As NATO defence ministers meet in Brussels this week amid US warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, they are set to come up with a detailed plan for four new battle groups in southeastern Europe.
The plan could establish four multinational battlegroups in southeastern Europe and deploy some 1,000 troops each to Bulgaria and Romania, and possibly to Slovakia and Hungary, in response to Russia’s military build-up in Ukraine, NATO diplomats say.
NATO currently has troops rotating in and out of Eastern Europe, a so-called persistent, but not permanent, presence.
The four “Enhanced Forward Presence” battlegroups in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, were created in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
They are backed by tanks, air defences and intelligence and surveillance units and consist of approximately rotating 1,500 troops respectively.
A number of NATO countries have announced reinforcements on the Eastern flank over the past weeks.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had said earlier the alliance is “going to consider a more long-term adjustment of posture, including considering the battlegroup in Romania.”
His words were echoed this week by US Ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, who told reporters on Tuesday (15 February) that ministers would discuss “additional enhancements”, but did not give any details.
It is expected that defence ministers will give a planning order on Wednesday, while a decision on stationing could be made in spring.
France has offered to lead the battlegroups in Romania, while neighbouring Bulgaria is another country considered for stationing one.
Last January Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov announced that the country was ready to accept troops from NATO partner countries but within a joint battalion battle group with Bulgarian troops.
Reinforcements in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia that border Ukraine could show NATO is bunking even more on Central Europe as a strategically important region.
However, the question is whether Hungary, with its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wary of infuriating Russia, would agree to host such a unit, some NATO diplomats worry.
At the same time, any new deployments would go against Moscow’s security demands for the alliance to withdraw troops from Eastern Europe.
Western governments have urged Moscow to withdraw troops from Ukraine’s borders, especially if Russia wants to see fewer deployments in eastern NATO allied states.
Some troops in Russia’s military districts adjacent to Ukraine are returning to their bases after completing drills, Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday.
NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed signals that Russia may be looking for a diplomatic solution amid a military build-up on Ukraine’s border, but urged Moscow to demonstrate its will to act.
“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue. This gives grounds for cautious optimism”, Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of a two-day meeting of the alliance’s defence ministers in Brussels.
“But so far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side,” he added.
When asked to explain what the alliance expects from Moscow, Stoltenberg said: “We have to see a significant and permanent withdrawal of troops and, last but not least, equipment.”
He referred to a situation last spring when Russia had positioned tens of thousands of troops in the south and east of Ukraine for the Zapad exercises.
“They go there with heavy equipment and troops, pull out a few soldiers, and then after a few days you can just bring them back in with little warning,” he said.
However, NATO diplomats say they are worried that Russian troops could be stationed around Ukraine’s borders for a protracted amount of time, exerting pressure on Ukraine as well as the West.
The questions for ministers will be to assess whether shifting forces will be enough, or there is a need for more political and economic pressure beyond NATO’s responsibilities.