NATO chief recommits to defense of Baltic, Eastern European states

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BRUSSELS -- A reinvigorated NATO flexed old Cold War muscles Tuesday, as the Atlantic alliance's chief recommitted to defending Eastern European and Baltic nations rattled by Russia's military moves and its annexation of Crimea.

At the opening of a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance has seen no signs of Russian troop withdrawals along the Ukraine border, as Moscow has claimed. A senior U.S. State Department official had called Russia's promised pullback a "gesture," but a welcome one.

"We have all challenged the tactics of intimidation," Secretary of State John Kerry said after meeting Tuesday with fellow NATO members and Ukrainian envoys.

The alliance moved to suspend many military and civilian ties with Russia over its military incursion and annexation of Crimea, but it stopped short of ordering new troop deployments of its own, a move that could provoke a larger confrontation.

"NATO has consistently worked for closer cooperation and trust with Russia" for two decades, the alliance ministers said in a statement. "However, Russia has violated international law" and its agreements with NATO, they said. "It has gravely breached the trust upon which our cooperation must be based."

Mr. Rasmussen did not rule out posting troops in nations at Russia's front door in the future, an action the alliance has largely refrained from doing. NATO could establish permanent bases in front-line allied nations, alliance officials said this week.

Ukraine is not an alliance member but cooperates with it, to Russia's frequent dismay. Ukraine's foreign minister reiterated Tuesday that his nation is not seeking NATO membership now but is exploring greater cooperation. NATO foreign ministers agreed Tuesday to intensify the alliance's partnership with Ukraine and provide more assets to Eastern European partners.

"Russia's aggression against Ukraine challenges our vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace," Mr. Rasmussen said. "We are now considering all options to enhance our collective defense, including an update and further development of defense plans, enhanced exercises and also appropriate deployment."

The United States has joined Black Sea naval exercises, and NATO members have increased air patrols over the Baltic states and are flying AWACS surveillance planes over Poland and Romania.

Eastern European leaders have expressed unhappiness with the pace at which NATO has sought to bulk up its presence on the front lines with Russia.

In Washington, the House was considering an aid package for Ukraine, whose new Western-oriented leaders have committed to economic and political reform and elections in May.

The 28-member alliance's regular spring meeting of foreign ministers was energized by Russia's move to invade and then annex Crimea from Ukraine, and to deploy as many as 40,000 troops along its border with Ukraine. NATO, originally formed as a U.S.-backed bulwark against the Soviet Union, has expanded in the past 15 years to include many former Soviet satellite states, often over Russian complaints. NATO sometimes invites Russia to attend sessions, but that was not the case this time.

NATO has focused for two decades on joint missions, such as in Kosovo and Afghanistan. But without the organizing principle of collective defense against the Soviet Union, the alliance has sometimes seemed adrift.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced Monday that a motorized infantry battalion would return to its home base after deployment along the border with eastern Ukraine. A battalion can range from a few hundred to about 1,500 soldiers. But Mr. Rasmussen said Tuesday that allied intelligence does not show that Russia is scaling back what he called a "massive military buildup."

Russia has maintained that it is conducting legal, routine military training and has no intention of extending its reach beyond Crimea.

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