NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on Wednesday ahead of a summit next week to discuss measures to reassure worried partners and deter Russian aggression without inadvertently entering a larger fight. The 30 member alliance has moved hundreds of extra troops to its eastern flank and deployed NATO’s Response Force for the first time since Russian forces began massing around Ukraine. Its members have also sent tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition and weapons to Ukraine.
As he arrived at the conference on Wednesday, Stoltenberg underlined that the alliance had hundreds of thousands of personnel on high alert, including 100,000 US troops in Europe and roughly 40,000 troops under direct NATO command, largely in the alliance’s eastern regions. “NATO also has a responsibility to ensure this does not escalate,” he added. The United States’ “ironclad” commitment to NATO’s Article 5, which binds members to defend any member who is attacked, was underscored by US Defense Secretary Austin Lloyd.
NATO and US officials have frequently stated that the alliance is a defensive one, that it is not at war with Russia, and that it will not intervene in Ukraine. They’ve also promised to protect “every inch” of NATO territory, making the missile attack on a Ukrainian training facility on Sunday, just kilometers from a NATO country’s border, a hazardous — and maybe reckless — decision. “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.”
The deployment of NATO forces, according to Douglas Lute, a retired US Army lieutenant general and former US ambassador to NATO, is partly about ensuring allies and 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.”
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Russia reached within 15 miles of that line on Sunday, showering missiles down on a military training center near the Polish border in Western Ukraine. According to Ukrainian officials, the incident killed at least 35 people and injured more than 100 others. NATO personnel had just trained Ukrainian forces at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, but no alliance forces were present at the time of the incident, according to NATO authorities. The complex is being used to lodge foreign fighters and as a storage base for weapons and equipment being transported to Ukraine by “other countries,” according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. The Kremlin had warned a day before that Western arms shipment were “legitimate targets.”
The strike did not hinder shipments of Western military aid, according to a senior US defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules outlined by the Pentagon on Monday. The strike was more of a warning than a direct test of NATO’s commitment to Article 5, according to Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. Putin exploited the excuse of wanting fewer NATO forces to pursue war, but the irony, she argued, is that he will end up with the exact opposite. “If he wanted fewer troops, well all he is going to get is NATO troops,” she said.