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Merkel, Hollande, and Kerry descend on Ukraine in bid to defuse spiking crisis

The French and German leaders will then proceed to Moscow. NATO has also announced a 'spearhead' force that will deploy in the Baltics as a deterrent to what many in Europe see as growing Russian assertiveness.

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    Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (l.) shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, on Thursday. The Ukrainian government is anxious to use Thursday's visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev to reiterate its plea for lethal aid.
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US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev today to explore paths forward in the Ukraine crisis. At the same time, NATO ministers in Brussels announced a 5,000-man “spearhead” force expected to deploy in the Baltics amid what many in Europe see as Moscow’s attempt to create a troubling new East-West standoff.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg says the forces will be part of “the biggest reinforcement … of collective defense” since the cold war for the alliance, whose officials earlier this week called Russian aggression "not an isolated incident but a game-changer in European security,” reports the BBC. 

Secretary Kerry landed in Ukraine as deadly fighting and shelling in the east of the country continued. He will announce $16.4 million in humanitarian aid for the east, as Washington weighs greater military assistance for Kiev. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande also departed for Kiev today and will visit Moscow Friday in an effort to defuse the recent escalation of violence.

“Peace is under threat at the borders of Europe,” Mr. Hollande told reporters today in Paris, according to Bloomberg. “In Ukraine, there is a war,” the French leader said in what is a rhetorical upgrading of the Ukraine crisis among European leaders. The German-French bid seeks not only peace but agreement on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. 

Kerry’s trip signals “accelerated Western diplomacy,” according to an analysis by The New York Times, and a potentially tougher approach that would result in helping arm Ukraine with what are termed defensive weapons. Merkel and Hollande would like to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

[T]he Obama administration was considering whether to send anti-tank missiles, battlefield radars, reconnaissance drones and other arms to help Ukaine’s beleaguered forces stave off attacks by the Russian-backed separatists and build pressure on Moscow to seek a political settlement.

Western leaders face a delicate dance over how to respond to a conflict whose purpose, analysts say, appears aimed as much at creating a schism in the world order and boosting Russian national pride as it is at fighting for territory and influence on Moscow’s periphery, its “near abroad.”

NATO’s more robust “eastward” looking policy outlined today is designed to assuage Central and East European fears and place small highly trained rapid reaction troops in an arc from the Baltics through Poland.

Vladimir Putin’s exact mix of bluster and seriousness remains carefully hidden, analysts say. The conflict has been serious enough for Mr. Putin to de facto annex the Crimean Peninsula in an act without recent precedent. But it is also difficult to calculate how the Russian leader can afford a prolonged conflict with oil prices that are crippling his economy. 

Yet the consternation in Europe and NATO on Ukraine is not restricted to localized events in the area of Donetsk in the east. Last week Europe took sharp note as two nuclear-capable Russian bombers casually flew over the English Channel in a patrol maneuver.

The event underscores an emphasis in today's NATO meeting on Russia's nuclear strategy, which could be evolving away from a policy of strict non-use, according to Reuters:

Concern is growing in NATO over Russia's nuclear strategy and indications that Russian military planners may be lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons in any conflict, alliance diplomats say.

The threat of nuclear war that once hung over the world has eased since the Cold War amid sharp reductions in warheads but Russia and the United States, NATO's main military power, retain massively destructive nuclear arsenals.

Russia's nuclear strategy appears to point to a lowering of the threshold for using nuclear weapons in any conflict, NATO diplomats say.

"What worries us most in this strategy is the modernisation of the Russian nuclear forces, the increase in the level of training of those forces and the possible combination between conventional actions and the use of nuclear forces, including possibly in the framework of a hybrid war," one diplomat said.

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