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Eastern Europe could be on the cusp of the largest military buildup in decades as NATO considers deploying troops to alliance member states bordering Russia, adding to the estimated 40,000 Russian troops gathered along Ukraine's eastern border.
NATO's consideration of troop deployment is a response to Moscow's own placement of troops along the border since March, which NATO has called an intimidation tactic directed at the new government in Kiev.
US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top NATO military commander in Europe, ambiguously told the Associated Press that he wouldn't "write off involvement by any nation, to include the United States."
Foreign ministers of the 28-nation alliance have given Breedlove until Tuesday to propose steps to reassure NATO members nearest Russia that other alliance countries have their back.
"Essentially what we are looking at is a package of land, air and maritime measures that would build assurance for our easternmost allies," Breedlove told the AP. "I'm tasked to deliver this by next week. I fully intend to deliver it early."
Asked again if American soldiers might be sent to NATO's front-line states closest to Russia, the four-star U.S. general said, "I would not write off contributions from any nation."
To bolster his claims, Gen. Breedlove's staff provided the AP with satellite images reportedly showing Russian warplanes, combat helicopters, armor, artillery, and an airborne or special forces brigade amassed along the Ukrainian border. Breedlove said it appeared to be a force of about 40,000 that could be mobilized in under 12 hours.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agreed that the forces appeared to be in "combat readiness" and that "they could go quickly" into Ukraine. "But that's all they show," he cautioned, according to the AP.
Russia has cast NATO's consideration of deployment and its criticism of Russia as parts of a bid to destabilize the region and increase its popularity. From Russia's RIA Novosti:
“Several times over the last few months we have heard nothing constructive in comments by the NATO Secretary General,” the [foreign] ministry said in a statement.
"The use of double standards is a direct threat to security and stability in the region,” the statement said, referring to NATO members' support of the coup-imposed regime in Kiev while calling the reunification referendum in Crimea illegitimate. ...
“The constant accusations by the Secretary General directed at us confirm the fact that the alliance is attempting to use the crisis in Ukraine in order to ‘unite ranks’ before an imaginary external threat to NATO member states in order to secure the need for the alliance in the 21st century,” the ministry said.
That NATO will deploy troops, let alone where, is far from certain. Outgoing Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has floated the possibility of accepting Ukraine into the alliance, which would allow NATO to send troops there, and has already called for the beefing up of air defenses of the Baltic states and Romania, Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe, writes.
But Germany has thrown a wrench into efforts to present a unified response – and emboldened Russia as it draws "new post-cold war borders," she warns:
Rasmussen himself has clear ideas about what should be done. Writing in the German newspaper Die Welt, he said that NATO was open to Ukraine. “The right of sovereign states to determine their own way forward is one of the foundations of modern Europe,” the former Danish prime minister wrote.
Rasmussen’s message was directed at a German public that still does not grasp the geostrategic importance of events in Ukraine and is hesitant about imposing tougher sanctions on the Kremlin.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quick to rebuke Rasmussen. “NATO membership for Ukraine is not pending,” he said. Foreign policy, he added, was not supposed to become “militarized.” The expression he used is significant because it has a particular resonance with pacifists and those who advocate diplomacy and the minimum of soft power instruments to deal with crises.
So far, Steinmeier’s attempts to deescalate the crisis with Russia have failed. Indeed, the more Berlin pushes for diplomacy, the more it gives Russian President Vladimir Putin time to consolidate his grip over Eastern Europe.
NATO Deputy Secretary Gen. Alexander Vershbow did tweet a denial that NATO plans to deploy "large military contingents" along Russia's borders.
"I totally dismiss claim by dep defence minister Antonov that NATO plans to deploy large military contingents close to Russia's borders," he wrote. He added that the alliance's "core task" is defense and described its actions as "legitimate steps to deal with instability created by Russia's illegal actions."
To calm the fears of nervous Russian neighbors, NATO deployed reconnaissance aircraft over Poland and Romania in early March. The US has also sent fighter jets, fighter bombers, and transport aircraft to Poland, where it has a base. A US missile destroyer will arrive in the Black Sea soon, according to Agence France-Presse.