NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, right, meets with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, right, meets with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. (Courtesy of NATO)

BRUSSELS — NATO allies must not lose sight of the threat Russia poses along the alliance’s eastern flank even as it considers new steps this week to avoid airspace confrontations in the wake of Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane, NATO’s top official said on Monday.

As NATO foreign ministers gather for two days of talks in Brussels on Tuesday, much of the focus will be on Russia and its growing military presence on NATO’s doorstep in Syria. But the crisis in Ukraine also will demand alliance attention.

“We have to do both at the same time,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.

Allies also are expected to discuss the size and shape of its future training mission in Afghanistan, where the U.S. plans to keep 5,500 troops through 2017.

Stoltenberg, who met earlier Monday with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, defended Turkey’s downing last week of the Russian jet, which Ankara claimed had entered Turkish airspace. Russia said it did not. One of the pilots and a Russian marine involved in the rescue were killed by Turkish-allied militants on the Syrian side of the border, where the plane went down.

More transparency among militaries operating in the region “is key to reducing risks of incidents and accidents, and if they occur, to prevent them from escalating and coming out of control,” Stoltenberg said.

Davutoglu said during a joint news conference with Stoltenberg: “We have no intention whatsoever to escalate this situation. We are ready to talk at every level.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked for a meeting with Russian President Valdimir Putin on the sidelines of the climate conference this week in Paris, but Putin’s office has not said whether he will agree to meet.

But Turkey has continued to defend its actions, and Davutoglu criticized Russia’s bombing in Syria, much of which he said targets “moderate opposition” and civilians near Turkey’s border.

That is “creating new waves of refugees,” Davutoglu said. “Turkey is a country paying the price of this crisis and cannot be blamed for defending its airspace.”

Tuesday’s meeting of NATO foreign ministers will be the first since the Russian plane incident and the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, which were claimed by the Islamic State group.

U.S. and coalition airstrikes have been targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Paris attacks have hardened the resolve of some NATO members to go after the militants more aggressively.

“The situation alongside NATO’s southeastern border remains highly volatile,” Stoltenberg said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be leading the American delegation in Brussels, a city that only last week was in a state of near-total lockdown because of fears that a Paris-style terrorist attack was potentially in the works.

For NATO, the crisis in Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State group remains entrenched, is fueling a refugee crisis across Europe. That has put a strain on many governments working to accommodate the migrants while also reassuring wary publics.

Since the Paris attacks, pressure has mounted on NATO states to contribute more to the U.S.-led fight against the militants. France has stepped up the pace of its airstrikes. Germany has taken a rare step by pledging to commit warships and surveillance aircraft to the coalition, and British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking parliamentary approval to extend the bombing of Islamic State targets from Iraq to Syria.

Russia’s involvement in Syria has drawn criticism from the West, which maintains Moscow, in backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, is targeting moderate rebels in Syria, not just the Islamic State.

French President Francois Hollande met with Putin last week to push for better coordination of counter-Islamic State operations, but the tensions between Russia and Turkey underscore the challenges in the region.

Besides the fight against Islamic State, NATO foreign ministers will be discussing progress on efforts to double the size of the NATO Response Force to roughly 40,000 troops. Those troops could be called upon in a crisis, whether to the south or the east.

NATO has increased its presence in and around the Baltics to reassure eastern alliance members wary of Russia’s intentions after its intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.

While Russia’s role in Syria has drawn NATO’s increasing attention, allies say Moscow continues to play a role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where violence has been on the rise in recent weeks.

“Russian actions in Ukraine and its military buildup in our neighborhood have led to new risks for our security,” Stoltenberg said.

He added: “We have seen a substantial Russian military buildup over a long period of time, with both different kinds of missile systems, naval presence, with personnel on the ground, with air forces.”

author picture
John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up