NATO is to create a 4,000-strong “spearhead” high-readiness force that can be deployed rapidly in eastern Europe and the Baltic states to help protect member nations against potential Russian aggression, according to Nato officials. Leaders from the 28 NATO countries are expected to approve the plan at the alliance’s summit in Wales when the Ukraine crisis tops the agenda on Friday. The NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the force, drawn on rotational basis from NATO allies, could be in action at “very, very short notice”.
Rasmussen described it as a mixture of regular troops and special forces that could “travel light but strike hard”. It would be supported by air and naval forces as needed. He declined to say how many troops would be engaged but NATO officials said it would number around 4,000 and would be expected to deploy to any alliance member country within 48 hours.. “It is so that we are ready should something nasty happen,” a senior NATO official said. Russia is likely to view the creation of the high-readiness force as an aggressive move.
NATO has struggled to find a response to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began in February, beyond increased military exercises in the Baltic states. One of the biggest criticisms of NATO’s response to Russian actions has been its lack of speed and flexibility. The spearhead force does not help with the immediate crisis in Ukraine, which is facing Russian incursions in the east and south of the country. But the force might have a deterrent effect if Russia was considering destabilizing the Baltic states. Since the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in March, Poland and other east European and Baltic state members of NATO have demanded the alliance take a more active and high-profile role in their defense.
Other allies, however, have been wary of doing anything that might endanger a 1997 agreement with Moscow under which NATO pledged not to base substantial numbers of soldiers in eastern Europe on a permanent basis. Officials said that troops would be constantly rotated, in order not to violate the 1997 agreement. However, the constant rotation will in effect mean Nato will have a permanent presence in the Baltic states. Airfields and seaports in the region could also be upgraded to permit their use by the force, Rasmussen said. Officials said the creation of the force, formally named the high-readiness joint task force, had been triggered by the Ukrainian crisis and military planners have been working on it since. “Elements of the force should be in place by Christmas,” an official said.
Rasmussen said: “These crises can erupt with little warning, move at great speed and they all affect our security in different ways.” The spearhead group is part of an overall NATO plan that “responds to Russia’s aggressive behavior but it equips the alliance to respond to all security challenges wherever they may arrive”. There is already a NATO response force in place. “We will now significantly enhance the responsiveness of our NATO response force. We will develop what I would call a spearhead within our response force – a very high readiness force able to deploy at very short notice. This spearhead would be provided by allies in rotation, and could include several thousand troops, ready to respond where needed with air, sea and special forces support,” Rasmussen said.
“This will require reception facilities on NATO territory and pre-positioned equipment and supplies, command and control and logistics experts. So this force can travel light, but strike hard if needed. “We will also look at possible upgrades to national infrastructure. That could include airfields and ports to support reinforcements, if the need arises. And we will improve our early warning through an upgrade of our intelligence gathering and sharing.” One of the biggest challenges Russia’s actions have posed is that Nato is designed for conventional warfare but much of the action in Ukraine has been covert and deniable. The spearhead group will be trained to deal with unconventional actions, from the funding of separatist groups to the use of social media, intimidation and black propaganda.
Analysis – Jonathan Marcus, BBC News, diplomatic correspondent
In response to the Ukraine crisis, NATO is to establish a new rapidly deployable “spearhead” force capable of being deployed within a matter of only two days. This is all part of a much wider overhaul of Nato’s response forces which Nato officials say is not solely linked to Ukraine; it will be capable of deploying anywhere within the alliance to give immediate reassurance and a demonstration of alliance resolve. For such a force to be effective there will have to be regular exercises and Nato officials note that headquarters and other so-called “enablers” – key logistics elements for example – will need to be based closer to areas of potential threat – for that read closer to Nato’s eastern and southern borders. Fuel stocks and ammunition may also need to be pre-positioned further east.
A NATO spokeswoman said the spearhead force is completely separate from a 10,000-strong British-led joint expeditionary force that is also being proposed. The spearhead group is a purely NATO concept whereas the British expeditionary force, which would be made up of troops from seven nations, could operate with the European Union and other multilateral organisations. The British plan would also have a wider remit, engaged in peacekeeping as well as crisis management. But a lot of crossover is inevitable as only half-a-dozen of the 28 member NATO countries have the capability to contribute significant military forces. British forces would almost certainly take part in the spearhead group.
The summit will see calls led by US for increased defence spending to confront the Russian threat. Officials said the spearhead force could be used against other emerging threats in the future. Asked by reporters if the spearhead group might be used against Islamic State in Iraq, a NATO official said it was premature to speculate on that. The two-day summit in Newport begins on Thursday, with the first day dominated by plans for Afghanistan after combat troops withdraw at the end of the year.
