NATO to deploy more forces in eastern Europe

NATO said Wednesday it will deploy additional air, sea and land forces in eastern Europe in response to the worsening crisis in Ukraine and take further action if needed.

"Today we have agreed a package of military measures," NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after a meeting of ambassadors of all 28 members of the transatlantic alliance.

"We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water... and more readiness on the land," he said, adding that NATO defence plans will be "reviewed and reinforced".

The announcement came as Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces faced off and after President Vladimir Putin warned Ukraine was on the brink of civil war, stoking fears of outright Russian intervention.

Rasmussen refused to detail what new forces would be deployed and where, but said there would be increased air sorties over the Baltic Sea, with additional ships there and in the eastern Mediterranean.

The decision will be implemented "immediately" and "more will follow, if needed, in the weeks and months to come," he added.

As the Ukraine crisis has unfolded, NATO has taken a number of similar steps, with the United States sending fighter aircraft to the Baltic states and Poland to bolster confidence in member countries once ruled by Moscow.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- which border Russia and have sizeable ethnic Russian populations -- have all sought reassurance, as have Ukraine neighbours Poland and Romania.

Freed from Moscow's Cold War grasp with the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, many eastern Europe states have readily joined NATO.

But Russia, especially under Putin, has regarded NATO's eastward expansion as a direct security threat.

The former Soviet states "are increasingly worried as they see the crisis getting worse by the hour," said one diplomat.

"So far, NATO's response has been measured," said another diplomat, noting that the allies had not put troops on the ground, set up bases or increased their presence in the Black Sea.

- Russian force levels unchanged -

Rasmussen said NATO would stand by any ally against any threat, and that the measures announced were entirely in keeping with international law and the alliance's commitment to deterrence.

US General Philip Breedlove, NATO's top commander, made the same point separately.

The measures "are defensive in nature and designed to reassure our allies in the east of our unshakeable committment to our collective defence responsibilities."

Breedlove, who estimated earlier this month that Russian troops on Ukraine's border could attack on 12 hours' notice and seize vast amounts of territory in three to five days, said there had been no significant change in their posture.

"We have seen a large force, all the numbers remain the same, readiness remains very high and the capability of this force is very high," he said.

Asked about calls for permanent bases in the Baltic states, Rasmussen said the issue was not discussed at the meeting.

There "will be follow-on work" to the steps now taken, he said, adding the alliance continued "exploring ways to possibly further enhance our collective defence."

He also repeated calls for Russia "to be part of the solution, to stop destabilising Ukraine, pull back its troops from the borders and make clear it does not support the violent actions of well-armed militias of pro-Russian separatists."

Asked what bearing the measures could have on EU-US talks with Russia and Ukraine in Geneva on Thursday, Rasmussen said: "We have taken military steps which we think are necessary to enhance deterrence."

At the same time, "we agree that a political solution is the only way forward," he said.