Leaders are expected to endorse a 4,000-troop force to respond to aggression.
WASHINGTON – As Ukrainian leaders warned on Monday of “a great war” with Russia, NATO leaders meeting in Wales this week are 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 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 Estonian 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 Poroshenko accused Russia of military aggression to alter the battlefield. “Direct, unconcealed aggression has been launched against Ukraine from a neighboring country,” he said. “It radically changes the situation in the conflict area.”
‘At our doorstep’
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 Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council, said Monday that Ukrainian forces had withdrawn from the airport near Luhansk in the face of a Russian army tank battalion, and that seven Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the last 24 hours.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 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, 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.
It is also an opportunity for 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 ISIL and other radical groups in Africa.
Though ISIL is not on the formal agenda for the summit, Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet European counterparts to develop a strategy to counter it. But the emphasis will be on Russia.