NATO members agreed Friday to form a “spearhead” force of several thousand land troops ready to deploy within a few days, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, as the trans-Atlantic alliance grapples with the threats posed by Russia’s interference in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq
“This decision sends a clear message: NATO protects all allies at all times,” Rasmussen said on the second day of a NATO summit in Newport, Wales.
“And it sends a clear message to any potential aggressor: Should you even think of attacking one ally, you will be facing the whole alliance.”
The new readiness action plan, which includes proposals for more short notice exercises, is intended to help NATO respond swiftly to Russian aggression and other international conflicts.
“In these turbulent times, NATO must be prepared to undertake the full range of missions and to defend allies against the full range of threats,” Rasmussen said.
He said NATO members also “stand ready to assist Iraq” in its fight against Islamist extremists if Baghdad asks for help.
But pressed by reporters on exactly what aid NATO would offer, Rasmussen toned down his remarks, saying NATO is prepared to consider a “defense capability building mission” in Iraq.
Responses to threats posed by Russia’s interference in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq were at the heart of discussions Thursday on the first day of the alliance’s meeting in Wales.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in the unrest in eastern Ukraine have alarmed NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic States.
A rapid-reaction force would give those nations more security amid Moscow’s deteriorating relationship with the West. U.S. officials have stressed that any force would be defensive in posture and not a provocation to Russia.
“No third party has a veto” on new members joining NATO, Rasmussen added, amid tensions between NATO and Russia over Ukraine.
Moscow opposes Kiev’s pivot toward the West and has warned against any bid by Ukraine to join NATO.
‘Ready, able and willing’
In remarks earlier Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron said the United Kingdom would be willing to contribute 3,500 personnel to NATO’s “multinational spearhead force.”
Cameron also called for the 28 members of the alliance to reinforce their commitment to spend 2% of gross domestic product on defense and a fifth of that amount on equipment.
Rasmussen said member states “must ensure that NATO remains ready, able and willing to defend all allies against any threat.”
“Today we will ensure that we have the right forces and equipment in the right place for as long as required and commit to reverse the decline of defense budgets,” Rasmussen said Friday.
Edward Lucas, a senior editor at The Economist in London, said it’s important to get a rapid-reaction force “that is pre-authorized, a bit like a pre-authorized credit card, so that if there is a crisis, it can be deployed very quickly by NATO military commanders.”
Otherwise, activation of the force could get bogged down in political discussions, Lucas told CNN.
Hopes of truce in Ukraine
The recent revival of a Russian threat in Eastern Europe has upended some of the assumptions that had underpinned NATO’s earlier expansion in the region.
“This is the first time since the end of World War II that one European country has tried to grab another’s territory by force,” Rasmussen said Thursday. “Europe must not turn away from the rule of law to the rule of strongest.”
The NATO summit coincides with talks Friday in Belarus that may result in the agreement of a peace deal between Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russia rebels.
NATO says the rebels are armed and trained by Russia and are supported by Russian troops on Ukrainian soil. But Moscow denies those claims.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko expressed “careful optimism” Thursday about a possible truce with the rebels.
Rebel leaders in Ukraine’s self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics say they will order a ceasefire Friday if Ukraine signs “a plan for a political settlement.”
Russia ‘has bullied its neighbors’
Lucas pointed out that when NATO first brought Eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary into its fold in the late 1990s, it decided to regard Russia as a friend rather than a threat, forgoing plans to defend the new member states.
“The whole idea was that NATO would be in partnership with Russia to deal with other security issues,” he said. “That’s changed because Russia didn’t like that arrangement. Russia has bullied its neighbors.”
NATO leaders are also expected to tackle the issue of how to respond to ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The United States, which has been carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, is pushing to form a coalition against the Sunni extremist group.
President Barack Obama is set to meet Friday with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country borders areas of Syria under ISIS control.