Caught off guard by the crisis in Ukraine, NATO plans to create a “spearhead” rapid deployment force and a “more visible” presence in Eastern Europe to assuage concerns about Russian intentions, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary general, was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
The United States, Germany and other key alliance members have signaled that they have no plans for any substantial new NATO military presence in the region and have been careful to avoid escalating military tensions with Moscow. But with NATO leaders scheduled to meet next week in Cardiff, Wales, the alliance appears eager to show a united front and to demonstrate the ability to respond quickly at a time when Russia stands accused of menacing Ukraine.
The plans described by Mr. Rasmussen seemed an attempt to balance those pressures.
In an interview with correspondents from six European newspapers, he said that while the proposal anticipated the prepositioning of supplies and equipment at new bases, it would not infringe on the alliance’s agreements with Russia, which have prevented substantial NATO buildups in the lands that joined the alliance after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
NATO’s strategy in response to Russian pressure on Ukraine has been to conduct more exercises, aircraft patrols and the like. Mr. Rasmussen suggested that the alliance now plans to augment those measures by increasing its preparedness to send more troops to Eastern European bases if necessary.
“We will adopt what we call a readiness action plan with the aim to be able to act swiftly in this completely new security environment in Europe,” he said. “We have something already called the NATO response force, whose purpose is to be able to be deployed rapidly, if needed. Now it’s our intention to develop what I would call a spearhead within that response force at very, very high readiness.”
He continued: “In order to be able to provide such rapid reinforcements, you also need some reception facilities in host nations. So it will involve the prepositioning of supplies, of equipment, preparation of infrastructure, bases, headquarters. The bottom line is, you will, in the future, see a more visible NATO presence in the east.”
“It can be on a rotation basis, with a very high frequency,” he said.
Mr. Rasmussen added that the plan was designed to address the fears of newer NATO members that Russia might intervene militarily to protect large ethnic Russian minorities, such as those in the Baltic states. Along with Poland, the Baltic countries — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — have indicated that Russia’s recent maneuvers in support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine have left them feeling vulnerable.
“The point is that any potential aggressor should know that if they were to even think of an attack against a NATO ally they will meet not only soldiers from that specific country but they will meet NATO troops,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “This is what is important.”
The notion of new permanent facilities would be certain to draw fierce protests from the Kremlin.
The Guardian, one of the newspapers that published the interview with Mr. Rasmussen, quoted unidentified NATO sources as saying the Cardiff summit meeting next week would seek a compromise formula, avoiding the word “permanent.”
Asked whether NATO would permanently deploy forces under its flag in Eastern Europe, Mr. Rasmussen was quoted as saying: “The brief answer is yes. To prevent misunderstanding I use the phrase ‘for as long as necessary.’ Our eastern allies will be satisfied when they see what is actually in the readiness action plan.”
Mr. Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark, became NATO secretary general in 2009. In October, he is to step aside and Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, will take over.
Most of Mr. Rasmussen’s tenure was focused on the war in Afghanistan, rather than the alliance’s original role: the defense of Europe against a potential Soviet attack. But with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its support for separatists in Ukraine, the alliance is now struggling to return to its earlier roots.
Since Mr. Putin’s strategy for Crimea and Ukraine began to unfold in February, however, the alliance has been casting about for a response in a new era in which, Mr. Rasmussen said in an interview in Washington in July, “Russia doesn’t consider NATO a partner; Russia considers NATO an adversary.”
In the interview published on Wednesday, Mr. Rasmussen said: “Russia is a nation that unfortunately for the first time since the Second World War has grabbed land by force. Obviously we have to adapt to that.”
“It is safe to say that nobody had expected Russia to grab land by force. We also saw a remarkable change in the Russian military approach and capability since, for instance, the Georgian war in 2008. We have seen the Russians improve their ability to act swiftly. They can within a very, very, short time convert a major military exercise into an offensive military operation.”
In the latest crisis, he said, “we have reports from multiple sources showing quite a lively Russian involvement in destabilizing eastern Ukraine.”
At a time when defense budgets are shrinking and Western appetites for military campaigns have been blunted, Mr. Rasmussen seemed to acknowledged the limits of NATO’s role.
“You see a sophisticated combination of traditional conventional warfare mixed up with information and primarily disinformation operations,” he said of the most recent Russian operations. “It will take more than NATO to counter such hybrid warfare effectively.”