NATO defense ministers explored an ambitious new plan for the expansion of the alliance’s forces in Europe at a special meeting held in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss how to respond to the war in Ukraine without getting drawn into a wider conflict.
Citing the threat posed by the emergence of an expansionist Russia on Europe’s doorstep, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the ministers discussed the long-term deployment of additional troops, warships and planes to the alliance’s eastern flank funded by major increases in defense spending by NATO member governments.
The ministers also emphasized the importance of continuing to arm and fund Ukraine in its battle to hold back Russian forces to give impetus to the ongoing negotiations for a peaceful solution, Stoltenberg told reporters after the emergency session.
They reiterated their determination that NATO should not deploy forces on the ground or in the airspace of Ukraine to prevent a wider war, he said.
“NATO has a responsibility to ensure that this does not escalate beyond Ukraine,” he said.
It is however essential, he added, to continue sending weapons to Ukraine to maintain pressure on Russia to make concessions at the negotiating table, efforts that diplomats said had made progress on Wednesday.
“The support we give to them to stand up against and to resist the Russian invasion also helps them to achieve an acceptable outcome in the negotiations,” he said.
But the focus of the meeting was on the broader security of Europe and how best to address long term what Stoltenberg called the “new security reality” of an assertive Russia.
In one reminder of the new reality, the defense ministers of non-NATO members Finland, Sweden, Georgia and Ukraine attended the meeting, underlining the alliance’s reinvigoration after the emergence of the new Russian threat.
The details of a plan for an expanded NATO footprint in Europe will be firmed up at a NATO summit of heads and states and government in June, Stoltenberg said. He said he hoped the summit will reach decisions on a significantly greater NATO presence “on land, at sea and in the air,” to include more troops permanently based on Europe’s eastern flank along with additional aircraft carriers, submarines and ships.
NATO will also be examining the role it can play in cybersecurity and in space, he said. To fund the expansion, alliance members will be expected to commit to spending 2 percent of their budgets to defense spending, he added.
“In a new security reality, we need to reset our deterrence and defense,” he said.
The meeting also underscored that NATO remains united in its determination not to allow the Ukraine war to spill over into the rest of Europe.
Over the past two months, the 30-member alliance has sent thousands of extra troops to its eastern flank and activated NATO’s Response Force for the first time. Its members have also sent tons of ammunition and weaponry into Ukraine. Stoltenberg noted that there are hundreds of thousands of NATO-allied troops on a high state of alert in Europe, including 100,000 U.S. troops in and about 40,000 troops under direct NATO command
NATO and U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that NATO is a defensive alliance, that it is not at war with Russia, and that it will not fight in Ukraine. They have also vowed to defend “every inch” of NATO territory. Russia’s missile attack Sunday on a Ukrainian training facility, just miles from the border of NATO member Poland, illustrated the risk that a misfire in Ukraine could force NATO to react.
“The risk of incidents if there are hostile actions at the border is really high,” said Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO. “If there was a misfire, NATO could be at war.”
Douglas Lute, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said the presence of NATO forces is partly about assuring allies, partly about deterring Russia.
“These troops are not moving to Portugal in the west, they are going to states on NATO’s eastern flank to assure allies that the words of the NATO treaty actually mean something, that when these allies feel threatened, NATO’s got their back,” he said.
“This is also a message across the border to Russia that NATO means what they’ve said: NATO would defend every inch of NATO territory,” he continued. “The brightest red line in Europe today is the red line that demarcates NATO’s borders.”
On Sunday, Russia came within 15 miles of that line, raining missiles down on a military training facility in western Ukraine, near the Polish border. The attack killed at least 35 people and injured more than 100, according to Ukrainian officials. NATO troops had in the recent past trained Ukrainian forces at the facility, known as the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, but NATO officials said that no alliance forces were present at the time of the attack.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said the site was being used to house foreign fighters and a storage base for weapons and equipment being sent to Ukraine by “foreign countries.” A day earlier, the Kremlin warned that it viewed Western weapons shipments as “legitimate targets.”
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said the strike did not disrupt shipments of Western military aid.
Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, said the strike was more of a warning than a direct test of NATO’s commitment to Article 5. The irony, she said, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin used the pretext of wanting fewer NATO troops to wage war in Ukraine but will end up with the opposite.
“If he wanted fewer troops, well, all he is going to get is NATO troops,” she said.