NATO will start reconnaissance flights over Poland and Romania to monitor the situation in neighbouring Ukraine, where Russian forces have taken control of Crimea, the alliance said yesterday (10 March).
Acting on a recommendation from the alliance's top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO ambassadors gave the go-ahead to the AWACS flights, a NATO spokesman said.
AWACS (airborne early warning and control) planes will fly from their home airbases in Geilenkirchen, Germany, and Waddington in Britain, the spokesman said.
"These flights will enhance the alliance's situational awareness and all will take place solely over alliance territory," he said.
The flights will start soon and go on for as long as required, he added.
Ukraine is not a NATO member but Russia's intervention in Crimea has alarmed neighbouring countries, including alliance members that used to be dominated by the Soviet Union.
The Western military alliance announced a review of its cooperation with Moscow last week after Russian forces tightened their grip on Crimea, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, following weeks of upheaval in Ukraine which culminated in the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich.
A U.S. Navy destroyer will participate in manoeuvres with Romanian and Bulgarian warships in the Black Sea, across from Crimea.
NATO allies met last Tuesday after Poland invoked a rule allowing any ally to consult with the others if it feels its security is under threat.
Soon after that meeting, U.S. officials said the Pentagon would more than double the number of U.S. fighter jets on a NATO air patrol mission in the Baltics and do more training with Poland's air force in an attempt to reassure allies.
Western countries have denounced the Russian intervention in Crimea and say the borders of Ukraine should remain unchanged. They have said they will not accept the outcome of Sunday's referendum on the future status of Crimea.
In a parody of democracy, a new pro-Russia leadership took over in Crimea and declared last week the peninsula part of Russia and announced a 16 March referendum to confirm it.
"The United States is not prepared to recognise any result of the so-called referendum taking place in six days' time," U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in Kyiv. "We are committed to Crimea's status as part of Ukraine. The crisis needs to be solved diplomatically, not militarily."