LUXEMBOURG (AP) â€” Spooked by Russia’s actions against Ukraine and what the Kremlin may attempt in the future, European Union defense ministers agreed Tuesday to step up cooperation with the U.S.-led NATO defense alliance.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen came to Luxembourg to brief the ministers on what NATO is doing to counter what Western governments have denounced as an ongoing Russian campaign of pressure and intimidation against Ukraine, and to seek to “strengthen cooperation” with the trade bloc in the military realm.
“We need to train and exercise more together, for instance the NATO Response Force and the EU battlegroups, so that we stand ready for whatever the future may bring,” Rasmussen told journalists.
Many EU members, including Britain, Germany and France, belong to NATO, but some others do not. Non-NATO members in the planned battlegroups include Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and Cyprus.
EU officials said Rasmussen found a receptive audience. Gen. Patrick de Rousiers of France, chairman of the EU’s Military Committee, said defense ministers in the ensuing discussion appeared in the main to endorse “an increase of relations between the European Union and NATO in all areas,” from development of military capabilities to preparation for and involvement in actual operations.
Maciej Popowski, deputy head of the EU’s External Action Service, said the recent actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government have galvanized EU member governments to “get real” about commitments to defense that many European countries previously made, but let slide in large part because of tough economic times.
The relatively low defense budgets of many European countries is perennial grounds for complaint from U.S. officials irked that American taxpayers end up paying an unfair share of the burden.
But Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in March and continuing intimidation of Ukraine’s government has acted as a “wakeup call” to EU members to get serious on defense, Popowski said.
“People have a tendency to take security in Europe for granted. But it requires constant commitment and constant, continuous investment,” he said. “And that was the message everybody agrees on. That was clear in the room when the ministers discussed in the presence of the NATO secretary general, and that was his message to the Europeans.”
Rasmussen told reporters that NATO is planning a three-fold response to Moscow’s actions in and around Ukraine: “reinforced defense plans, enhanced exercises and appropriate deployment” to reassure NATO member states nearest Russia that their allies have has their back.
Rasmussen said “Russia’s hand” is clearly visible in Ukraine.
“Russia should stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution,” the NATO chief said.