NATO to create a rapid-response force for eastern Europe, officials say

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WASHINGTON — As Ukrainian leaders warned Monday of “a great war” with Russia, NATO leaders meeting in Wales this week were expected to endorse their most concrete response yet to increased Russian military intervention in Ukraine: establishing a rapid-reaction force capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe, officials of the alliance said.

The new force of some 4,000 troops, capable of moving on 48 hours’ notice, will be supported with logistics and equipment pre-positioned in Eastern European countries closer to Russia, with an upgraded schedule of military exercises and deployments that are intended to make NATO’s commitment of collective defense more credible and enhance its deterrence.

The agreement is planned as the substantive centerpiece of the NATO meeting, which will take place Thursday and Friday and will be attended by President Barack Obama, who will also stop in Estonia before the summit meeting. His aides said the trip was intended to highlight the United States’ commitment to NATO, and the alliance’s determination to protect all 28 members from aggression — from Moscow or elsewhere.

“The summit is very important because Russia thought it can change the borders of a sovereign European country by force, and this is happening not very far from NATO’s borders,” said one of Mr. Obama’s proud Estonian hosts, Prime Minister Taavi Roivas. “The security situation has changed, and we need to rethink our plans and reinforce our allies, so we can be 101 percent sure that all member states are equally and strongly protected.”

The sense of urgency was highlighted by events in Ukraine on Monday, as President Petro O. Poroshenko accused Russia of military aggression to alter the battlefield. “Direct, unconcealed aggression has been launched against Ukraine from a neighboring country,” he said, according to the presidential website. “It radically changes the situation in the conflict area.”

Ukraine’s defense minister, Valeriy Heletey, was more emphatic. “A great war has arrived at our doorstep, the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II,” he said in a Facebook post. And Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council, said Monday that Ukrainian forces had withdrawn from the airport near Luhansk in the face of a Russian army tank battalion, and that seven Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the last 24 hours. Russia regularly denies sending troops into eastern Ukraine.

For Mr. Obama, the trip is a chance to show Europeans that he is dedicated to NATO at a time when Russia is challenging the postwar European order, built on the principle of no border changes by force.

“The tension you’re seeing between Russia and the West is going to be put on display in Wales, and the president is going to be leading that effort,” said Ivo H. Daalder, the previous U.S. ambassador to NATO and now head of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Obama, he said, “wants to reaffirm the unity and strength of the alliance.”

NATO leaders are trying this week to reassure allies that the commitment to collective defense, in NATO’s Article 5, is solid. The alliance wants to show that it means what it says and will have the capability to defend its most vulnerable members against Russian aggression, whether overt or more covert, or a hybrid of the two, as in Ukraine.

“The really ironic aspect here is that a re-energized, restrengthened NATO is Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmare, and yet it’s his tactical actions that have done just that,” said James G. Stavridis, who was NATO’s commander from 2009 to 2013 and is dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, referring to Russia’s president.

It is also an opportunity for Mr. Obama, buffeted by a cascade of international crises, to rally Europeans into what Secretary of State John Kerry has called a “global coalition” to confront an increased terrorist threat from the Islamic State and other radical Islamic groups in Africa.

Though the Islamic State is not on the formal agenda for the summit meeting, Mr. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet European counterparts to develop a strategy to counter it.

But the emphasis will be on Russia. As both U.S. and European leaders weigh additional sanctions against Moscow, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, said Monday in Brussels that the new rapid reaction force “will ensure that we have the right forces and the right equipment in the right place, at the right time.”

Numerous leaders of NATO countries have said that any hope of achieving the “strategic partnership” with Russia envisioned as long ago as the 1990 NATO summit was finished because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless, NATO is being careful not to violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the 1997 agreement with Moscow under which NATO pledged not to permanently base substantial forces in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Obama’s message to NATO will be, “We stand with you, Article 5 constitutes an ironclad guarantee of your security,” said Charles Kupchan, senior director for Europe at the National Security Council. Mr. Obama’s message to Russia, he said, is simple: “Don’t even think about messing around in Estonia or in any of the Baltic areas in the same way that you’ve been messing around in Ukraine.”

United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Barack Obama - Chuck Hagel - John Kerry - Ukraine - North Atlantic Treaty Organization - Vladimir Putin - Russia government - Russian armed forces - Anders Fogh Rasmussen - Estonia - Crimea - Ivo H. Daalder


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