Fri, 15 Nov 2019

BRUSSELS -- NATO defense ministers will gather in Brussels on June 26 for two days of talks that will include defense spending within the alliance, its mission in Afghanistan, and Russia's alleged violation of a Cold War-era nuclear-arms-control agreement, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Meanwhile, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he planned to bring up Iran in the talks, hoping to gather support for Washington's efforts to deter conflict with Tehran and 'open the door to diplomacy.'

Outlining the key topics for discussion, Stoltenberg said on June 25 that the ministers will discuss progress on 'burden-sharing' among NATO allies, amid persistent calls by U.S. President Donald Trump for increased defense spending to the agreed level of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Eight member states are expected to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense this year -- up from three allies in 2014, he said.

'Today, we are releasing for the first time figures for 2019 defense spending, and I can announce that the real increase for 2019 is 3.9 percent across European allies and Canada,' he said. 'So we now have five consecutive years of growth in defense spending.'

By the end of 2020, European allies and Canada 'will have added a cumulative total of well over $100 billion since 2016,' the NATO chief added.

Nuclear Forces Treaty

Stoltenberg said that on June 26 ministers will address Russia's 'continuing violation' of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The agreement banned the United States and Russia from developing, producing, and deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

But in February, the United States suspended its participation in the treaty, with Washington and its allies accusing Russia of deploying a missile system that violates the pact.

Russia, which denies the accusation, later followed suit. Moscow accuses the United States of breaking the accord itself, an allegation rejected by Washington.

'We call on Russia to take the responsible path,' Stoltenberg said, adding that allies were planning to hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council next week to raise the matter again.

On June 26, the alliance's defense ministers will 'decide on NATO's next steps in the event Russia does not comply,' he said, adding that the alliance's response will be 'defensive, measured, and coordinated.'

'We do not intend to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe. We do not want a new arms race. But, as Russia is deploying new missiles, we must ensure that our deterrence and defense remains credible and effective,' Stoltenberg said.

On June 27, the ministers are due to address the implementation of NATO's 'strengthened deterrence and defense posture,' including the NATO Readiness Initiative.

The initiative aims to enhance the readiness of national forces and their ability to move within Europe and across the Atlantic, as the alliance looks to counter the growing threat from Russia.

In recent years, Russia's military actions in Ukraine have increased concerns about Moscow's intentions in NATO nations, particularly former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact satellites of the Soviet Union.

Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backs separatists whose war against Kyiv's forces has killed some 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April of that year.

'First-Ever Space Policy'

Ministers are also expected to approve NATO's 'first-ever space policy creating a framework for how NATO should deal with the opportunities and challenges in space,' Stoltenberg said.

The secretary-general said that space was 'part of our daily lives and while it can be used for peaceful purposes, it can also be used for aggression.'

Afghanistan will also be 'an important point' on the ministers' agenda, with a meeting of all nations contributing to NATO's Resolute Support Mission, according to Stoltenberg.

'While the security situation remains serious, we see a unique opportunity for peace. Allies fully support U.S. efforts to reach a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, and our continued commitment -- both with forces and funding -- is key to creating the conditions for peace,' he said.

U.S. and Taliban negotiators have held several rounds in Qatar to end the nearly 18-year war in Afghanistan. The sides have made progress, but the Taliban has so far rejected direct negotiations with the Western-backed government in Kabul.

The two-day NATO meeting is also expected to include talks on the heightened tensions between Iran and the United States and its Persian Gulf allies.

Last week, Trump approved military retaliation for the shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz but withdrew the order at the last minute.

Iran says the aircraft violated its airspace, while the United States insists it was shot down over international waters.

The United States has also accused Iran of being behind explosions that have damaged six oil tankers in the region over the past weeks. Iran has rejected the accusation.

Esper, who took over this week as U.S. acting defense secretary, told reporters traveling with him to Brussels: 'This is not Iran versus the United States. This is Iran certainly versus the region, and arguably the broader global environment.'

He said he wants allies to support 'any range of activities' to help deter conflict with Iran.

'This is the reason why we need to internationalize this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table and talk about the way ahead,' Esper said.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have increased since May 2018 when the United States withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that sought to curb the country's nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions.

Since the withdrawal, Washington has begun reinstating sanctions to force the Tehran to renegotiate the accord.

With reporting by AP and Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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