NATO Chief Expects OK for Greater Presence in Eastern Europe

BRUSSELS (AP) -
Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan (C) and NATO Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove (R) attend a NATO defense ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan (C) and NATO Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove (R) attend a NATO defense ministers meeting at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday. (Reuters/Yves Herman)

NATO defense ministers should approve plans Wednesday for increasing NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe to deter Russia, and discuss what the alliance might do to stanch the ongoing flow of migrants into Europe, the organization’s secretary-general said.

“Today and tomorrow, we will make decisions to strengthen our defense and deterrence,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said as he arrived for the start of the two-day meeting.

Beefing up NATO’s presence in Poland and other allies close to Russia “will send a clear signal,” Stoltenberg said. “NATO will respond as one to any aggression against any ally.”

Measures being considered include stockpiling military equipment, building new infrastructure, and, in the NATO chief’s words, greater and more frequent “forward presence of multinational forces.”

One NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements, told The Associated Press the ministers on Wednesday will discuss a proposal to create a multinational unit under the alliance flag that could rotate from one Eastern European ally to another to provide enhanced deterrence.

The official said the unit could be brigade-sized — roughly 3,000 troops.

In the discussions held at NATO headquarters, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his counterparts are also expected to discuss what other countries can do to more effectively deter Russia, following the Obama administration’s Feb. 2 announcement that it wants to quadruple spending on U.S. troops and training in Europe.

A senior NATO official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal alliance deliberations, said the U.S. hopes its European NATO partners will commit to new investments in deterrence that would correspond to the $3.4 billion in extra spending and troops, equipment and training moves the Pentagon is proposing.

Getting firm commitments, or even deciding how many NATO troops should be rotated eastward, may take time, however. Douglas Lute, U.S. ambassador to NATO, said he expects ministers to agree this week on “a framework” for what may officially be named “modern deterrence” or “21th-century deterrence,” but that actual force levels will probably be hammered out only after consultations with NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, U.S. Force Gen. Philip Breedlove.

The alliance’s new blueprint for deterrence relies on rotating some forces through frontline member states and prepositioning supplies there, but also on NATO’s capacity to airlift in large numbers of reinforcements quickly in a crisis. It may only be fully ready when alliance heads of state and government meet in July.

“It is now less than six months until our next summit meeting, in Warsaw,” Stoltenberg reminded defense ministers Wednesday. “There remains a great deal to do.”

Following a request by Turkey, ministers will also review what NATO could do to help slow the influx of migrants into Europe by sea, Stoltenberg said.

“We all understand the concern and we all see the human tragedy,” Stoltenberg said. He said the discussions could lead to a decision to use NATO air or sea assets to help combat people-smuggling.

Germany, the most popular destination for the migrants, many of whom are fleeing war or poverty in their homelands in the Middle East or Africa, welcomed the move.

“It is good that the Turkish government has asked NATO to help for the surveillance of the sea. We are aiming at stopping the business of the smugglers,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said as she arrived at alliance headquarters.

Michael Fallon, the British defense secretary, said he would welcome “anything that can save lives in the eastern Mediterranean” and help disrupt the large-scale trafficking of people by smugglers.