WASHINGTON (AFP) — The 29 NATO nations looked Thursday for new ways to counter what they described as rising aggression by Russia, as the alliance celebrated its 70th birthday.
Despite rifts between the United States with allies Germany and Turkey, foreign ministers from the Western alliance were looking to show a united front on NATO’s core concern — Russia.
After years of focusing on more faraway challenges such as Afghanistan, NATO allies in recent years have increasingly voiced worry about the trajectory of Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
Russia in 2014 seized the Crimean peninsula and has backed separatists in both Georgia and Ukraine, besides seeking to influence Western elections and being suspected in a poisoning attack in England.
“We will agree on new measures of support for our close partners Georgia and Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of Thursday’s session.
He said that NATO would also address “the aggressive actions of Russia” in the Black Sea.
Russia — which has resented NATO’s eastward expansion — in November fired on and seized three Ukrainian navy vessels, capturing two dozen sailors, near the Kerch Strait off Crimea.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US ambassador to NATO, earlier said that the alliance was preparing a package to “assure that there is safe passage for Ukrainian vessels through the Kerch Strait.”
She said that NATO allies would send more ships to the area to ensure that “countries in and around the Black Sea are safe from Russian meddling.”
Russia has criticized the plan, with deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko saying that it would only lead to “increased military risks” in the region.
Russia and ’emerging threats’
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, opening a session with the ministers, said NATO needed to confront “Russian aggression.”
But he also called for NATO to address “emerging threats” including the rise of China as well as Iran.
The United States has enjoyed less support over those two issues, with all of its NATO allies backing an international accord on ending Iran’s nuclear program from which President Donald Trump withdrew.
Pompeo has also been seeking with limited success to persuade US allies not to choose Chinese telecom giant Huawei for their fifth-generation networks, warning that the company poses risks to security and personal privacy.
The Trump administration has been livid at Germany, Europe’s largest economy, for its budgetary plans that do not come close to the NATO goal of spending two percent on defense spending.
“Now is not the time to repeat tired excuses that our citizens don’t support increased defense or security spending. Each nation has the duty to make the case to our people,” Pompeo said.
NATO allies have also seen rising friction with Turkey, which has been clamping down on dissent and has defiantly insisted on buying a major missile defense system from Russia, even after the United States suspended its participation in the F-35 fighter-jet program.
But the NATO meeting is also witnessing the end to one long-running standoff with the participation of the foreign minister of North Macedonia.
The former Yugoslav republic had been in limbo for years, with Greece objecting to the name of Macedonia, which is historically tied to Hellenic rather than Slavic civilization.
Greece’s left-wing prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, brokered a deal to welcome the country after it changed its name to North Macedonia and it is expected to enter NATO as its 30th member later this year.
Greek Foreign Minister Georgios Katrougalos, speaking at a forum in Washington on Wednesday, said the deal can be a “blueprint” for resolving conflicts as leaders need not see “history as a prison.”