ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is gathering two dozen U.S. military leaders and diplomats based in Europe to assess the effectiveness of NATO strategy toward Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis, defense officials said on Thursday.The session, which will take place in Stuttgart, Germany, on Friday, will gather U.S. military leaders and ambassadors based in Europe to discuss how effective Western sanctions and military actions have been in deterring Russia and reassuring NATO allies."This meeting is intended to inform the secretary's thinking as he heads into his first NATO ministerial in late June," said Brent Colburn, a Pentagon spokesman. "One of the areas of focus will be Russia's actions over the past 18 months, including their operations in Ukraine."The Western allies have imposed asset freezes and travel bans on a number of Russians. The United States launched Operation Atlantic Resolve to step up military exercises with NATO members in eastern Europe. The United States approved $1 billion to support efforts to reassure European allies."The … primary purpose is to assess and strategize on how the United States and key allies should think about heightened tensions with Russia over the past year," said a U.S. defense official on Carter's plane to Stuttgart, where the meeting will take place at U.S. European Command.Asked if the session would discuss providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, the official said Carter was still open to the idea and the issue could come up. The United States so far has resisted providing lethal arms to avoid escalating the conflict.While the meeting will look at military actions by both Russia and the Western allies, it will also look at the effectiveness of economic sanctions and other non-military steps."(Carter) believes very strongly that the economic sanctions that are the most important part of putting leverage on Russia right now to achieve the foreign policy objectives of the United States," the official said.The official said the strategy session is meant to get a broad sense of how the situation is viewed across Europe to help inform Carter's thinking ahead of three key meetings his month: a NATO ministerial, a G-7 summit and a Council of Europe gathering.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Tom Heneghan)