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U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016.

Photo courtesy of NATO
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of NATO (Photo courtesy of NATO)

BRUSSELS — NATO defense ministers meeting here are expected to agree on additional steps to deal with an assertive Russia and the threat posed by the Islamic State group, whose brutal campaign in Syria and Iraq has fueled a massive flow of refugees that is inundating Europe and challenging the Continent’s governments.

“Today and tomorrow we will make a decision to strengthen our defense and our deterrence,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday before the meeting opened. “And I expect the defense ministers to agree to enhance our forward presence in the eastern part of our alliance. This will send a clear signal: NATO will respond as one to any aggression against any ally.”

This more robust presence along Russia’s periphery — Stoltenberg offered no details on its size or shape — is only one area in which Russia is a subject of the meetings, which run through Thursday.

NATO is expected Wednesday to enter an agreement with the European Union to cooperate on cybersecurity, a subject Stoltenberg linked to “hybrid challenges.” Hybrid warfare is a term that has been used to describe Russia’s use of disinformation and irregular forces in its takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March 2014.

“Our emergency-response teams will have a structured network for exchanging information and sharing best practices,” Stoltenberg said. “This is a concrete example of NATO and the European Union to counter hybrid threats.”

On Tuesday, Douglas E. Lute, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said the forward presence would be much smaller than the alliance’s array of forces during the Cold War. That presence would fit within the conventional capabilities of a “new framework for deterrence and defense” that Lute said the alliance is likely to approve this week.

“The modern approach to deterrence is a much more modest forward presence backed up by much more responsive rapid-reaction forces,” he said.

Another part of that framework, Lute said, is the individual responsibility of NATO’s 28 member states for self-defense, national cyberdefense and resilience against hybrid warfare.

Stoltenberg sidestepped a question about whether this new approach was due to budget constraints or a desire not to be unnecessarily provocative toward Russia.

“It is because we believe this is the best way of providing assurance in a changed security environment,” he said Wednesday. “And we believe that we need to be flexible, we need to be able to reinforce if needed and we need combination of forward presence and the ability to reinforce quickly if needed.

“We’re living in another time than we did during the Cold War, when we had hundreds of thousands of troops massed along the borders facing each other,” Stoltenberg said.

Russia’s interference in Ukraine already has prompted a series of NATO reforms aimed at bolstering collective defense for member states in the east and signaling to Moscow the alliance’s resolve to stand up to any provocation. The alliance has doubled its crisis response force to 40,000 troops and set up small headquarters across the Baltics to facilitate the flow of forces.

The U.S. has carried much of the load in the region, maintaining a continuous presence of infantrymen on the ground to carry out exercises with allies.

Stoltenberg reiterated that NATO would likely support a U.S. request for alliance surveillance aircraft in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has asked that NATO Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft join the fight against the Islamic State, which would mark the first formal involvement of the 28-nation alliance in the U.S.-led campaign.

“I expect the ministers will endorse a positive response to this request,” Stoltenberg said. “Our military planners will then look into the details.”

yurkovsky.andrew@stripes.com

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