Confronted by a Kremlin-backed military offensive in Ukraine, President Barack Obama and Western allies will approve plans this week to position at least 4,000 troops and military equipment in Eastern Europe, bolstering NATO’s security commitments to nervous member states near the Russian border.
Ahead of a high-stakes NATO summit that begins Thursday, Obama will also make a symbolic show of solidarity with Eastern Europe when he visits Estonia today for meetings with Baltic leaders.
Russia’s monthslong conflict with Ukraine comes at a time when members of the NATO defense alliance have been cutting military spending and reassessing the organization’s role after years of peace in Europe. While Ukraine is not part of NATO, alliance members in Eastern and Central Europe fear they could be Russia’s next targets, prompting the 28-nation bloc to seek a more robust response.
“The current situation shows that the principle of collective territorial defense hasn’t gone away — on the contrary,” Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Sunday, marking the 20th anniversary of the exit of the last Russian troops from Estonian territory.
Ukrainian officials say their country’s armed forces are now locked in a conflict with not only Moscow-backed separatists, but also the Russian army. Officials said Tuesday that Russian military forces had been spotted in two major rebel-held cities in eastern Ukraine, though that could not be independently verified.
For Obama, Russia’s provocations in Ukraine and his response to them have prompted criticism that he has been unable to stop the crisis through his preferred method of steadily escalating economic sanctions. The president has warned Putin that the U.S. and Europe could impose more financial penalties, but he remains steadfastly opposed to intervening militarily.
Still, the U.S. will contribute to the rapid response force that NATO will agree to this week. While the specifics of the operation are to be decided when leaders meet in Wales on Thursday for a two-day summit, U.S. and European officials say it will involve training and deployments in the Baltics, Poland, Romania and other Eastern European nations.
The scope of the American contributions will be particularly important to Baltic nations and others in Eastern Europe.
“If there’s anything that the Baltics do trust within NATO, it’s a U.S. commitment,” said Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon official who now chairs the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “So they will be pushing hard that that NATO contingent will have a heavy U.S. signal in it.”
The U.S. has long provided troops for a NATO response force. Beginning Oct. 1, about 600 troops from the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, will be part of that effort.
However, the current rapid response force structure is seen as having little capability to deploy in meaningful numbers. The goal of the new effort will be to station forces that can deploy within 48 hours.
Obama will also use the NATO summit to urge allies to meet their commitments to devote at least 2 percent of GDP to military spending. Only four NATO nations currently meet that benchmark: the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia.
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