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NATO to strengthen its presence in eastern Europe

NATO will be setting up a network of small command centres that could rapidly reinforce the region.

FILE: Ukrainian troops. Picture: AFP

BRUSSELS - North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) defence ministers will on Thursday strengthen the alliance's presence in eastern Europe by setting up a network of small command centres that could rapidly reinforce the region in the event of any threat from Russia.

Ministers will also decide on the make-up of a new rapid reaction force and agree to expand a corps-level headquarters in western Poland as part of a plan to bolster NATO's eastern flank in response to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.

The United States (US) ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, said NATO flags would fly over the Polish headquarters and the six command centres in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the three Baltic states, where the alliance has had little presence until now.

"These will be the first seven NATO flags in eastern Europe," he told a news conference.

The plan, which builds on decisions taken at NATO's summit in Wales last September, falls short of the hopes of some eastern European countries for NATO to set up large bases in the region, but may still alarm Russia, which is deeply hostile to NATO encroaching closer to its borders.

The ministers' meeting comes at a time of high tension between the West and Russia over the Ukraine conflict that has raised the specter of a return to Cold War-style confrontation.

NATO officials believe its small-scale measures comply with the alliance's 1997 commitment not to permanently station substantial combat forces in eastern Europe while providing allies in the region with a visible assurance that the rest of NATO would come to their aid if they were attacked.

Ministers are also set to discuss growing concerns within NATO over Russia's nuclear strategy and indications that Russian military planners may be lowering the threshold for using nuclear weapons in any conflict, diplomats say.

Britain, France and Germany are expected to announce on Thursday that they will be among the "framework nations" that will take turns to lead the new fast reaction force that will be set up over the next few years. Spain, Italy and Poland may also take on a lead role.

The force is expected to have around 5,000 soldiers with air, sea and special forces support. The US will support the force with strategic air lift and intelligence-gathering aircraft.

Ministers are also likely to expand the small headquarters set up by Germany, Poland and Denmark in the Polish city of Szczecin. The corps headquarters will take charge of NATO exercises in the area and will serve as a northeastern base if NATO forces had to operate in the region, officials said.

The six command-and-control centres, which will have a staff of only about 50 officers each, will be responsible for staging exercises and for receiving the rapid reaction force if deployed.

The US is expected to contribute some officers to each of the seven NATO centres, Lute said.

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