NATO allies look to eastern defense

28 nations call end to most cooperative work with Russia

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BRUSSELS — NATO foreign ministers moved Tuesday to beef up the defenses of front-line alliance members feeling menaced by a more assertive Russia, with Secretary of State John Kerry proclaiming the U.S. commitment to their security is “unwavering.”

The ministers from NATO’s 28 member nations also ordered suspension of all “practical civilian and military cooperation” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, though they made sure a line of communication with the Kremlin remains open at the ambassadorial level.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, keystone of U.S. and European security since the end of World War II, is facing its most acute geopolitical crisis in years: the fallout from Moscow’s unilateral annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

On Tuesday, an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops equipped with tanks, other armored vehicles and fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft remained positioned near the border with Ukraine, an anonymous NATO military official said.

The military official described the Russian buildup as “a complete combat force” that was highly threatening to Ukraine.

Those troops, and future aggressive moves that Putin’s Kremlin may make, are a troubling concern for NATO countries, especially the alliance’s easternmost members — the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania, all of which were once in Moscow’s orbit.

To reassure those skittish allies, Kerry told a news conference, the U.S. has already sent six F-15 fighters to perform air patrols over the Baltic and deployed a dozen F-16s to Poland. He noted that the U.S. had previously dispatched the USS Truxtun, a guided-missile destroyer, to the Black Sea.

“And more U.S. support is on the way,” Kerry said.

At the Tuesday afternoon meeting of foreign ministers, Kerry said, “more allies pledged their own contributions to make sure every ally from the Baltic to the Black Sea feels secure.” He did not provide details.

An anonymous defense official said the U.S. was also likely to send a small team of soldiers to Europe and was encouraging NATO allies to add aircraft to the Baltic air patrol.

Despite annexing Crimea, Putin and other Kremlin officials have said that Russia has no intention of invading other areas of Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted Tuesday the Kremlin wants a “political settlement that would take interests and rights of the entire Ukrainian people into account.”

Meeting behind closed doors, Kerry and his Canadian and European colleagues agreed unanimously on NATO’s response to Russian actions.

While NATO ordered the suspension of “all practical civilian and military cooperation” with Russia, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said later he thought some mutually beneficial cooperation programs with the Russians might continue, such as the project to train anti-narcotics personnel in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.