Western leaders on Sunday called for a repositioning of NATO forces in light of a buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border that the alliance’s military leader called very sizable and very ready.
At a conference in Brussels Sunday, NATO’s supreme allied commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said the alliance must consider the positioning and readiness of its forces because of concerns that Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border could pose a threat to the separatist Trans-Dniester region of Moldova, which borders Ukraine.
“The force that is at the Ukrainian border now, to the east, is very, very sizable and very, very ready,” Breedlove said at a forum of the German Marshall Fund.
“There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” Breedlove said, according to the BBC. “Russia is acting much more like an adversary than a partner.”
On Friday, Russia formally annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine following a referendum in the region last weekend in which a majority of the largely Russian-speaking population voted in favor of joining Russia. The referendum has been denounced by the West as illegitimate.
Trans-Dniester, which runs along the eastern edge of Moldova and along Ukraine’s western border, declared independence in 1990, but has not been recognized by the international community, and like Crimea, has a sizable Russian-speaking population.
Breedlove, who also heads U.S. European Command, said NATO must be ready to defend its members, given Russia’s buildup on the edges of the 28-nation alliance, though he did not say where those forces should be positioned.
“You cannot defend against that if you are not there to defend against it,” Breedlove said. “So I think we need to think about our allies, the positioning of our forces in the alliance and the readiness of those forces in the alliance, such that we can be there to defend against it, if required.”
Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters Sunday that Russia was observing international agreements on limiting the number of troops on Ukraine’s border, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported. The Russian ambassador to the European Union told the BBC that Russia did not have any “expansionist views” and that “nobody should fear Russia.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking in Brussels on Friday, described Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a game-changing event and a “wake-up call” for Europe as a whole.
“Our vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace has been put into question because this is not an isolated incident,” Rasmussen said.
Russia’s actions in Crimea follows a pattern of behavior in other regions, including Trans-Dniester, and the break-away Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Rasmussen said.
“What connects those crises is one big country unilaterally deciding to rewrite international rules overnight and on its own and re-create new dividing lines in Europe 25 years after the free peoples of Europe erased them,” Rasmussen said. “It is based on confrontation, not cooperation, and it poses a real threat to the global order based on our values and the rules that we all agreed to respect. We need to respond both now and in the future.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, which throughout the Cold War had been a counterweight to the West’s NATO alliance, NATO has expanded deep into former Warsaw Pact territory. Among its new members are the Baltic states, which were part of the Soviet Union — though never recognized as such by the U.S.; Poland, which borders Russia’s Kaliningrad region as well as Ukraine; and Romania, which borders Moldova.
In an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published online Saturday, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen called for a stronger NATO role and show of force to reassure jittery allies on the alliance’s eastern borders.
“Now it’s important for the alliance partners on the outer edges that NATO shows its presence,” von der Leyen said. “The current situation clearly reflects that NATO is not just a military alliance, but also a political one.”
Der Spiegel said von der Leyen refuted suggestions that the West had provoked Russia by expanding eastward. Both Ukraine and Moldova, as well as other former Soviet republics, have partnership arrangements with NATO.
Rather, she said, it is primarily the West’s democratic values “that exert a strong attraction for new members.”
“That’s why NATO has grown since the nineties, not because the alliance was seeking expansion,” she told Der Spiegel.
On Saturday, Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said the U.S. should increase its military presence in Poland and other member countries in Eastern Europe. He said the U.S. was open to the idea, but details needed to be worked out, the Reuters news agency reported.
In response to the crisis along NATO’s border, the alliance has deployed E-3 AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to Poland and Romania. It also has beefed up its air policing mission in the Baltics in an effort to reassure allies in the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. has sent F-16 fighters to Poland.
Stars and Stripes reporter John Vandiver contributed to this report.