NEWPORT, Wales – Seeking to counter Russian aggression, NATO leaders approved plans Friday to create a rapid response force with a headquarters in Eastern Europe that could quickly mobilize if an alliance country in the region were to come under attack.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the new unit would send a clear message to potential aggressors, namely Russia.
"Should you even think of attacking one ally, you will be facing the whole alliance," he declared as a two-day NATO summit in southern Wales drew to a close.
Confronting another pressing international crisis, Rasmussen said NATO stands "ready to help" Iraq fight back against a violent militant group, but noted that the Iraqi government has not made any such request. U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have been pressing their NATO counterparts to join a coalition of nations that could degrade militants from the Islamic State group.
The threat posed by the Islamic State overshadowed some of the NATO summit's official agenda. Yet the leaders still spent a considerable amount of their time discussing the crisis in Ukraine, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko taking on a high-profile role during the talks.
The summit coincided with the start of peace talks involving Ukraine, Russia and pro-Russian rebels that kicked off Friday in Minsk, Belarus. The talks are aimed at achieving a cease-fire to bring an end to the months of fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.
While Poroshenko voiced "careful optimism" about the talks, Western leaders remain skeptical. The U.S. and Europe have warned that they stand ready to levy more economic sanctions on Russia, a step a top White House official said could occur within days.
The crisis in Ukraine has been among the most pressing issues on the agenda during the NATO meetings. While Ukraine is not part of the NATO alliance, Russia's actions have prompted fears among member countries in Central and Eastern Europe that the Kremlin could seek to make gains beyond their borders as well.
Rasmussen said the high-readiness force would give NATO a "continuous presence" in Eastern Europe, with alliance countries contributing forces on a rotational basis. There were no final decisions on where the forces would be based, but Rasmussen said Poland, Romania and the Baltics have all indicated a willingness to host the facilities.
Cameron said his nation is willing to contribute 3,500 personnel to the rapid response force. He said its headquarters could be in Poland, with forward units in the easternmost NATO member countries and equipment stockpiled there in advance.
"We must be able to act more swiftly," Cameron said.
In another signal of its commitment to protecting its members in Eastern Europe, NATO announced that its next summit will be held in Warsaw, Poland, in 2016. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski praised the alliance's willingness to boost its presence in the region, calling it "a matter of key importance to Poland's security."
"There is progress in raising NATO combat readiness," Komorowski told reporters. He said the rapid response force would comprise up to 5,000 troops, with its command stationed in Poland.
On the sidelines of the summit, Cameron and Obama were also meeting with their counterparts to rally support for a mission to confront the Islamic State through military might, diplomatic efforts and economic penalties. Both leaders had meetings planned Friday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a key regional player whose support would be crucial to defeating the militants.
Obama also met Friday morning with French President Francois Hollande.
Rasmussen suggested that NATO was unlikely to take imminent military action against the militants in Iraq, but said he could foresee the alliance engaging in a "defense capacity-building mission" there.
The U.S. is already launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, and Britain has joined up for humanitarian aid drops to besieged minority groups. Obama is weighing whether to extend the military mission into neighboring Syria, where the extremists have establisheed a safe haven.
On other fronts, alliance leaders pressed NATO countries to follow through on commitments to spend 2 percent of their nations' gross domestic product on defense. Only four NATO nations meet that threshold: the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia.
Komorowski said that Poland would raise its defense budget to 2 percent of GDP in 2016 and would encourage other members to increase defense spending as well.