‘All options are on the table’ for eastern flank, says US Permanent Representative to NATO

As NATO considers its options to secure its eastern flank, “all options are on the table,” said US Permanent Representative to NATO Julianne Smith at an Atlantic Council Front Page event Wednesday.

Smith explained that those options include permanently stationing combat forces in NATO territory in Eastern Europe, which the Alliance promised not to do under the 1997 NATO Russia Founding Act. But with Russia in “clear violation” of that agreement by trampling on Ukraine’s sovereignty, NATO is now “stepping back” and “thinking more about [its] medium- and longer-term force presence,” Smith said ahead of US President Joe Biden’s arrival in Europe for a series of high-stakes summits.

At Thursday’s extraordinary NATO summit on Ukraine, allied leaders formally approved new battle groups in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, adding to the four battle groups in the Baltic countries and Poland that have been in place since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. Smith called the move a “NATO-wide effort” that “signals a pretty significant shift in NATO force posture.” She added that expanding presence in Eastern Europe sends a message to Moscow that “we would take any attack on NATO territory very, very seriously.”

Here are other takeaways from Smith’s discussion with Nick Schifrin, foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, including ways the United States and its allies can face up to Russia—and strengthen European security.

Partners in and out of crisis

Smith called this crisis a “remarkable moment for the transatlantic partners” because they have shown “unity and resolve” in putting pressure on Russia, offering support to Ukraine, and in creating plans to reinforce NATO’s eastern front.

“We’ve seen almost every member of the Alliance step forward and move troops, ships, [and] fighter jets” in Eastern Europe to “ensure that we’re all collectively addressing the security needs of those allies,” said Smith.

Thursday’s NATO Summit is important, Smith said, because the leaders, meeting in person, can “signal Moscow [about] their continued resolve and they can signal Ukraine as well [about] ongoing assistance.”

The West’s weapons wave

NATO is “doing everything we possibly can right now to move more lethal assistance towards Ukraine,” including by trying to fulfill the country’s air-defense requests, Smith said. The Alliance has “done a pretty good job of responding to the needs of Ukrainians, particularly in the area of air defense” Smith said, “and we will continue doing everything in our power to ensure that we can get them what they need quickly.”

But Poland’s offer to give MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, with Washington replenishing Warsaw with more modern jets, didn’t lift off. Smith said that the United States “didn’t feel that that particular decision was tenable” because there are still questions about the logistics of moving the planes and that ultimately sending the jets is a “Polish sovereign decision.”

As for Poland’s reported proposal of a NATO peacekeeping mission, Smith said she wouldn’t call it “dead in the water,” but there are still “a lot of open-ended questions about it” and that allies “want to know more about what Poland is suggesting.” She pointed to the United States’ commitment to not send US troops to Ukraine, but said the United States is open to “fresh thinking” on how to support Ukraine.
That creativity has already been shown in how NATO is sending weapons, with some allies pitching in to help others when they have arms but not the ability to move them. “It’s a moment [in which] you see all the allies bringing their competency to bear,” Smith said. Some countries like Germany, Smith said, have even made a “very sensitive political decision” to reverse long-standing policies on providing weapons to conflict zones.

Russia’s ballooning threats

Smith said that Russia has been making “preposterous accusations” about US, Ukrainian, or NATO intent around biological or chemical weapons, and that “when Russia makes accusations about us, it often signals that they’re about to do something themselves.” She added that those claims hint that Russia “may be again laying kind of… a pretext for them to do something more or much worse inside Ukraine.”
Smith also described Russia’s “nuclear saber rattling” as “extremely troubling.” She said that the United States has warned Russia about the “dangers of relying on nuclear weapons,” adding that the weapons are “very dangerous and could lead to miscalculation.”

And amid this critical week of summitry, what’s the ultimate goal? “What we want here is for Russia to stop attacking Ukraine,” Smith said. “We don’t want to see strikes in Ukraine—full stop. We don’t want to see strikes on any of the assistance that was coming into Ukraine and… we don’t want to see this conflict expand at all.”

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