In the messy world of the Middle East, actions and in-actions have consequences. There are so many realities. Self determination can be disastrous but so can propping up two-bit dictators. Historically, the United States has done what is in our best national security interests. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The American people do not want protracted military involvement in the Middle East. We have made that abundantly clear. The problem is that most of time, military action…decisive military firepower is all terrorists, militants and malcontents understand. Enter Barack Obama.
Obama, by himself, cannot be blamed for the current crises in the Middle East. This tumultuous region has been a mess for thousands of years. Foreign policy decisions that go back decades have done little to help. Republicans and Democrats have all engaged in failed foreign policy decisions that lead us to where we are today. In other words, there are no easy solutions. Anything short of bombing the entire region into the dark ages and then sending in the United Nations to administer whatever is left will probably not affect any real change. Of course, that is not a desirable option and is in no way realistic which is why we continue in the quagmire we are in. The reality is…it will never…ever change.
Barack Obama has been urged to take a tougher approach towards Russia and Syria, as Republicans and Democrats returned from their summer vacations in confrontational mood. After a week in which the president was criticized for failing to develop military plans for tackling Islamic State militants inside Syria and taking a relatively cautious approach to Russian incursions in Ukraine, senior figures in Congress took turns to demand greater US intervention. Senator Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the foreign relations committee and an administration loyalist, called for the US to arm the Ukrainian military with advanced weapons, that it might defend itself against Russia. “This is a watershed moment,” said Menendez, speaking from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, where he is on the latest of a series of congressional fact-finding visits. “Thousands of Russian troops are here and are directly engaged in what is clearly an invasion. “We should be providing the Ukrainians with the types of defensive weapons that will impose a cost upon [Russian president Vladimir] Putin for further aggression.”
The New Jersey senator dismissed fears that such a step would provoke further aggression from Moscow, and called on European allies to agree significantly tougher economic sanctions, targeting entire industrial sectors such as energy, defense and financial services. “Weakness is a greater provocation for Putin than strength,” said Menendez, in an interview with CNN. Asked if he thought the White House was considering such a move, Menendez said: “I think that may very well be on the table right now. These are changed circumstances.” A similar mood was on display over Syria, with Senate Democrats accusing Obama of failing to take the “extraordinarily dangerous” threat from Isis seriously enough.
On Thursday, asked about possible plans to combat Isis in Syria as well as northern Iraq, Obama told a White House press conference: “We don’t have a strategy yet.” On Saturday, secretary of state John Kerry used a New York Times op-ed column to call for “a global coalition using political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement and intelligence tools to support military force” against Isis. Kerry also said he and defence secretary Chuck Hagel would use next week’s Nato summit in Wales to seek to marshal such international support. In northern Iraq on Saturday night, air strikes and aid drops brought the total of such US strikes since 8 August to 118. The drops and strikes were carried out “at the request of the Iraqi government”, according to a statement from US Central Command, with planes from Australia, France and Britain also dropping food, water and supplies.
Central Command said its forces dropped “109 bundles of much-needed humanitarian aid to the people of Amirli, including the Shia Turkomen minority ethnic group”, and “also conducted three airstrikes in coordination with the isolated Iraqi security forces responsible for protecting Amirli”. The statement added: “Fighter aircraft struck and destroyed three Isis Humvees, one Isis armed vehicle, one Isis checkpoint and one Isis tank near Amirli.” On Sunday, Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee, told NBC: “I think I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is he’s very cautious. Maybe in this instance, too cautious.” Feinstein also questioned whether economic sanctions were enough to deter Russian intervention in Ukraine, calling for Kerry to lead direct talks with Putin. “I think this is deeply personal with him,” she said of Putin. “And I think he’s calling the shots himself. And he’s enjoying intensely high favorability in his country. People say: ‘Well, just wait till the sanctions bite and the economy slips.’ I don’t think so.”
Feinstein added: “The Russians are very brave and very long-suffering. And they will tough out any economic difficulty.” The Sunday talk shows did give some glimpses of support for Obama’s summer foreign policy decisions, as several influential Democratic figures suggested the White House would soon toughen its stance toward Isis and Russia. “I do know that the military, I know that the State Department, I know that others have been putting plans together,” said Feinstein. “And so hopefully, those plans will coalesce into a strategy.” On CNN, Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives intelligence committee, predicted imminent and far-reaching US intervention in Syria. “I think we will see action within the next week or so,” he said. “If we are going to go in, we are not just going to drop some bombs, we are going to go in on a long-term basis.”
Several Republicans were even more gung-ho about the need to confront Isis. Speaking at an Americans for Prosperity conference in Dallas that was organised by influential party funders the Koch brothers, presidential hopeful and Texas senator Ted Cruz said: “We ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age”. On CBS on Sunday the Arizona senator John McCain, a persistent critic of Obama’s foreign policy, said of the situation in Ukraine: “For God’s sake, can’t we help these people defend themselves?” The Dawn of Libya militia group now guards the US embassy in Tripoli and its residential compound, a commander said on Sunday, as onlookers toured the abandoned homes of diplomats who fled the country more than a month ago.
