NATO to boost eastern defences after Russian 'aggression'

Lachlan Carmichael
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NATO is set to boost its defences in Eastern Europe to counter Russian military might

NATO is set to boost its defences in Eastern Europe to counter Russian military might (AFP Photo/Leon Neal)

Brussels (AFP) - NATO was set Thursday to agree a major boost to its defences including six bases in eastern Europe and a spearhead force of 5,000 troops in response to what it called Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that the increase being approved by defence ministers in Brussels was purely defensive, but it is likely to rile a Moscow that is more wary than ever of Western military intentions.

"This is something we do as a response to the aggressive actions we have seen from Russia, violating international law and annexing Crimea," Stoltenberg told reporters at NATO headquarters.

"This is the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War."

NATO leaders agreed to step up the alliance's eastern defences at a summit in September, amid allegations that Russia has provided troops and equipment to support Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Stoltenberg said the NATO measures were also motivated by new threats to the 28-nation military alliance from Islamist militants in the Middle East and North Africa, who are fuelling violence within Europe.

- 'Command and control' centres -

The six "command and control" centres set to be agreed Thursday will be in the alliance's three Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- plus Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

A multinational corps headquarters for the command and control centres will be in Szczecin, Poland, Stoltenberg said.

All six countries were formerly in the orbit of the Soviet Union and have voiced deep concern about Russia's actions in Ukraine.

The bases would facilitate the deployment of the so-called "spearhead" force which will be able to deploy from their home countries to anywhere within a "few days," the NATO chief added.

The ministers are also to finalise the list of the countries taking part in the force, which a NATO official said would hopefully be operational by 2016.

NATO is also set to boost its wider response force -- which would take weeks or months to deploy in a crisis -- from 13,000 to 30,000 troops.

In a further blow to Moscow, NATO will set up a joint training centre in the former Soviet state of Georgia, with which Russia fought a war in 2008.

Moscow has long been wary of NATO's relations with its former allies, especially in the case of Kiev's new pro-Western president Petro Poroshenko, who has said he wants Ukraine to join the alliance.

- To arm, or not to arm? -

Ukraine has also called for the West to send weapons to help Kiev fight the rebels, but Stoltenberg refused to say whether he thought it was a good idea.

He said NATO itself -- set up after World War II to counter a growing Soviet threat -- does not officially have weapons and "that has to be up to each individual ally to decide" whether to arm Ukraine.

Stoltenberg however welcomed the news that French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were heading to Kiev and Moscow to present a new peace plan.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kiev for talks with Ukraine's leaders who are asking for "defensive" weapons.

The NATO chief said he would meet later this week on the sidelines of the Munich security conference with Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Vice President Joe Biden and Poroshenko.

Asked about reports that Washington was considering sending weapons to Kiev, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel would only say that it was reviewing its assistance.

"I think what assistance we provide -- the United States and NATO partners -- Ukraine has to be continually reviewed. We are reviewing the kind of assistance for Ukraine," he told a press conference.

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon meanwhile said London would provide up to 1,000 troops to the spearhead force in 2017 and deploy four Typhoon fighters to Estonia this summer to reinforce Baltic air patrols.

Russian warplanes launched a record number of Cold War-style flights near NATO airspace last year, the alliance says.