Russia Threatens to Counter NATO Buildup as Ties Fray

Russia will take measures against a buildup of NATO forces on its borders as regional and global security weakens with the rupture of ties between the former Cold War enemies, the country’s top military commander said.

The Ukrainian conflict is “practically a civil war” as the authorities in Kiev are using the army against “unarmed civilians,” Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian military’s General Staff, told a security conference in Moscow today. Internal conflicts “are no longer purely domestic and take on an increasingly international character.”

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has added air and naval patrols and reinforced land troops in Poland, Romania and its Baltic member states to increase deterrence following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, which holds a presidential election this weekend. The Baltic nations are seeking permanent stationing of NATO troops and bases to counter what they say is Russia’s own military buildup in the region.

As NATO began to strengthen defenses in recent weeks, Russia accused it of violating a 1997 pledge to limit its military profile in eastern Europe. The U.S.-led military alliance responded that it was compelled by Russia’s territorial appetite to take defensive steps. The 1997 accord tied NATO’s force posture to “the current and foreseeable security environment,” something altered by Russia’s military buildup.

Russian Response

“The operational and combat readiness of the alliance’s forces is intensifying on Russia’s borders,” Gerasimov said. “In these conditions, we can’t stay on the sidelines of what is happening. We will have to take measures in response.”

NATO says Russia has deployed 40,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. President Vladimir Putin this week ordered a withdrawal of Russia’s forces from the frontier, telling soldiers in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions to return to their permanent stations and be back at their bases by June 1 after completing exercises.

Gerasimov, who’s also a first deputy defense minister, was among people added by the European Union to its list of those sanctioned to protest Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The general is “responsible for the massive deployment of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine and lack of de-escalation of the situation,” the EU said.

Russia’s staredown with NATO is intensifying across the region. Russia more than tripled the size of its military helicopter unit near Latvia, increasing the number of choppers to about 100 in the course of the Ukrainian crisis, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said April 25. Helicopters stationed at the Ostrov air base can reach the Baltic state’s capital, Riga, in about an hour.

Poland, Estonia

Poland, which already spends more than average for NATO’s European members on defense, plans to sign a deal to buy 70 long-range tactical transport helicopters and take a share in a missile-defense partnership.

Latvia ramped up spending by almost 12 percent last year while its northern neighbor Estonia, also bordering Russia, spent a greater share of its national output on defense than France in 2013 for the second year running, NATO figures show.

NATO’s European members have spent an average of 1.6 percent of economic output annually on defense since 2011. Only four of the bloc’s 28 members met its target level of 2 percent last year.

Russia “regards the NATO frontline states in the Baltic Sea region and possibly in the Black Sea region as a sort of soft underbelly of the alliance,” Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser said in a May 6 interview. He called for a “stronger NATO footprint on the soil of the frontline states.”

Worst Losses

Ukrainian government forces suffered their worst losses yesterday in battles with pro-Russian separatists since the secession campaign began in March. An attack by rebels near Volnovakha, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Donetsk, left 16 servicemen dead, First Deputy Health Minister Ruslan Salyutin said in televised remarks. One soldier was killed and two injured in the Luhansk region, the Defense Ministry said.

Ukraine is pinning its hopes on the May 25 election producing an undisputed successor to Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-backed president who was toppled in February.

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