NATO is to deploy its forces at new bases in eastern Europe for the first time, in response to the Ukraine crisis and in an attempt to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from causing trouble in the former Soviet Baltic republics, according to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark, said that next week’s NATO summit in Cardiff, Wales, would overcome divisions within the alliance and agree to new deployments on Russia’s borders — a move certain to trigger a strong reaction from Moscow.
He also outlined moves to boost Ukraine’s security, “modernize” its armed forces and help the country counter the threat from Russia.
“We will adopt what we call a readiness action plan with the aim to be able to act swiftly in this completely new security environment in Europe. We have something already called the NATO response force whose purpose is to be able to be deployed rapidly if needed. Now it is our intention to develop what I would call a spearhead within that response force at very, very, high readiness,” Rasmussen said.
“In order to be able to provide such rapid reinforcements, you also need some reception facilities in host nations. So it will involve the pre-positioning of supplies, of equipment, preparation of infrastructure, bases, headquarters. The bottom line is, you will in the future see a more visible NATO presence in the east,” he added.
Poland and the three Baltic states have been alarmed at the perceived threat from Russia and have been clamoring for a stronger NATO presence in the region. They have criticized what they see as tokenism in the alliance’s response so far.
However, the issue of permanent NATO bases in east Europe is divisive. The French, Italians and Spanish are opposed, while the Americans and British are supportive of the eastern European demands. The Germans were sitting on the fence, wary of provoking Russia, a NATO official said.
The Cardiff summit is likely to come up with a formula which would avoid the term “permanent” for the new bases, alliance sources said. However, the impact will be to have constantly manned NATO facilities east of what used to be the Iron Curtain.
“It can be on a rotation basis, with a very high frequency. The point is that any potential aggressor should know that if they were to even think of an attack against a NATO ally, they will meet not only soldiers from that specific country, but they will meet NATO troops. This is what is important,” Rasmussen said.
The only NATO headquarters east of the old Cold War frontier is at Szczecin, on Poland’s Baltic coast. Sources said this was likely to be the hub for the new deployments. Air and naval plans had been completed, but the issue of international land forces in the east was proving trickier to agree upon.
Asked whether there would be permanent international deployments under a NATO flag in east Europe, Rasmussen said: “The brief answer is yes. To prevent misunderstanding I use the phrase ‘for as long as necessary.’ Our eastern allies will be satisfied when they see what is actually in the readiness action plan.”
Rasmussen said the forces could be deployed within hours.
NATO has clearly been caught napping by the Russian president’s well-prepared advances in Ukraine since February and is scrambling to come up with strategies for a new era in which Russia has gone from being a “strategic partner” of the alliance to a hostile actor perfecting what the alliance terms “hybrid warfare.”