BRUSSELS — NATO should not rule out positioning forces in Eastern Europe in light of Russia’s newly aggressive stance, which now demands that the alliance find fresh ways to boost its state of readiness, NATO’s top military officer said Thursday.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander, also said there were some signs that Russian forces positioned along the border with Ukraine were redeploying, but that a sizable fighting force remained in the area. Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russian units would begin returning to their home garrisons.
“We need to be very honest, we are seeing some movement,” Breedlove told reporters. “The size and scope of it is not exactly clear yet.”
NATO has said the Russian army had assembled about 40,000 combat-ready troops along the border with eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia separatist groups have been fighting with Ukrainian government troops. On Thursday, at least 11 Ukrainian troops were killed when pro-Russia forces attacked a military checkpoint, The Associated Press reported.
“We don’t see movement in two of the areas that are very concerning to us,” Breedlove said, without elaborating. In order to de-escalate tensions along the border, he said, a “100 percent withdrawal” of Russian forces from the area would be required.
He was speaking at the end of a two-day meeting of the alliance’s defense chiefs in Brussels devoted mainly to the situation in Ukraine.
Breedlove signaled that the NATO Response Force, formed a decade ago as the alliance’s rapid-deployment force, must play a key role as NATO attempts to ensure it is capable of fielding forces in the event of a sudden crisis.
“Are we asking it (the NRF) to do the right things?” Breedlove asked. “Is it responsive enough to meet the new threat?”
Breedlove, who also commands U.S. European Command, said that NATO’s task now is to prepare itself for a future in which Russia can no longer be regarded as a partner.
The NATO Response Force, which includes a Texas-based U.S. Army brigade and about 20,000 European troops, has generally been used for training exercises and peacekeeping activities. As a result, it’s not built to mobilize in a matter of hours or days, though it trains as a fighting force.
“I think we need to reset the goals (of the NRF), especially as it relates to responsiveness,” Breedlove, said. “We need an NRF that is very responsive.”
To maintain a NATO force at a higher state of alert, however, will require a more intensive training program and more resources to ensure the troops are mission-ready.
“That will cost money,” Breedlove said. “Readiness and responsiveness is not free.”
The U.S. has repeatedly taken its European partners to task for reducing defense spending and not shouldering their share of the burden and the U.S. has been drawing down forces in Europe. NATO also should consider moving an element of NRF closer to potential hot spots, Breedlove said. The positioning of NATO forces in the east, near Russia’s borders, is a source of contention within the alliance. Allies in the east have been eager for more NATO presence, but some members in the west, such as Germany, have indicated opposition to any permanent stationing of troops.
Breedlove stopped short of saying whether the forces should be permanently stationed, saying such a move would be a political decision. But he didn’t rule it out.
“We have to think about whether we should have forces in the east,” Breedlove said. “There are many avenues to explore.”
For more than a decade, NATO has viewed Russia as a partner, and that has been factored into military planning within the alliance, Breedlove said.
Now, the allies must take stock as the security paradigm in Europe has changed, said Breedlove, who argued that Russia’s altering of the borders in Ukraine by seizing Crimea has security implications that ripple across Eastern Europe.
“Is our force sized correctly?” Breedlove asked. “Is our force equipped correctly? Is the responsiveness of our force appropriate?
“We have to look at our structures,” he said.