Holes left by small-arms and rocket fire dot the residential compound, reminders of weeks of violence between rival militias over control of Tripoli that sparked the evacuation. The breach of a deserted US diplomatic post – including videos posted on YouTube of men swimming in the compound’s algae-filled pools – is likely to reinvigorate debate in the US over its role in Libya, more than three years after it supported rebels who toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Almost two years ago the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi. A commander for the Dawn of Libya group, Moussa Abu-Zaqia, told Associated Press his forces had been guarding the residential compound since last week, a day after it seized control of the capital and its international airport following weeks of fighting with a rival militia. Abu-Zaqia said the rival militia from Zintan had been in the compound before his troops took it over.
On Sunday a senior US State Department official said in a statement: “We’ve seen the reports and videos and are seeking additional details. At this point, we believe the embassy compound itself remains secure but we continue to monitor the situation on the ground, which remains very fluid.” The US has moved embassy staff from Tripoli to Malta because of the fighting. Some windows at the compound had been broken, but it appeared most of the equipment there remained untouched. Treadmills, weight benches and protein bars remained in the compound’s abandoned gym. Forks, knives and napkins set for a banquet sat on one table, while a cantina still had cornflakes, vinegar, salt and pepper sitting out. Some papers lay strewn on the floor, but it did not appear that the villas in the compound had been ransacked.
Hassan Ali, a Dawn of Libya commander, said his fighters saw “small fires and a little damage” before they chased the rival Zintan militia out of the residential compound. “We entered and put some of our fighters to secure this place and we preserved this place as much as we could,” he said. Abu-Zaqia said his militia had asked cleaners to come to spruce up the grounds. He said the embassy staff “are most welcome in God’s blessing, and any area that is controlled by Dawn of Libya is totally secure and there are no troubles at all”. Another Dawn of Libya commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorised to speak by his leaders, told AP the embassy itself, about one kilometre away, was also under guard by his militiamen. “We’ve secured the location and the assets of the embassy,” he said. “We’ve informed our command … immediately after entering the place following the exit of the rival militia. The place is secure and under protection.”
The commander did not elaborate and the AP journalist could not reach the embassy. The Dawn of Libya militia is not associated with the extremist militia Ansar al-Shariah, which Washington blames for the deadly assault on the Benghazi consulate on 11 September 2012 that killed Stevens and the three other Americans. A video posted online on Sunday showed unarmed men playing in a pool at the compound and jumping into it from a second-storey balcony. In a message on Twitter, the US ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, said the video appeared to have been shot at the embassy’s residential annex, but she could not “say definitively” since she wasn’t there. “To my knowledge & per recent photos the US Embassy Tripoli chancery & compound is now being safeguarded and has not been ransacked,” she wrote on Twitter. She did not immediately respond to a request to elaborate.
Libya’s government has largely relied on militias for law enforcement since the fall of Gaddafi, as its military and police forces remain weak. In the past few weeks, the security vacuum in Tripoli deepened as militia violence worsened and the diplomatic security provided by Libya’s interior ministry in the area apparently fled. It remains unclear who the US left in control of guarding its facilities after its personnel evacuated under military escort on July 26. The State Department has said embassy operations would be suspended until the security situation in Libya improved.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been warned that the crisis in Ukraine could be reaching the “point of no return” as European leaders said the EU was ready to defend its principles. As the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, claimed there were hundreds of Russian troops and thousands of Russian tanks operating inside his country, the outgoing European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, said: “We are in a very serious, I would say, dramatic situation … where we can reach the point of no return.”
At a joint press conference with Poroshenko in Brussels on Saturday morning, Barroso said it was not too late to find a political solution to the crisis but warned: “If the escalation of the conflict continues, this point can come. “Russia should not underestimate the European Union’s will and resolve to stand by its principles and values.” Poroshenko’s call for tougher EU sanctions against Moscow came as the Ukrainian military said one of its fighter jets was shot down by Russian anti-aircraft fire. In a statement, the military said: “A Russian anti-aircraft system shot down an Su-25 fighter. The pilot managed to eject.” The military did not give the location of the incident but said it happened on Friday morning.
The statement denied rebel claims that four planes had been taken down by insurgents. Poroshenko, who is due to hold talks with David Cameron on Saturday, said his presence at the summit was an important demonstration of EU solidarity with his country. “The most important thing now is peace,” he said. “Today we are talking about the fate of Ukraine, tomorrow it could be for all Europe.” Earlier, the German vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, told journalists: “It is clear that after this intervention by Russia in Ukraine … EU leaders will certainly task the European commission with preparing the next level of sanctions.” “We see regular Russian army units operating offensively on the Ukrainian territory against the Ukrainian army. We must call a spade a spade,” added the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt.
