear how soon the situation between Russia and Ukraine will be resolved,” said Latvia’s Straujuma.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month that NATO had breached the principles of the 1997 accord after the U.S. stepped up air patrols over Poland and Romania and joined a Black Sea naval exercise with Romania and Bulgaria. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called that a “baseless interpretation” of the agreement.

Hagel said last month that the U.S. is considering a range of measures to strengthen NATO, including stationing a third Army brigade with 5,000 troops in Europe.

Russian Helicopters

In the latest sign of tensions beyond Ukraine, the Russian army yesterday began what it called a helicopter training operation near the borders with Latvia and Estonia, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. The exercises involve dozens of attack and transport helicopters, according to the report.

As a result of the Ukraine crisis, NATO must consider Russia “more as an adversary than a partner” after years of seeking closer ties, Vershbow said.

The alliance will need to rethink its military posture, consider broader and more frequent military exercises and reduce NATO forces’ response time “from weeks to even days,” he said.

Among the options to be reviewed at a NATO summit in September, he said, are an expansion of rotational troop deployments and prepositioning equipment closer to Russia, as was done to help defend West Germany during the Cold War.

Even so, the renewed emphasis on security doesn’t signal a return to the Cold War, and the alliance still wants to work with Russia on some matters, such as Afghanistan, Vershbow said.

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