By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin's high-profile military deployments aim to showcase Russian power in any global confrontation with the West, NATO officials say, but the alliance will not seek to match Moscow's actions.
Curtis Scaparrotti, the U.S.-led alliance's top commander, told allied defense ministers on Wednesday that more than 120,000 Russian troops took part in exercises in September which culminated with the firing of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, diplomats said.
As Russia's sole aircraft carrier passed Europe's shores this week, reports of its warships equipped with nuclear-capable missiles in the Baltic alarmed allies. The alliance is also concerned by Moscow's deployment of ballistic Iskander missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
"The main challenge is not individual events or deployments," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. "It is the overall picture, where we see a substantial increase in Russia's capabilities at sea, in the air and on land; exercises with a more aggressive patterns."
Stoltenberg declined to say publicly what he thought Russia's overall aims are. But Scaparrotti, who is also a U.S. Army general, told defense ministers that Russia was seeking, in military parlance, "escalation dominance," according to people briefed on the discussions.
That strategy holds that a military power can best contain and control conflicts if it is dominant at each step in an escalation with an adversary, potentially all the way to the biggest threat, nuclear weapons.
Some military analysts believe Putin holds this doctrine close to his heart.
"Putin is showing a desire for dominance," said a senior NATO diplomat. "From the Arctic, to the Baltic and the Black Sea, sometimes simultaneously, Russia wants to use sophisticated weaponry mixed with ships of a Soviet vintage."
Russia's ambassador to NATO, Alexander Grushko, said it was the West, not Moscow, that threatened European security.
"The alliance is more focused on the development and deepening of its policy of a comprehensive military and political containment of Russia," Grushko told Reuters. "This vector is becoming more and more long-term."
Vice Admiral James Foggo, who heads the U.S. Navy fleet in Europe, said he expected Moscow to react negatively when Washington breaks ground on a missile defense site in Poland in late November. The United States says the facility will defend against any ballistic missile attacks from Iran, not Russia.
Foggo told Reuters that the United States was keeping a close eye on Russia's resurgent navy, as the aircraft carrier heads to the Mediterranean, a fleet of six submarines is planned for the Black Sea, and Moscow seeks a more active Russian presence in the Baltic Sea.
"They're using all these tools that they have in their inventory to enhance the effect that they want to create on the battlefield,” he said.
NATO-RUSSIA COUNCIL "WITHIN WEEKS"
In written remarks to reporters, Scaparrotti said that "actions speak louder than words" and also noted the Kremlin's decision to consolidate control of the armed forces in Moscow and nuclear missile tests.
NATO says its decision to send 4,000 troops, planes, tanks and artillery to former Soviet republics in the Baltics and to Poland next year is a measured response compared to what NATO believes are 330,000 Russian troops amassed near Moscow.
"We will not mirror what Russia is doing," Stoltenberg said. "We are not in a Cold War situation," he said, referring to when 300,000 U.S. service personnel were stationed in Europe. NATO generals want to adhere to a 1997 agreement with Moscow not to station substantial combat forces on the NATO-Russia border.
Norway, which has a long border with Russia, will allow 330 U.S. troops to be stationed on its soil for a limited period from next year, the first time foreign troops have been posted on its territory since the end of World War Two.
Stoltenberg hopes to convene another NATO-Russia Council - the forum bringing together Grushko, Russia's top diplomat to the alliance, and NATO envoys - in the next few weeks, diplomats say. Stoltenberg, who hails from Norway, insists there is no attempt to isolate Moscow.
However, diplomats also complain that discussing such issues as Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and near-misses between Western planes and Russian jets have come to nothing.
That leaves NATO trying to learn more about Russia's aims if Putin continues to escalate the stand-off with the West.
"One thing we need to address is if we all have the capacity to read Russia's behavior satisfactorily. Russia is doing a lot of new, unfamiliar things," said Britain's ambassador to NATO, Adam Thomson, who served as a diplomat in Moscow in the 1980s.
"It is obviously trying to signal, but it is not clear that we know how to understand those signals," he told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin, editing by Larry King)