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Eastern hopes for NATO bases stymied by Russia

Thursday - 9/4/2014, 12:14pm  ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves after a wreath laying ceremony at the monument to Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014. As the Ukraine crisis intensifies, the NATO countries closest to Russia have been pushing the alliance to set up permanent bases with troops on their land _ with historical fears of Moscow heightened by new Russian aggression. But as the alliance holds a summit this week where the Polish and Baltic request will be discussed, it’s looking increasingly unlikely they will get that. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

VANESSA GERA
Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- On the eve of a NATO summit, President Barack Obama gave the alliance's eastern European members a soaring assurance of protection from any Russian threat. But Poland and the Baltic states are seeking more than lofty words: They want permanent bases with troops on their land.

And they probably won't get that.

While the request from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will be on the agenda at the summit in Wales, European heavyweight Germany and other members strongly oppose it. They argue that it would violate a 1997 agreement with Russia in which NATO pledges not to put "substantial combat forces" in central and eastern Europe.

The eastern NATO members suspect, however, that the accord with Russia is just a cover for not wanting to further damage economic relations. And Poland argues that the agreement, known as the Founding Act, has already been invalidated by Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Speaking in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, Obama declared on Wednesday: "You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you'll never lose it again." While that will be a heartening message for Poland and the Baltic states, there were no details of the kind of action that might back it up.

Germany has been specific about what it will not mean. In Latvia last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there will be "no permanent stationing of combat troops" on the alliance's eastern edge. While saying that she understands the concerns of the eastern members, she stressed that "we have ... a NATO-Russia Act that for the moment I do not want to overstep."

Days later Poland's defense minister, Tomasz Siemoniak, seemed resigned that the Sept. 4-5 summit would agree on lesser measures, such as rotations of NATO troops into the region and the pre-positioning of supplies there so NATO could react more quickly if attacked.

"This concept is OK with us. We don't want to make a fetish of the word 'permanent,'" Siemoniak said in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper.

NATO leaders are expected to agree on the creation of a rapid response force, a military unit that would be capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe. The plan includes the pre-positioning of equipment and logistics facilities in the region that would enable NATO to react quickly.

But it is less than the two heavy combat brigades that Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski had called for in the spring -- and it is clear that many Eastern Europeans are bitter.

Many Poles feel that the West treats it as a second-class NATO member in an attempt to appease Moscow. And they say it is unjust that Poland has helped its allies by sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, but is being denied the security guarantees it now feels it needs.

"When a dangerous and unpleasant task has to be performed, like sending thousands of troops across the world, Poland is told by its allies that it is in the West. It is there 100 percent, without a doubt and without baggage from the time of Soviet domination," commentator Jerzy Haszczynski wrote in Rzeczpospolita. "Everything changes when it's not Poland that has to do something, but the old West that has to do something for Poland."

Polish leaders have been arguing for months that it makes no sense for NATO to keep significant bases in places like Germany and Italy, far from any apparent threats, while keeping none on NATO's eastern flank now that Russia is growing more threatening.

Sikorski says that Poland only wants what West Germany had during the Cold War, when U.S. troops were stationed there as a deterrent to the sizeable Soviet forces in East Germany.

"I am not saying that this is a new Cold War, or that we are back to this kind of confrontation," Sikorski said in a recent interview with the website www.ozy.com. "But the forces that we are asking for are 1 percent of what (Germany) had in the 1980s."

There is no doubt that cash-strapped NATO members are also hesitant to commit to bases that could be there for years or decades. And those that have bases will be hesitant to give up the jobs and other economic advantages they bring. For instance a permanent transfer of airmen from the NATO base in Aviano, Italy, to Eastern Europe would have ramifications in the area as Italy battles recession.

Romania, which is also nervous about Russian aggression in the Black Sea region, is also discussing plans for NATO to base fighter planes and personnel there. President Traian Basescu said Wednesday that 200 NATO pilots, mechanics and maintenance personnel will be stationed in Romania.

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