NATO defense ministers to meet on Russia: US may be sending officers to eastern Europe



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In this Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, file photo outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon. With NATO officials calling Russia more unpredictable now than during the Cold War, alliance defense ministers on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015, are expected to approve further measures to enhance NATO's ability to deter and, if necessary, respond to military threats from Moscow, officials said. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)


BRUSSELS — With NATO officials calling Russia more unpredictable now than during the Cold War, alliance defense ministers on Thursday are expected to approve further measures to enhance the organization's ability to deter or respond to military threats from Moscow.

Adam Thomson, Britain's permanent representative to NATO, predicted alliance commitment that will demonstrate "NATO is strengthening its military posture in response, in particular, to the challenge that Russia's behavior represents."

As outlined by NATO officials, key decisions expected at the Brussels gathering of U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his counterparts from the other 27 NATO member countries include:

- Upgrading NATO's Response Force to make it bigger, more capable and more quickly deployable. Now around 13,000 strong, it has been used to help protect the 2004 Olympics and Afghan elections, for Pakistan earthquake relief and following Hurricane Katrina.

- Getting firm commitments from some of NATO's European members for the new and fastest-moving element of the Response Force, "the spearhead," which officials say will include around 5,000 land-based troops.

- Securing an official go-ahead to establish small NATO command-and-control facilities in the three Baltic republics - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - and in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to improve coordination and planning.

-Expanding a multinational headquarters in Poland to play a key role in defending NATO territory in northeastern Europe.

All this comes as hundreds of new Russian aircraft, tanks and missiles are rolling off assembly lines and Russian jets are roaring through European skies. While most Russian economic sectors face a 10 percent cut this year as the country heads into recession, the military budget rose by 33 percent to about 3.3 trillion rubles (some $50 billion). The buildup reflects President Vladimir Putin's apparent readiness to raise the ante in a showdown with the West over Ukraine.

Douglas Lute, U.S. ambassador to NATO, said Hagel would make a formal announcement on Thursday, but he expected the United States will deploy American military officers to all six new command and control centers in Eastern Europe and contribute as well as to the corps-level headquarters in Szczecin, western Poland.

As for the spearhead force, Lute said the United States, instead of contributing ground troops, will chip in with things such as airlift capacity to transport soldiers and gear, or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The NATO ministers' meeting is the first since President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders met in September and ordered an overhaul of the alliance's capabilities and defense posture to take into account Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu insisted the actions already underway or planned by the alliance were defensive, proportionate and in keeping with its international commitments.

"It's only normal for a collective defense alliance such as NATO to make sure that it does everything it needs to do to protect and defend its allies," Lungescu said.

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