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NATO to Surround Russia with "Command Centers"

Move is part of plan to respond to "aggressive Russian actions"

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This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

BRUSSELS—NATO will establish command centers in six of its eastern countries in coming months, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday, in part of a beefed-up response to Russian aggressiveness.

The outposts will form a chain of potential command centers for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s already announced new rapid-response force, which will consist of roughly 5,000 troops. Details are to be finalized at a meeting next week of NATO defense ministers.

The centers also will provide a link between NATO and the armed forces of the six countries where they will be located—Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Mr. Stoltenberg announced the new centers at a news conference in Brussels, where he also urged NATO allies to spend more on defense to counter Russia’s military budget. Mr. Stoltenberg also said he would meet with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the sidelines of a security conference in Munich in two weeks.

“Especially when times are difficult, as they are now, it is important to meet and discuss also difficult issues,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

The command centers are intended partly as a warning to Russia and a reassurance to NATO allies who have become increasingly jittery following Moscow’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The creation of the spearhead rapid-response force, designed to mobilize within two days in case of a belligerent move by an adversary, is the highest-profile move by NATO to bolster its defenses in the aftermath of Russia’s takeover of Crimea and its incursions into eastern Ukraine, which Moscow denies.

“This will be the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Each command center will likely be staffed by about 50 military personnel from various NATO countries. The outposts are in a sense a compromise between NATO’s eastern countries, some of whom want full-scale NATO bases on their territory, and other members wary of building expensive new installations that could provoke Moscow.

The six centers will also help manage the greatly increased NATO exercises being conducted in these countries near Russia. And they’ll ensure that NATO forces are deeply familiar with their military landscape should they have to deploy there in a crisis.

The command centers will open by 2016, when the spearhead force is scheduled to be in full operation. In the meantime, an interim rapid-response force is being headed by Germany, the Netherlands and Norway.

At next week’s meeting of NATO defense ministers, individual countries are expected to announce they will take responsibility for coordinating one of the spearhead force’s units. When the force is full operation, one unit will be on full alert status an any given time, while another will be gearing up and a third will be standing down.

Mr. Stoltenberg discussed the new outposts, to be called “NATO Force Integration Units,” at a wide-ranging press discussion with reporters. He called 2014 a “black year” for European security, marked by Russia’s assertiveness, the threat of terrorism and turmoil in the Middle East.

Mr. Stoltenberg said it is critical that NATO’s European members spend more on defense. In 2014 NATO countries spent about $852 billion on defense, he said, $7 billion less than the year before.

NATO is working to become more efficient, the secretary-general said. “But in the long run it is not possible to get more out of less indefinitely,” he added. “That is why we have to stop the cuts and gradually start to increase defense spending as our economies grow.”

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