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US to base heavy weapons in Baltics, Eastern Europe

The US will temporarily pre-position heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, along NATO's eastern flank in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday during remarks in Estonia's capital Tallinn.

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"We will temporarily stage one armoured brigade combat team's vehicles and associated equipment in countries in Central and Eastern Europe," Carter said at a joint press conference with defence ministers from the three Baltic states.

"Estonia as well as Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland have agreed to host company to battalion-sized elements of this equipment, which will be moved around the region for training and exercises," he said. Some of the equipment will also be based in Germany.

A fact sheet provided by the US military said the temporary armaments would include about 250 tanks, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers. The amount of equipment stored in each country would be enough to supply either a company of about 150 soldiers or a battalion of about 750 troops. Much of it is already in Europe, officials say.

The announcement comes as NATO vowed Monday to step up its military presence in Eastern Europe amid tensions over the conflict in Ukraine, the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Ruled by the Kremlin during the Cold War, the Baltic states last month asked NATO to deploy several thousand permanent troops in their region as a deterrent to possible Russian aggression.

NATO has accused Russia of providing troops and weapons to separatists in east Ukraine, a charge Moscow denies. The Kremlin calls the pro-Russian fighters "volunteers".

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the NATO alliance of "coming to our borders". A Russian defence ministry official said that stationing tanks and heavy weapons in NATO states along Russia's border would be the most aggressive US act since the Cold War.

Ukraine’s parliament voted in December to drop the country’s "non-aligned" status, a snub to Russia and a move that could be a step toward Kiev seeking NATO membership.

NATO boosts rapid-reaction force

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would approve plans this week to more than double the size of its rapid-response force, having already created a special "spearhead" force at a summit in Wales last year.

NATO is also flexing its muscles in Poland and the Baltics with a series of drills focused on the new spearhead force, designed to boost security on NATO's eastern flank in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.

Visiting military exercises in Poland last week, Stoltenberg said the alliance was "implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defences since the end of the Cold War".

Putin announced last week that Russia would add more than 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal this year, prompting Carter to condemn Russia's "loose rhetoric" with regard to nuclear arms.

NATO member Poland went so far as to say last week that the post-Cold War peace in Europe was now "over" as the continent grapples with myriad new crises, including the Ukraine conflict, threats from terrorism and cyber attacks.

But some European NATO allies, like Germany, have been wary of any substantial permanent deployment, saying it might breach the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act. That agreement does not, however, rule out temporary NATO troop rotations or pre-positioning equipment in alliance countries.

Defence ministers from NATO's 28 member states will meet in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss ways of meeting the security challenges facing alliance members and Europe as a whole.

US officials say the Ukraine crisis has illustrated the importance of being able to counter the "hybrid warfare" that the West says Russia has been using to foment separatist sentiment in east Ukraine. Alliance officials say such tactics have included disinformation, subversion and cyber attacks as well as using unidentified, non-army troops and economic pressure.

Carter also announced plans on Tuesday to work with an Estonia-based NATO cyber centre to help allies develop cyber defence strategies and critical infrastructure-protection planning.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

 

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