WASHINGTON – 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 for meetings with Baltic leaders. He was due to arrive in the Estonian capital of Tallinn this morning.
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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that his forces are invading Ukraine. A Kremlin aide sharply criticized EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on Tuesday, accusing him of breaching confidentiality when he quoted Putin as saying that Moscow could take over Kiev in two weeks if it wished.
Yuri Ushakov, the Russian leader’s foreign policy adviser, told reporters that Putin’s statement was taken out of context and carried a completely different meaning.
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.
The U.S. has long provided troops for a NATO response force. Beginning Oct. 1, about 600 troops from the 1st Brigades, 1st Cavalry Division, in Fort Hood, Texas, will be part of that effort.