BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO defense ministers on Thursday discussed ways to bolster forces and deterrence along the military alliance's eastern borders to dissuade Russia from planning further aggression in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian invasion has led allies to rethink strategies and to agree that NATO forces should be present in greater numbers on that eastern flank. NATO says it has placed over 40,000 troops under its direct command, mainly on the eastern flank, and is looking at how it can further strengthen its presence, readiness, and capabilities.
“This will mean more NATO forward-deployed combat formations, to strengthen our battlegroups in the eastern part of the alliance, more air, sea and cyber defenses, as well as pre-positioned equipment and weapons stockpiles," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after the meeting.
The meeting of defense ministers came ahead of a June 29-30 NATO summit in Madrid that will seek to set a roadmap for the alliance in coming years.
Germany has already announced its plans to strengthen its engagement in Lithuania, while France wants to increase its presence in Romania, where it plans to have deployed 1,000 troops with Leclerc tanks by the end of the year.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to detail any changes in America’s positioning of forces across Europe but said the U.S. and its allies will take steps to rapidly deploy troops if needed. That includes positioning more equipment in the region and putting troops on higher levels of alert.
“All of our allies have learned from any shortcomings that we may have experienced in the past, and they’ll build to ensure that they have the right capabilities to provide flexible and responsible and combat-credible forces when the time comes," he said.
Artis Pabriks, the Latvian defense minister, said the military alliance should position larger armed forces and material in Baltic countries.
“We want an improved planning. We want a headquarters structure. We want pre-positioning of different types of equipment, so if a crisis would come we should not wait," he said.
Stoltenberg said the question of pre-positioned equipment is a crucial one, because moving armored vehicles, supplies and ammunition takes a lot of time.
“Then of course it's much easier and faster to reinforce when needed," he said.
Stoltenberg said ministers made “significant progress" in their discussions on a new force model that would involve more forces at higher readiness and others assigned to the defense of specific allies.
Discussions in Brussels also focused on the need for more defense spending, Stoltenberg said, with the bids from Sweden and Finland to join the alliance also on the table.
Stoltenberg saluted the United States' decision to send an additional $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine and said NATO allies are “prepared to continue to provide substantial, unprecedented support" to the country.
The latest package, the U.S. said, includes anti-ship missile launchers, howitzers and more rounds for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems that U.S. forces are training Ukrainian troops on. All are key weapons systems that Ukrainian leaders have urgently requested as they battle to stall Russia’s march to conquer the eastern Donbas region.
Austin praised the "historic decision" by Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership, expressing his hopes that discussions will continue to progress favorably.
Turkey, however, has voiced its opposition to the Nordic pair’s NATO accession and Stoltenberg has been working hard to try to break the deadlock. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is refusing to budge over what he says is Sweden and Finland's alleged support for Kurdish militants.
“My aim is to find a solution as soon as possible," Stoltenberg said.
Lolita C. Baldor contributed from Washington
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