BRUSSELS — NATO was set Thursday to agree a major boost to its defenses to include six bases in eastern Europe and a spearhead force of 5,000 troops in response to what it called Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that the increase being approved by defense ministers in Brussels were purely defensive, but with East-West tensions at their worst since the Cold War it is likely to rile Moscow.
"This is something we do as a response to the aggressive actions we have seen from Russia, violating international law and annexing Crimea," Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived at NATO headquarters.
He refused to say whether he backed Ukraine's calls for the West to send Kiev weapons to fight pro-Russian militants, adding that it was a decision for the alliance's 28 individual member states.
But he welcomed an announcement that French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel would visit Kiev on Thursday and Moscow on Friday to present a new peace plan.
US Secretary of State John Kerry also arrived in Kiev on Thursday for talks with Ukraine's leaders.
'COMMAND AND CONTROL' CENTERS
NATO leaders agreed to step up the alliance's eastern defences at a summit in September, amid allegations that Russia has provided troops and equipment to support the separatists.
Stoltenberg said the NATO measures were also motivated by new threats from Islamist militants in the Middle East and North Africa, who are fueling violence within Europe.
The "command and control" centers set to be agreed on on Thursday will be in the alliance's three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — plus Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.
All were formerly in the orbit of the Soviet Union and have voiced deep concern about Russia's actions in Ukraine.
A further multinational corps headquarters for the command and control centers will be in Szczecin, Poland, Stoltenberg said.
The bases would facilitate the deployment of the so-called "spearhead"
force of around 5,000 troops which will be able to deploy from their home countries to anywhere within a "few days," he added.
The ministers are also to finalize the list of the countries taking part in the force, which a NATO official said would hopefully be operational by 2016.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said London would provide up to
1,000 troops to the spearhead force in 2017 and deploy four Typhoon fighters to Estonia this summer to reinforce Baltic air patrols.
Russian warplanes launched a record number of Cold War-style flights near NATO airspace last year, the alliance says.
GEORGIA TRAINING BASE
NATO is also set to boost its wider NATO response force — which would take weeks or months to deploy in a crisis — from 13,000 to 30,000 troops.
In a further blow to Moscow, NATO will set up a joint training center in the former Soviet state of Georgia, with which Russia fought a war in 2008.
The NATO chief said he would meet later this week on the sidelines of the Munich security conference with Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Vice President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
He said his talks with Lavrov are part of efforts to keep political channels open after the alliance ended "practical cooperation" with Moscow over the Ukraine crisis, in which nearly 5,400 people have died.
The United States is reportedly considering sending arms to Kiev, which has been fighting the insurgency in the east for almost 10 months.
But Stoltenberg told a press conference that that the alliance itself does not have any weapons and "that has to be up to each individual ally to decide".
The NATO chief said Moscow was still backing the rebels with "forces, with equipment, with training" and urged the Kremlin to push the separatists to respect the terms of last September's Minsk peace deals.