NATO defence ministers are expected to approve plans to bolster the alliance along its eastern flank, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday, in a move aimed at countering the perceived threat from Russia.
Relations between NATO and Russia in the last two years have reached their lowest level since the Cold War, following Moscow's actions in Ukraine, where it is accused of supporting pro-Russian separatists and has annexed the Crimean peninsula.
The military alliance has already taken steps to reassure its eastern members, who feel threatened by Russia. The new plan aims to take this further, with a combination of flexible ground forces and rapidly deployable reinforcements to deter any potential aggressor.
"I expect the defence ministers to agree to enhance our forward presence in the eastern part of our alliance," Stoltenberg said Wednesday, ahead of a two-day meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
The aim is to create a "multinational" force presence that will send a "very strong signal" of NATO's unity, he added. NATO sources have spoken of positioning several thousand troops across countries such as Poland and the Baltic states.
NATO is taking a "more muscular approach than it has done since the Cold War," while only doing "as much as is strictly necessary," the British ambassador to the alliance, Adam Thomson, said of the plans.
The alliance has been at pains to respect an agreement struck with Russia in 1997 to refrain from the "additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces" in Eastern Europe.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused NATO of inflating fears of a Russian threat to justify its existence and to expand eastwards, in comments to the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, carried by TASS news agency.
NATO should "stay within its borders," he said, while criticizing the alliance for inviting Montenegro to join. NATO's actions are creating a "destabilizing factor for global stability," Lavrov warned.
The meeting of defence ministers comes ahead of NATO's next two-year summit, taking place in Warsaw in July. By then, the alliance is due to flesh out its new deterrent approach and seek commitments from its members.
Last week, US President Barack Obama took the lead by announcing plans to seek a fourfold increase - to 3.4 billion dollars - in Washington's funding of European security in the 2017 budget.
The money would be used in part to have an overall 3,000 US soldiers stationed in Europe on a rotational basis at any one time, as well as prepositioning military equipment that could be quickly available in case of an emergency, a US official said on condition of anonymity.