NATO defence ministers on Tuesday paved the way for their military alliance to step up its troop presence in Eastern Europe, in a move likely to further ratchet up tensions with Russia.

NATO has been working on bolstering its eastern flank ever since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, which left the eastern-most countries in the Western military alliance feeling threatened by Moscow.

The 28-country NATO has organized more military exercises in the region and helped with air policing and naval operations. Ministers have now agreed to also deploy four battalions of soldiers to Poland and the Baltic countries, as well as supporting a brigade in Romania.

"This sends a clear message: if any of our allies is attacked, the whole alliance will respond as one," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists in Brussels.

NATO does not want to "fight a war" or "provoke a conflict," he added. Rather, "strong deterrence is the best way to prevent the war," Stoltenberg argued.

But Russia has repeatedly warned that an eastward NATO expansion threatens its national security. The country's military began a snap combat-readiness check on Tuesday, although it did not link it with NATO activity.

"We don't seek confrontation with Russia," Stoltenberg said. "We don't want a new Cold War, and we will continue to strive for a more constructive and cooperative relationship with Russia."

Each of the multinational battalions being deployed to Poland and the Baltics is expected to feature 800 to 1,000 troops which will be on six- to nine-month rotations. It is not yet clear whether troops already present in the area could be reassigned to the new effort.

Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said the move would be of "fundamental importance for our security," while Latvian Defence Minister Raimonds Bergmanis spoke of a "historic moment."

The United States will lead one battalion, while Britain and Germany announced on Tuesday that they would head two others. Canada is said to be in line to lead the fourth.

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon spoke of "a very strong signal of unity and resolve in our determination to defend the Baltic states and Poland in the face of continued Russian aggression."

Details are still to be finalized, but German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the deployments will be in line with a NATO-Russia agreement that foresees the alliance refraining from the "permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" in Eastern Europe.

Expectations are high that the Canadian-led battalion would be in Latvia, the US-led battalion in Poland, the British-led battalion in Estonia and the German-led battalion in Lithuania.

But final decisions are not expected until the alliance's leaders meet in Warsaw next month.

Romania, meanwhile, has offered to provide the headquarters for and lead a multinational brigade on its territory. It will "organize and facilitate NATO activities in the region related to exercises and also assurance measures," Stoltenberg said.

Neighbouring Bulgaria is expected to contribute 400 troops, a source said on condition of anonymity.

The defence ministers will also consider how to handle crises to NATO's south during their two-day meeting in Brussels.

They are expected to pave the way Wednesday for the deployment of AWACS surveillance planes in Turkish and international airspace to help the international coalition fighting the Islamic State extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

On Tuesday, they decided to add cyberspace to NATO's air, sea and land operational domains. This will allow NATO allies to "coordinate and organize our efforts to protect against cyber attacks in a better and more efficient way," Stoltenberg said.

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.