WASHINGTON — Heading to Europe, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is carrying a strong message of U.S. military support for American allies and Baltic nations to help calm growing concerns about Russian aggression.
A key theme at all his stops will be how the United States, NATO and other partners can best deal with the Kremlin in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and its military backing of separatists battling Ukraine’s government on the eastern border.
Officials said Carter, who left Washington on Sunday, plans to encourage allied ministers to better work together in countering threats facing Europe. His talks are sure to draw the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin as his government chafes under economic penalties imposed for its actions in Ukraine.
At a NATO meeting, defense ministers will discuss plans to involve the alliance more officially in the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq. According to U.S. officials, NATO leaders will consider providing ministry-level advice and other training assistance in Iraq, with a possible decision approving the plan expected around July.
Carter also intends to talk with counterparts about a U.S. proposal to send to Eastern Europe enough tanks, Humvees and other military equipment to outfit one brigade. The equipment would be used for exercises and other training programs. The idea of placing it in Eastern Europe has been in discussion for months; Carter has yet to give his final approval.
Generally, a brigade has roughly 3,500 troops.
Officials have not said where the equipment would go, but there are indications that Poland, which borders Russia, might be one location.
The materiel and the recent increase in military exercises in the region are part of efforts by the U.S. and NATO to reassure Eastern European nations that the alliance is ready and able to defend them in the face of threats from Russia.
Placing the equipment in Eastern Europe will help with training and exercises, but more importantly could allow a faster NATO response to a crisis in the region.
Poland Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said last week that he has been in talks with Carter about putting the equipment in Poland and in four other eastern NATO nations, and that Poland was ready for the move as far as logistics and organization goes.
Just two weeks ago Carter convened a meeting of American defense and diplomatic leaders from across Europe, and concluded that the U.S. needs to strengthen its military exercises and training with nations in the region and bolster NATO’s intelligence-sharing to better counter Russia.
In comments after the meeting in Stuttgart, Germany, Carter acknowledged that the current international economic penalties against Russia have not stopped Moscow’s military support for separatists in Ukraine. He said that the U.S. and allies worry that Russia may use similar tactics and aggression against other nations in the region.
Western leaders say Moscow is supplying rebels with manpower and powerful weapons, and detail Russian troop movements along Ukraine’s eastern border, including convoys of supplies, troops and weapons moving to bolster the separatists. Russia rejects those claims as unfounded.
A fragile cease fire in Ukraine that was worked out in February has been broken repeatedly, and both sides blame the other for the spikes in violence.
At an investment conference Friday in Russia, Putin blamed the U.S. and the European Union for triggering the Ukrainian crisis by refusing to take into account what he described as Russia’s legitimate interests.
“They have pushed us back to the line beyond which we can’t retreat,” he said. “Russia isn’t seeking hegemony or some ephemeral superpower status.”
While Russia may dominate much of the talks, the allies also will discuss how NATO can provide more assistance to Iraq. Some allies are participating individually in the fight against IS, but NATO has not agreed on how it should weigh in as an alliance.
Last September at the NATO summit in Wales, allies agreed to help coordinate assistance to Iraq. At the time, then-NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO would consider putting together a mission to train and increase the capabilities of the Iraqi forces. NATO did training during the Iraq war.