US, NATO missile center Europe, AAMDS.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ROBERT GHEMENT

NATO defence ministers were set Tuesday to pave the way for their military alliance to step up its presence in Eastern Europe, amid enduring tensions with Russia.

The ministers will take decisions on deploying four battalions to Poland and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as assisting with a brigade in Romania, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.

"Our countries face unprecedented security challenges," he told journalists in Brussels on Tuesday ahead of the ministers' talks. "Our message is that NATO will continue to protect and defend all allies against any threats coming from any direction."

The moves are likely to ratchet up tensions with Russia, which has repeatedly warned that an eastward NATO expansion threatens its national security.

Russia'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.

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.

Stoltenberg announced on Tuesday that "a tailored presence for the south-east region" is also being planned, including "a land element built around a multinational framework brigade in Romania."

The country has offered to provide the headquarters for the brigade, which would "organize and facilitate NATO activities in the region," Stoltenberg said. Romania is also expected to lead the brigade.

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

Romanian Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos has in the past also called for a "large NATO presence" in the Black Sea, which borders NATO members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, but also Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.

NATO has been working on bolstering all of its eastern flank, with member states in the area feeling threatened by Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

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

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

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