NATO member states are sending thousands of troops, warplanes and ships to allies in eastern Europe as tensions with Russia escalate over Moscow’s deployment of more than 100,000 troops to its border with Ukraine. The West fears an imminent Russian invasion, which the Kremlin denies.
Four Danish F-16 fighter jets landed in Lithuania last week to bolster NATO’s air policing mission in the Baltic. Since Russia’s 2014 forceful annexation of Crimea, NATO has deployed between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in what the alliance terms an “enhanced forward presence.”
The United States has put 8,500 troops on standby. “I’ll be moving U.S. troops to eastern Europe and NATO countries in the near term,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Friday.
The U.S. already has tens of thousands of troops stationed in Europe, mostly in Germany and Britain. One scenario could see some of those personnel gradually shifted to eastern NATO allies.
France has announced plans to deploy hundreds of troops to Romania. “As President Macron recalled last week, we have sizably contributed to the security of our European partners in NATO missions in Baltic states and we will continue to do so,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said during a visit to Bucharest on January 27.
“In the same spirit, he indicated our availability to go further and within the NATO framework to engage in new EFP (enhanced forward presence) missions, particularly in Romania, if NATO decides it,” Parly added.
Spain, the Netherlands and Germany are also considering sending troops, aircraft and warships to eastern European allies.
Britain has supplied about 2,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and is expected to offer further deployments to NATO allies this week, potentially doubling its current commitment of about 1,150 troops. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to visit Ukraine this week and hold talks on the phone with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said the deployments are intended to send a message to Moscow.
“I think it is important when it comes to military deployment that we signal to President Putin that the very thing he fears, which is more NATO closer to Russia, would be the consequence of a strategic error of invading a sovereign country such as Ukraine,” Wallace told reporters Monday following talks with his Hungarian counterpart in Budapest.
However, NATO has no plans to deploy combat troops to Ukraine, notes security analyst Julie Norman of University College London.
“Those NATO troops that are in those border states are really there more for preparedness and for a defensive and deterrence capability, rather than expectation for direct conflict or direct combat.”
Norman says the NATO deployments could be rapidly strengthened. “If there is indeed a conflict … those border states will be reinforced further than what they currently have. There’s already NATO troops in most of those states, but this would bolster them by about double the amount, to start,” Norman told VOA.
NATO says it is responding to Russian aggression. Moscow has labelled the Western response “hysteria” and denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine, instead claiming that NATO’s expansion into former Soviet-bloc countries poses a security risk.
Russia has about 100,000 troops deployed close to the Ukrainian border. Thousands more arrived in Belarus for joint military exercises this week.
Evelyn N. Farkas, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, says Western allies had to respond.
“NATO itself has had to respond to a new threat Russia posed by putting additional forces into Belarus, which of course shares a border with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, which are NATO allies,” Farkas told a recent panel discussion hosted by London-based Chatham House.
NATO’s deployments in eastern Europe could ratchet up tensions with Russia’s president, says Norman.
“Putin’s key demand in all of this is the drawdown of NATO troops and weaponry from those same eastern states. So, the fact that there is more buildup, that is going to be seen not as an act of defense, but an act of offense and provocation by Russia.”
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