TALLINN, Estonia —In a move likely to increase tensions with Russia, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter confirmed Tuesday that the United States would place heavy military equipment in nations stretching from the Baltics to the Balkans.
The decision to bolster Washington’s NATO allies — including tanks and other firepower — has been anticipated for more than a month, but coincide with deepening rifts between Moscow and the West over the conflict Ukraine.
“American rotational forces need to more quickly and easily participate in training and exercises in Europe,” Carter said in reference to the equipment — which includes about 250 tanks, howitzers and infantry fighting vehicles to support training and other exercises.
The countries, all NATO members, are Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.
Although Washington has said the shipments are not permanent deployments, Russia has sharply opposed the build-up on its border and pledged to counter with increased deployments of its own.
"If heavy U.S. military equipment, including tanks, artillery batteries and other equipment really does turn up in countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, that will be the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO since the Cold War," said Russian defense ministry official, Gen. Yuri Yakubov, last week, according to the Interfax news agency.
The defense ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — all present when Carter announced the military plans — welcomed the move.
Sven Misker, the defense minister of Estonia, said additional troops and equipment was not about matching Russia militarily, but changing how the Kremlin assesses the vulnerability of its smaller neighbors. In September, President Obama visited Estonia to reassure Baltic allies of Washington’s backing.
“The problem is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin thinks he can do things very quickly . . . I would say that, in order to adjust the situation, we have to have a deterrent posture,” Misker said. “But the deterrent has to be significant enough to change [Putin’s] calculus.”
The U.S. decision comes after Carter announced Monday that Washington would also pledge forces, including special operations units and surveillance aircraft, to a new NATO rapid-reaction task force.
“We do so because the United States is deeply committed to the collective defense of Europe, as we have been for decades and always will be,” Carter said during Monday’s press conference in Muenster, Germany.
The quick-reaction force would be able to respond to a crisis within 48 hours pending a unanimous approval from NATO’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council.
Monday also marked the European Union’s renewal of Russian economic sanctions for Russia’s destabilizing role in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels have battled forces of the Western-allied government in Kiev.
A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the economic restrictions, which are now extended to Jan. 31 2016, are “illegal” and accused the European Union of being led by “Russophobic” views.
Meanwhile, sporadic clashes in Ukraine threaten efforts to maintain a cease-fire and work toward peace efforts. The United Nations estimates at least 6,500 people have been killed since the conflict in Ukraine started last year.