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NATO Chief Seeks Defense Plan For Allies Near Russia

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- NATO's military commander wants to draw up plans to protect its newer members -- many of them ex-Soviet states -- after Russia's invasion of Georgia but faces resistance from countries worried about Moscow's response, U.S. defense officials say.

The dispute within the alliance reflects underlying tension between older members, such as France and Germany, and newer ones like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who want to know how NATO will protect them from potential Russian aggression.

"This becomes politicized very quickly," said one U.S. defense official. He said NATO's supreme allied commander, U.S. General John Craddock, started talks on defense planning with NATO's political leader, Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, within the past week.

The foundation of the NATO alliance is a collective defense promise known as Article 5, stating an attack on one is an attack on all. But the alliance has not written formal defense plans for some of its newer members, and those states want additional assurance from both NATO and the United States, U.S. officials said.

"The Article 5 discussion is very much front and center," said another senior U.S. official ahead of this week's NATO defense ministers meeting in Budapest.

Craddock has the authority to write contingency plans, but formal defense plans require a threat assessment that must be approved by NATO's political leadership. Both will be on the table at the Budapest meetings, according to U.S. officials.

The Pentagon, which wants Craddock to write contingency plans, has sought to play down the significance of such planning, saying it is a natural part of any military alliance.

But assessing the threat posed by Russia could shift NATO's attention back to its original foe, and some allies, particularly in Western Europe, worry about the signal that would send to Moscow.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, with Canada and Britain, will try this week in Budapest to mediate among European allies while supporting defense planning that reaffirms the Article 5 pledge, officials said.

Russia Angst

Souring NATO-Russia relations are likely to dominate the Budapest meetings on October 9-10. Ties, which had deteriorated steadily for more than two years, hit a low not seen since the Cold War when Russia and NATO-aspirant Georgia went to war in August over Georgian rebel territory.

Security experts and officials said Russian actions in Georgia were just the latest sign that the Kremlin intends to reassert itself globally and regain stature lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow already had ramped up military spending and exercises, cut energy supplies to neighbors, and threatened states who agree to host parts of a U.S. missile shield in Europe.

But it also raised worries among former Soviet states that Russia could try to regain influence if not control over their territories.

Despite shared concerns, NATO is split on the way forward, officials said. While some allies, including Germany, want to delay putting Georgia and Ukraine on a formal path to NATO membership, the United States wants to push ahead this year to show Russia that its actions will not change alliance plans.

"We do want to send a message to the Russians that their actions will not affect our commitment to our colleagues and our allies," the senior U.S. defense official said.