By John-Thor Dahlburg
and Vladimir Isachenkov
BRUSSELS: NATO foreign ministers moved Tuesday to beef up the defenses of front-line alliance members feeling menaced by a more assertive Russia, with Secretary of State John Kerry proclaiming the U.S. commitment to their security is “unwavering.”
The ministers from NATO’s 28 member nations also ordered suspension of all “practical civilian and military cooperation” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, though they made sure a line of communication with the Kremlin remains open at the ambassadorial level.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, keystone of U.S. and European security since the end of World War II, is facing its most acute geopolitical crisis in years: the fallout from Moscow’s unilateral annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which the Obama administration and its allies condemn as a brazen, illegal land grab.
On Tuesday, an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops equipped with tanks, other armored vehicles and fixed and rotary wing aircraft remained positioned near the border with Ukraine, a NATO military official told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The military official described the Russian buildup as “a complete combat force” that was highly threatening to Ukraine.
Those troops, and future aggressive moves that Putin’s Kremlin may make, have become a troubling concern for NATO countries, especially the alliance’s eastern-most members — the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania, all of which were once in Moscow’s orbit.
To reassure those skittish allies, Kerry told a news conference, the U.S. has already sent six F-15 fighters to perform air patrols over the Baltic, deployed a dozen F-16s to Poland and dispatched the USS Truxtun, a guided-missile destroyer, to the Black Sea.
“And more U.S. support is on the way,” Kerry said.
In Washington, meanwhile, Congress sent President Barack Obama a bill to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees to cash-poor Ukraine and punish Russia. The bill, passed 378-34 Tuesday, was a way for Congress to denounce Russia’s move and express support for Ukraine. The bill also is aimed at discouraging any further actions that Putin might be contemplating in the region.
A senior U.S. defense official said the U.S. was likely to send a small team of soldiers to Europe and was encouraging NATO allies to contribute more aircraft to the Baltic air patrol mission.
Despite annexing Crimea, Putin and other Kremlin officials have said that Russia has no intention of invading other areas of Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted Tuesday the Kremlin wants a “political settlement that would take interests and rights of the entire Ukrainian people into account.”
Meeting behind closed doors, Kerry and his Canadian and European colleagues agreed unanimously on steps NATO must take in response to Russian actions.
A civilian alliance official who attended the session and briefed reporters afterward on condition of anonymity said the measures include possible deployment and reinforcement of military assets in NATO member countries that feel Moscow’s actions may pose a security threat.
NATO ministers also met Tuesday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytisa.
In other developments, Russia sharply hiked the price for natural gas to Ukraine and threatened to reclaim billions in previous discounts.