WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and allied leaders will respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine by moving to set up a quick-strike force of several thousand troops at the NATO summit this week in Wales.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday the new multinational force would be part of a “Readiness Action Plan (that) responds to Russia’s aggressive behavior,” adding that “it equips the alliance to respond to all security challenges wherever they may arise.”
Rasmussen acknowledged that a NATO conference originally scheduled to focus on Afghanistan will now be dominated by the Ukraine crisis when heads of the 28 member nations gather Thursday and Friday in Newport on Wales’ southern coast off the Bristol Channel.
“We will develop what I would call a spearhead within our Response Force — a very high-readiness force able to deploy at very short notice,” Rasmussen told reporters at the Residence Palace in Brussels, where NATO is headquartered. “This spearhead would be provided by Allies in rotation and could include several thousand troops ready to respond where needed with air, sea and Special Forces support.”
The “spearhead” force would “require reception facilities on NATO territory and pre-positioned equipment and supplies, command and control and logistics experts,” Rasmussen said, all of which would enable the force to “travel light but strike hard if needed.”
Asked what he meant by saying the force could deploy on very short notice, Rasmussen said such “military technical details” would be worked out after the summit.
“I can assure you that it will be very, very short notice,” he said. “So we are speaking about a very few days.”
So far, NATO’s response to Russian military support of ethnic Russian separatists in Ukraine has been limited to increasing the number of air patrols and training missions in Poland and the three Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
The rapid-strike force described by Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister whose term as NATO head Sept. 30, would be a major step for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was formed in 1949 to counter Soviet expansion in eastern Europe.
Rasmussen stopped short of saying NATO will establish the permanent base that Poland requested after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March, but he said: “The bottom line is you will see a more visible NATO presence in the East,” apparently referring to the former Warsaw Pact nation and the Baltic countries that were Soviet republics before 1991.
Obama and other allied leaders will weigh possible infrastructure upgrades in the region along Russia’s eastern flank, which “could include airfields and ports to support reinforcements if the need arises,” Rasmussen said.
Calling the conference “a crucial summit in NATO’s history,” Rasmussen said that “we can’t afford to be naive; we don’t have any illusions; we are faced with the reality that Russia considers us an adversary, and we will adapt to that situation.”
Rasmussen indicated that NATO may meet the Ukrainian government’s request for weapons to combat the Russian incursion.
“At the summit, we will meet with President (Petro) Poroshenko of Ukraine and make clear our support for Ukraine, as it is confronted by Russia’s aggression,” he said. “We will discuss his reform priorities. And take concrete steps to help Ukraine.”
Poroshenko, who was elected president in May, said Monday that his country and Russia are on the verge of “full-scale war” and close to reaching “the point of no return.”
Meeting in the Belarus capital of Minsk, Ukrainian and Russian negotiators Monday resumed talks that had broken off in late July.
In talks last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Poroshenko urged a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops, and joint patrols along the two countries’ borders, to be joined by peacekeepers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Minsk, which is brokering the Minsk negotiations.
Putin on Sunday called on Poroshenko’s government to start talks on “statehood” for southeastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians make up a large share of the population. On Monday, however, Putin said he was seeking greater autonomy for the region.