NATO\’s top official bluntly accused Moscow on Thursday of attacking Ukraine as allied leaders began a summit set to support Kiev and buttress defenses against a Russia they now see as an adversary for the first time since the Cold War.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his 27 allies, meeting at a golf resort in Wales, also discussed how to tackle Islamic State militants who have captured swathes of Iraq and Syria, posing a new threat on the alliance\’s southeastern flank, and how to stabilize Afghanistan when NATO forces leave at year\’s end.
"We are faced with a dramatically changed security environment," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters on arrival at the summit. "To the east, Russia is attacking Ukraine."
His statement set the tone for a two-day meeting marked by a return to east-west confrontation – 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – over Russia\’s seizure and annexation of Crimea and detribalization of eastern Ukraine.
A NATO military officer said Moscow had "several thousand" combat troops and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles in Ukraine, raising the alliance\’s previous estimate. The Kremlin denies it has any forces fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, the summit\’s host, said U.S. and EU sanctions were having an impact on the Russian economy and pressure on Moscow would mount if it did not curtail military action he branded unacceptable.
"What Russia needs to understand is if they continue with this approach in Ukraine, this pressure will be ramped up," Cameron told BBC television.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose forces have suffered setbacks in the south and east of the country since last week, told reporters after meeting Obama and the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Italy he would order a ceasefire on Friday if a proposed peace plan was signed in Minsk as expected.
"At 1400 local time (7.00 a.m. EDT), provided the (Minsk) meeting takes place, I will call on the General Staff to set up a bilateral ceasefire and we hope that the implementation of the peace plan will begin tomorrow," Poroshenko said.
Senior rebel leaders said they too would order a cessation if agreement is reached at talks in the Belarussian capital.
However fighting was continuing on Thursday close to the key strategic port of Mariupol, half way between Crimea and Russia. The Ukrainian leader sought arms, training for his armed forces from his Western partners as well as political support against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Poroshenko\’s talk of reviving Ukraine\’s bid to join the U.S.-led military alliance could reopen a rift within NATO.
Obama said in Estonia on Wednesday the door to membership would remain open to states that meet NATO standards and "can make meaningful contributions to allied security", but France and Germany remain opposed to admitting Kiev, fearing it would exacerbate tension with Moscow and could suck them into a war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov underlined Moscow\’s opposition to Ukraine joining NATO, warning that attempts to end the country\’s non-aligned status could harm security. He accused the United States of supporting "the party of war" in Kiev.
After a week of defiant statements from Putin, Lavrov said Russia was ready for practical steps to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine and urged Kiev and the rebels to heed ceasefire proposals put forward by Moscow on Wednesday.
Asked about Putin\’s plan, Rasmussen said NATO welcomed efforts for a peaceful solution but "what counts is what is actually happening on the ground and we are still witnessing, unfortunately, Russian involvement in destabilizing the situation in eastern Ukraine".
As more than a decade of NATO-led combat operations in Afghanistan draws to a close at year\’s end, the 28-nation, U.S.-led military alliance is refocusing in part on its core task of defending its territory.
NATO leaders will set up a "spearhead" rapid reaction force, potentially including several thousand troops, that could be sent to a hotspot in as little as two days, officials say.
Eastern European NATO members, including Poland, have appealed to NATO to permanently station thousands of troops on their territory to deter any possible Russian attack.
But NATO members have spurned that idea, partly because of the expense and partly because they do not want to break a 1997 agreement with Russia under which NATO committed not to permanently station significant combat forces in the east.
Instead, leaders will agree to pre-position equipment, fuel and ammunition in eastern European countries with bases ready to receive the NATO rapid reaction force if needed.
The Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the only parts of the former Soviet Union to be admitted to NATO, fear Moscow could meddle in their affairs with the same rationale it applied in Ukraine – protecting Russians.
So far, Western military gestures of support for Ukraine have been mostly symbolic. NATO leaders were expected to approve a package of support for Kiev, setting up trust funds worth around 12 million euros ($15.8 million) to improve Ukrainian military capabilities in areas such as logistics, command and control and cyber defense.
A dozen countries will join an exercise in Lviv, Ukraine, later this month, co-hosted by Ukraine and the U.S. Army.
NATO officials say the alliance itself will not send the weapons that Ukraine is looking for but individual allies could do so if they wish.
NATO leaders were to discuss the alliance\’s relationship with Russia, which officials say has been fundamentally changed.
After the end of the Cold War, NATO and Russia sought cooperation in some security fields but NATO has concluded that this effort has failed, and for now at least, Russia is not a partner, a senior alliance official said. Cooperation was suspended in March after the annexation of Crimea.
"Russia has basically violated very fundamental agreements on the basis of which we have constructed peace and security in Europe for the last two decades," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
France, which has faced fierce pressure from Washington and other NATO allies to halt the sale of two helicopter carriers to Russia, said on Wednesday it would not deliver the first of the warships for now because of Moscow\’s actions in Ukraine.
What NATO leaders will agree to do to help Iraq combat Islamic State militants is less clear. Rasmussen said the allies would consider seriously any request from Iraq for assistance in dealing with the growing insurgency by Sunni fighters.
The alliance as a whole is highly unlikely to follow the U.S. lead in staging military strikes on Islamic State, NATO diplomats say, although individual allies such as France and Britain may do so. NATO could revive a mission to help train the Iraqi armed forces that it halted in 2011, diplomats say.