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By Steven Erlanger,
The New York Times,
11 May 2016

NATO Ratchets Up Missile Defense Despite Russian Criticism


A United States Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jet, which is part of the Operation Atlantic Resolve, an American commitment to NATO`s collective security and regional stability, at the Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania, in April.

LONDON - NATO`s European missile defense system will go live on Thursday when a base in Romania becomes operational. The next day, Poland is scheduled to break ground on its NATO missile-defense base.

The decision by the United States and its allies in Eastern Europe to proceed with ballistic missile defense in the face of increasingly loud Russian criticism is an important stage in the alliance`s new stance toward Moscow.

Those deployments will be coupled this spring with major military exercises in Poland and the Baltics, with significant American participation, and a beefed-up rapid reaction force of up to 5,000 troops.

Altogether, said Derek Chollet, a former United States assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, "There will be a quite robust display of military power in Europe and allied resolve, and hopefully Moscow will see it for what it is, an alliance improving its capabilities."

At the biannual NATO summit meeting in Warsaw in early July, the main issues are expected to be east-west (read Russia) and north-south - how to deal with threats to members like Turkey and Greece from the chaos of Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Islamic State. The phrase "arc of instability" has re-emerged in NATO-speak.

There is confusion about what useful purpose NATO can serve in the south. But there is more clarity on Russia, after its annexation of Crimea and armed involvement in eastern Ukraine, its threats to the Baltic region and intervention in Syria.

Talk of "strategic partnership" is gone; instead, there are calls to abandon the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, which spoke of shared values and a commitment to peace. There is less emphasis on finding "common ground" with Russia than on setting clear limits.

The intention in Warsaw is to move from "reassurance" of eastern NATO allies to "deterrence" of Russia. That means more troops and equipment, longer deployments, bigger exercises and a "persistent" presence of NATO and American troops in countries like Poland and the Baltics.

At the 2014 NATO summit meeting in Wales, the alliance decided to rotate small numbers of troops through the Baltic region; now NATO is planning to deploy four combat battalions of roughly 1,000 troops each in Poland and the three Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Two of them are likely to be American, one German and one British. And Washington will add a third combat brigade in Europe.

There will be discussion of how to recreate the infrastructure, dismantled after the Cold War, to move tanks quickly to Poland, which now takes at least a day. The new deployments are a more serious tripwire to deter a war that NATO leaders must now at least contemplate.

How will Russia react? President Vladimir V. Putin views NATO as encircling Russia to limit its influence. Moscow argues that the only possible target of NATO`s missile defenses is Russia, now that Iran has agreed to limit its nuclear program.

Russia has already said it will create three new divisions along its western border and has threatened to put nuclear warheads on its new Iskander missiles and base them in Kaliningrad - territory bordering Poland and Lithuania that Moscow annexed after World War II.

Some NATO country officials, including in Poland, believe that Moscow already has nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, and will wait to announce that deployment in response to an operational missile defense, or as Moscow`s riposte to the NATO meeting.

Russia has been developing a ground-launched cruise-missile version of the Iskander that the departing NATO commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, has said violates the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Washington.

Moscow, for its part, argues that NATO`s own missile defenses violate the I.N.F. treaty because they could be used offensively.

So the newly robust NATO moves may give Moscow the excuse to say that it is pulling out of the treaty altogether. And Mr. Putin, who has domestic problems and has discussed using nuclear weapons in a conflict with NATO, may decide to announce the deployment of nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, or even Crimea.

"Putin has given us plenty of reasons to be concerned," said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "He uses his unpredictability as leverage over the West, so we can`t trust our assumptions."


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