LONDON – Seeking to reassure countries grown fearful of Russia, Western defense ministers will consider the creation of an easily deployable military force that could be sent into nations feeling threatened by possible aggression, a senior U.S. Defense official said Thursday.
The creation of such a force would take NATO back to its roots as a deterrent against Russian aggression after years of concentrating on missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The Bush administration is pushing the idea as a compromise solution that could reassure allies without provoking Russia. NATO defense chiefs plan to discuss the proposal at a meeting today.
At the same time, however, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped up the Bush administration’s denunciation of Moscow, complaining in a speech in Washington that Russia had shown a “worsening pattern of behavior” in which it was “increasingly authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is scheduled to deliver his own major address on Russia today, sounded a more moderate line to reporters in London.
“We need to proceed with caution,” Gates said, “because there are a range of views on how to respond from some of our friends in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states to some of the countries of Western Europe.”
Gates said he was trying to find a “middle ground” in their views. Although he didn’t mention the new NATO force in his meeting with reporters, it could serve as such a compromise solution.
The senior Defense official who described the proposal spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of today’s meeting.
The official said there was broad support for the idea but that key issues were undecided. They include questions about who would provide equipment for the force, who would have the authority to deploy it and under what situations it could be used.
The U.S. has pushed to create NATO rapid-reaction forces, with little success. However, the re-emerging sense of threat from Russia may provide a needed incentive.
Under the NATO charter, an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. But newer members have begun to question whether the alliance has the will or capacity to fulfill the charter, the official said.
“The question is going to be somewhat existential: Are we what we say we are?” said the official. “We simply aren’t building the capabilities we say we must have.”
Rice, delivering a major policy speech before a meeting of the German Marshall Fund, complained that Moscow had intimidated neighbors, sold arms to countries and groups that threaten peace, used oil and gas as a “political weapon” and persecuted Russian dissidents and journalists.
She also said Russia had threatened to target other countries with nuclear weapons, a reference to a Russian official’s warning to Poland over its recent missile-defense deal with the United States.
Rice’s remarks underscored a somewhat unusual situation in which the administration’s top diplomat seemed to be speaking more forcefully than its Defense chief. Gates, while condemning Russia’s actions, repeatedly has warned against overreaction.
But despite Rice’s tough language, her speech didn’t lay out any new major new punishment for Russia’s military incursion last month in Georgia or suggest that any would come later, a signal that U.S. officials intend to move carefully.
U.S. officials acknowledge that they need Russian cooperation on many issues, including the effort to halt the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, and that their leverage is limited.