All options except military action will be considered to punish Russia for pursuing “the wrong path”, said Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister. Earlier Poroshenko tweeted: “Invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine is an act of aggression and requires an adequate reaction from the EU.” According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Putin held late-night discussions about Ukraine with the French president, François Hollande, and Barroso, who accused Moscow of “significant incursions” into Ukraine. And Putin and Poroshenko met for talks in Minsk on Tuesday in a summit that Putin described as “very good” and “quite frank”, hailing Ukraine’s leader as “the kind of partner with whom you can hold [a] dialogue”.
Kiev and Moscow had agreed to hold high-level discussions between army leadership and border control agencies, and an official told AFP that heads of border control will meet on Saturday. “They will discuss measures to protect Ukrainian territory from breaches by militants and equipment,” Sergiy Astakhov, an aide to the head of Kiev’s border service, said. UN figures suggest that fighting between Ukrainian military forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has already claimed at least 2,200 lives. NATO estimates that there are at least 1,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine, while Kiev claimed this week that Russian tanks and armored vehicles entered the country as rebels opened a new front along the Azov Sea coast. Russia consistently denies that its forces are in Ukraine and allegations that it is supplying the rebels. Until this week, the fighting had been concentrated inland. But rebels have taken control of the town of Novoazovsk, with the apparent aim of pushing further west along the coast connecting Russia to the Crimean peninsula.
Putin has hit back at accusations that he has effectively invaded Ukraine, accusing Kiev’s forces of behaving like Nazis in the conflict in the east and ominously threatening to take his standoff with the west into the disputed Arctic. Hours after Barack Obama accused Russia of sending troops into Ukraine and fuelling an escalation in the battle, and as the government in Kiev indicated that it wanted to join NATO, Putin retorted that the Ukrainian army was the real villain, targeting residential areas of towns and cities as German troops had done in the former Soviet Union. He added that Russians and Ukrainians “are practically one people”, reprising a theme of an earlier statement in which he referred to the disputed areas of south-eastern Ukraine as Novorossiya, harking back to tsarist times, when the area was ruled from Moscow.
He answered questions from young supporters, some waving banners bearing his face, at a pro-Kremlin youth camp on the shores of a lake. He looked relaxed but his tone grew intense as he spoke of Russia’s military might, reminding the crowd that Russia was a strong nuclear power. “Russia’s partners … should understand it’s best not to mess with us,” he said. And he made a pointed reference to the Arctic, which, with its bounteous energy reserves and thawing waterways, is emerging as a potential new point of conflict between Russia and its western rivals. “Our interests are concentrated in the Arctic. And of course we should pay more attention to issues of development of the Arctic and the strengthening of our position,” he said.
Russia’s latest alleged incursions, in which it stands accused of sending as many as 1,000 soldiers together with military hardware across the border to bolster the flagging separatist insurrection, has prompted a flurry of emergency meetings. NATO ambassadors emerged on Friday morning to accuse Russia of a “blatant violation” of Ukraine’s sovereignty. “Despite Moscow’s hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border into eastern and south-eastern Ukraine,” its secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said. A minor incident later blew up in central Europe when a plane carrying the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, was apparently denied permission to travel through Polish airspace.
The conflict escalated this week when Ukraine accused Russia of helping separatists open up a second front in the far south-east, near the coastal city of Mariupol. Rebels overran the nearby town of Novoazovsk, close to the Russian border, and local Ukrainian defense units said the men involved had crossed from Russia and appeared to include regular Russian troops. The ultimate goal of the Russian movements remain unclear; some believe a full-on advance towards Mariupol could be in the offing, while others suggest the increased activity is aimed at changing the facts on the ground and ensuring that a long-term “frozen conflict” situation emerges in the region, such that Kiev can never win back full control. At Mariupol airport, Captain Ruslan Muzychuk said forces were “preparing to defend the city” from a potential attack, stating it was “one of the most important places for Ukraine to control”. He said he believed the forces that had seized Novoazovsk included regular Russian soldiers. Armoured vehicles, pick-up trucks and civilian cars filled with fighters poured in and out, in a sign of the improvised nature of much of the Ukrainian military effort.
At a sport school in Mariupol that has been turned into a base for the Azov battalion, a volunteer unit that has drawn criticism for its far-right links but is fighting with the Ukrainian army, one of the commanders said he believed his men were now at war with the Russian army. “From the way they look it is clear they are different to the separatist fighters,” said the commander, who gave his nom de guerre, Kirt. He said his battalion were having to fight without heavy weaponry or armored vehicles. They have been promised reinforcements and new equipment repeatedly by Kiev, he said, but the government does not deliver.
Reuters contributed to this report.