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NATO members disagree on troops in Eastern Europe after Russia invades Ukraine

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TALLINN, Estonia — Divisions are opening among NATO members over how to boost military deployments in Eastern Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, amid disagreements over the issue of whether the Kremlin’s failing effort on the battlefield means it cannot significantly threaten alliance territory.

The debate highlights different assessments of the lessons learned from almost three months of war in Ukraine. The Baltic States and Poland demand a vastly expanded military presence on their soil and new capabilities such as air defense that could make invasion much more difficult for Russia. Other policymakers, notably from France and Italy, are expressing skepticism that the chaotic Russian invasion force will pose a threat to NATO territory anytime soon.

A first decision must be taken by the end of June, when NATO leaders will meet for a summit in Madrid. At this meeting, they are also expected to give their initial approval to Finland’s and Sweden’s membership applications, assuming Turkey reverses its objections. The expansion itself would significantly increase NATO’s military capability in the eastern part of the alliance.

“Direct military aggression by Russia against NATO allies cannot be ruled out,” according to a confidential joint proposal from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia obtained by The Washington Post. “Russia can quickly mass military forces against NATO’s eastern border and confront the Alliance with a short war and a fait accompli,” the document states, proposing that a division-sized contingent of approximately 20,000 soldiers be tasked with speeding towards each of the countries if they are threatened.

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Other countries are more cautious about strong new commitments in Eastern Europe, fearful of committing to large deployments that would be costly and divert troops from other regions.

“We will have a peace to build tomorrow, let’s never forget that,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters last week, warning against any action that would make it impossible to work with Russia in the future. “We will have to do this with Ukraine and Russia around the table. The end of the discussion and the negotiation will be decided by Ukraine and Russia. But it will not be done in denial, nor in exclusion from each other, nor even in humiliation.

“We are not at war with Russia,” he said in a separate tweet.

Eastern European leaders say opting for a quiet response would be a strategic mistake in the same category as the limited Western reaction to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and its 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. Crimean. It was a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he could get away with attacking his neighbors, Eastern European officials said.

In invading Ukraine in February, Putin “clearly miscalculated some fundamental things”, said Jonatan Vseviov, secretary general of the Estonian foreign ministry.

“He believes in his own propaganda. He was wrong [in Ukraine], so he could err here” on NATO territory, and convince himself that invading the Baltic states would not elicit a major response from the rest of the alliance, Vseviov said. It would be a mistake, he said, but Putin would be less likely to make the mistake if he saw a military force ready to retaliate.

The deployments were one of the topics of a weekend meeting in Berlin of NATO foreign ministers, who agreed to continue negotiations ahead of the Madrid summit. Eastern European officials see a narrow window to secure commitments. They fear that support will dwindle in Western Europe when the war in Ukraine ends.

“As soon as this is over, many of our partners in Western Europe will be very eager to return to the status quo ante. Some of the statements and the general spirit that we are seeing right now might just fade away,” said an official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive and ongoing negotiations.

“We wouldn’t like that because we think we’ve seen a tectonic shift” in European security, the official said. “We believe there is no turning back.”

While most Eastern European countries do not expect an imminent invasion, citing the fact that Russian troops are now mired in Ukraine and will likely take time to regroup after the war, they argue that a stronger force in the east is needed to prevent a repeat of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“We must reflect the security concerns of the most exposed allies,” Czech Deputy Defense Minister Jan Havranek said in an interview. His country has volunteered to lead a new NATO battalion in neighboring Slovakia, which is newly vulnerable because it shares a border with Ukraine. NATO’s posture “must be scalable and adapted to the current security situation”, he said.

Eastern European countries, including the Baltic states and Poland, are considering large NATO troop detachments, including tens of thousands of troops and “facilitator” units that would provide air defenses and other protections. Under the Baltic plan, a full division of troops would not be permanently stationed in each country, but their equipment would be positioned there in advance and NATO would assign thousands of additional standby forces to each country in the event of a crisis. According to the proposal reviewed by The Post, only around a brigade of NATO troops – around 6,000 soldiers – would be on the ground in each country on a continuous basis, compared to around 2,000 before February.

“If you look at Russian strategy, if you don’t increase NATO troops on the ground, you won’t be able to react,” said a senior European diplomat.

Poland hosts more than 10,000 American troops, down from a pre-war presence of 4,500, and would like to see even more stationed in the future.

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US officials say there is a broad consensus within NATO that countries on the eastern flank should not be invited to undergo an invasion until alliance reinforcements can arrive. But they view the permanent stationing of large numbers of NATO troops in the east as costly and unwieldy, preferring instead to set conditions – including positioning equipment in advance, pre-selection of units naval forces and a new command structure – which would allow NATO to rapidly scale up, potentially to the numbers envisaged by the most vulnerable member states.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers last month that he favors establishing permanent bases with troops temporarily deployed in Eastern Europe, “so that you get the effect of permanence” without having to bear the costs of relocation. families on longer deployments.

The Biden administration has already increased its troop footprint in Europe from around 60,000 to more than 100,000 in response to Russia’s buildup and assault on Ukraine, but many of those troops live in unbearable conditions for longer missions, sleeping on beds in makeshift barracks.

Eastern European countries are also pushing for NATO to formally abandon the NATO-Russia Founding Act, a 1997 agreement that limited the alliance’s permanent deployments to eastern Germany in return of a Russian commitment to keep the peace. Most alliance officials agree that the pact is void not only because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also because the Kremlin has stationed Russian troops in Belarus, a threatening distance from Vilnius. , the Lithuanian capital.

But some Western European and US officials are reluctant to explicitly drop the deal, saying it is a useful vehicle for future coordination between NATO and Russia, and that the bloc is already strong enough to deter Russia from targeting NATO. They also believe it enhances stability because it enshrines NATO’s intention never to position nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe.

They also fear the alliance may turn away from other threats it has focused on in recent years, including terrorism and irregular migration across the Mediterranean, more pressing concerns for countries far from Russia but close. from North Africa such as Spain. and Italy.

“We don’t think the war in Ukraine is something that should bring the needle back to just Russia’s defense and deterrence,” one Westerner said. said a European official. “Will we have a stronger Russia? A weaker Russia?

Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO who now heads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said joining Finland and Sweden could significantly boost the alliance’s security in northern Europe, injecting a new element in the discussions as the Baltic States and other members of Eastern Europe push their demands for deterrence.

Daalder said he believed NATO leaders meeting in Madrid would likely issue a more general statement pledging to strengthen deterrence and defense infrastructure in Eastern Europe, which would then be followed by discussions on details and specific troop assignments.

He noted that even a promise to develop better rail links and other infrastructure that could help NATO respond quickly in an emergency would be an important step.

“I think there will be a fundamental commitment to significantly strengthen NATO’s presence on the eastern flank,” he said, including air, land and sea assets. “It’s important because NATO never said that. This is a huge change in NATO policy.

Ryan reported from Washington.

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