NATO will decide new steps on Tuesday to reinforce eastern European countries worried by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and on how to bolster Ukraine’s armed forces.
Diplomats said NATO foreign ministers will look at options ranging from stepped-up military exercises and sending more forces to eastern members states, to the permanent basing of alliance forces there – a step Moscow would view as provocative.
Ministers from the 28 alliance members are meeting in Brussels for the first time since Russia’s military occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region caused the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
While the United States and its allies have made clear they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine, which does not belong to NATO, they have scrambled to reassure anxious NATO members in eastern Europe, particularly ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics, that they are sheltered by the alliance’s security umbrella.
The United States has increased the number of U.S. aircraft in regular NATO air patrols over the Baltic States and beefed up a previously planned training exercise with the Polish air force.
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute said the ministers, including Secretary of State John Kerry, would discuss further measures to reassure the eastern European allies.
“They will talk about … what more can be done to amplify the measures that have been taken already and to sustain them over time so that these measures are not simply short-term gestures,” Lute told a news conference.
Since 1999, when it began admitting former members of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, NATO has had a self-imposed restriction on permanently basing alliance forces in eastern Europe. However, Poland and Romania have agreed to host parts of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile shield and NATO air forces take turns to provide air cover over the Baltic states.
A senior NATO diplomat said the Crimean crisis would probably lead to the issue of permanent bases being discussed. “I think that these are the sorts of things that ministers are likely to talk about in the next couple of days,” he said.
The ministers’ meeting continues on Wednesday, although it is due to discuss Afghanistan then.