BRUSSELS (AP) — 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, which the Obama administration and its allies condemn as a brazen, illegal land grab.
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, a NATO military official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
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, have become a troubling concern for NATO countries, especially the alliance's eastern-most 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.
The Truxtun has already left the Black Sea after taking part in naval exercises with NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria that had been scheduled before the Ukraine crisis.
A senior U.S. defense official said the U.S. is likely to send another warship to the Black Sea, but there was no decision on which ship and when it would be sent. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, spoke on condition of anonymity.
"And more U.S. support is on the way," Kerry said.
At the Tuesday afternoon meeting Kerry attended with the NATO foreign ministers, the secretary 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.
The defense official said the U.S. was also likely to send a small team of soldiers to Europe and was encouraging NATO allies to contribute more aircraft to the Baltic air patrol mission.
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 steps NATO must take in response to Russian actions.
A civilian alliance official who attended the session and briefed reporters afterward on condition of anonymity said the measures include possible deployment and reinforcement of military assets in NATO member countries that feel Moscow's actions may pose a security threat, as well as an increase of readiness levels for NATO rapid response forces. Other steps include a review of NATO's crisis response plans, as well as military training and exercise schedules.
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.
The four-star U.S. Air Force general who is NATO's supreme military commander, Philip Breedlove, has been ordered to devise plans to provide visible reassurance to alliance countries in Central and Eastern Europe that other NATO nations are ready to help protect them "on land, air and at sea," Kerry said.
America's commitment to NATO's core principle — that an attack on one alliance member shall be considered an attack on all — is "unwavering," the secretary said.
NATO ministers also met Tuesday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytisa. Kerry said "they stood together in defense of Ukraine's right to choose its future and in defense of international law." Kerry blasted what he called Russia's "tactics of intimidation, especially deployment of unprecedented forces around Ukraine's borders."
On Monday, Russia's Defense Ministry said one battalion — about 500 troops — had been pulled back, but NATO's secretary general downplayed talk of a major withdrawal.
"This is not what we have seen," Rasmussen told reporters. "And this massive military buildup can in no way contribute to a de-escalation of the situation — a de-escalation that we all want to see. So I continue to urge Russia to pull back its troops, live up to its international obligation and engage in a constructive dialogue with Ukraine."
Deshchytisa, the Ukrainian foreign minister, told a separate news conference that NATO ministers had treated Ukraine's situation with "understanding and support and knowledge."
His country doesn't need weapons, the Ukrainian official said, but is hoping for "military technical equipment." He said a delegation of experts from NAT0 member countries was expected to visit Kiev next week for consultations.
In other developments, Russia sharply hiked the price for natural gas to Ukraine and threatened to reclaim billions in previous discounts, raising the heat on Ukraine's cash-strapped government.
Alexei Miller, the head of Russia's state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant, said the company has withdrawn December's discount that put the price of gas at $268.50 per 1,000 cubic meters and set the price Tuesday at $385.50 per 1,000 cubic meters for the second quarter.
The move is expected to eventually hit Ukrainian consumers hard. Household gas prices in Ukraine are set to rise 50 percent beginning May 1.
The Russian discount was part of a financial lifeline that Putin offered Ukraine's now fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, after his decision to ditch a pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow. The move fueled three months of protests that sent Yanukovych fleeing to Russia in February.
Also Tuesday, the Russian parliament annulled its deal with Ukraine to rent its Black Sea Fleet's base in Crimea until 2042 for $98 million a year as well as discounts for Russian natural gas.
In Kiev, Ukrainian police moved to disarm members of a radical nationalist group after a shooting spree. Such groups played a key role in Yanukovych's ouster, but quickly fell out with the new government in Kiev. Many activists are still encamped on Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and have signaled their intent to remain until the May 25 presidential election.
Last week, a leader of the most prominent radical group, the Right Sector, was shot dead while resisting police. Right Sector members then besieged parliament for hours, demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. They lifted the blockade after lawmakers set up a panel to investigate the killing.
Late Monday, a Right Sector member shot and wounded three people outside a restaurant adjacent to Independence Square, triggering a standoff that lasted overnight.
Police responded by surrounding the Dnipro Hotel, which Right Sector had commandeered as its headquarters, demanding that the radicals lay down their weapons and leave. Avakov said Right Sector members agreed Tuesday to do so.
Vladimir Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Peter Leonard in Kiev, David Rising in Berlin and Geir Moulson in Weimar, Germany, contributed to this report.