NATO beefs up rapid response force, says this is ‘not an arms race’

NATO defence ministers on 24 June. [NATO]

The head of NATO stated on Wednesday (24 June) that the alliance would not be forced into a new arms race with Russia, but said what he called Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine had compelled it to strengthen its defences.

The United States announced plans this week to station tanks and heavy weapons in NATO member states on Russia’s border, shortly after President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would add 40 missiles to its nuclear arsenal.

>>Read: Russia to beef up its nuclear arsenal, NATO speaks of ‘sabre rattling’

“We will not be dragged into an arms race, but we must keep our countries safe,” Stoltenberg told reporters at a meeting of alliance defence ministers.

A Russian official last week accused NATO of pushing Russia into an arms race by stepping up its military activity around its borders, not least in the formerly Soviet Baltic states.

Stoltenberg said the US decision to store equipment in eastern Europe was a prudent response to Russia’s actions.

He said the defence ministers had agreed to increase the strength of NATO’s rapid response force, including its air, maritime and special operations components. The force will now consist of up to 40,000 personnel, up from 13,000 previously.

Within that force, NATO plans to create a 5,000-strong “spearhead” force, part of which could move within 48 hours.

The United States said on Monday it would contribute special operations forces, intelligence and other high-end military assets to the new “spearhead” force.

Canadian Defence Minister Jason Kenney announced on Wednesday his country was ready to offer air-to-air refuelling, reconnaissance, and transport planes for the force.

Controversial statement

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter, who is attending his first NATO ministerial meeting, said on Tuesday that the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – as well as Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, had agreed to host the US arms and heavy equipment.

The statement made waves in Bulgaria, whose foreign minister Daniel Mitov said that it had agreed that equipment be stored for military exercises, but not on a permanent basis.

It was one of a range of steps Washington and NATO are taking to reinforce allies in eastern Europe after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region last year and what NATO says is Russia’s military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Polish concerns

The defence ministers also agreed on Wednesday to give NATO’s military commander new powers to prepare the rapid reaction force in a crisis, although governments would still have to give the go-ahead before it could go into action.

Polish Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak reiterated his country’s call for NATO forces to be based permanently on its soil.

Siemoniak told Reuters he hoped regular rotations of alliance forces through Poland would gradually be transformed into a permanent presence.

Despite the alliance’s concerns over a more assertive Russia as well as other security challenges, only five of its 28 member states are expected to meet NATO’s target of spending at least two percent of their national output on defence this year.

Russian says that that the relocation of US military equipment in Eastern Europe is the most aggressive act since the end of the Cold War, and that it would be a breach of the Russia-NATO Act of 1997 which forbids NATO to deploy on its Eastern flank "substantial combat forces".

Russia and NATO disagree on what "substantial combat forces" means. In Bulgaria and Romania, the US has deployed between two and six thousand estimated troops, which Russia says is "substantial combat forces", while the US disagrees.

Russian President Putin has said Moscow will not be drawn into a new arms race, although he made it clear Russia would retaliate, including by beefing up its arsenal in the enclave of Kaliningrad, bordering Poland and Lithuania.

>> Read: Russia says it will respond to US military buildup in Baltics

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