BRUSSELS -- NATO defense ministers have gathered in Brussels for two days of talks that will include defense spending within the alliance, its mission in Afghanistan, and Russia's alleged violation of a Cold War-ear nuclear arms-control agreement.
The ministers will also discuss Iran as tensions escalate between Tehran and Washington amid concerns rise over a possible military confrontation.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the ministers will address Russia's "continuing violation" of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
The agreement banned the United States and Russia from developing, producing, and deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
But in February, the United States suspended its participation in the treaty, with Washington and its allies accusing Russia of deploying a missile system that violates the pact.
Russia, which denies the accusation, later followed suit. Moscow accuses the United States of breaking the accord itself, an allegation rejected by Washington.
On June 26, Russia's upper house of parliament passed a bill to suspend Russia's implementation of the treaty.
"So far we haven't seen any real intention or any change in behavior from Russia indicating that they are going to come back into compliance," Stoltenberg said earlier.
Stoltenberg added that the allies are planning to hold a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council next week to raise the matter again.
He said NATO had a "wide range of potential different measures" that it could implement if Russia did not comply.
On June 27, the ministers are due to address the implementation of NATO's "strengthened deterrence and defense posture," including the NATO Readiness Initiative.
The initiative aims at enhancing the readiness of national forces and their ability to move within Europe and across the Atlantic, as the alliance looks to counter the growing threat from Russia.
In recent years, Russia's military actions in Ukraine have increased concerns about Moscow's intentions in NATO members, particularly former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact satellites of the Soviet Union.
Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backs separatists whose war against Kyiv's forces has killed some 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April of that year.
Ministers are also expected to approve NATO's "first-ever space policy, creating a framework for how NATO should deal with the opportunities and challenges in space," Stoltenberg said.
The secretary-general said that space "is part of our daily lives and while it can be used for peaceful purposes, it can also be used for aggression."
Afghanistan is also on the ministers' agenda, with a meeting of all nations contributing to NATO's Resolute Support mission, according to Stoltenberg.
"It is no easy way to peace, but we need a political solution," he told RFE/RL before the meeting. "We need a negotiated solution. For NATO, the best way to support those peace efforts is to provide training, assistance, advice, and support to the Afghan Army, [and to Afghan] security forces, because the Taliban has to understand that they will never win on the battlefield. They have to sit down at the negotiating table."
U.S. and Taliban negotiators have held several rounds of talks in Qatar to end the nearly 18-year war in Afghanistan. The sides have made progress, but the Taliban has so far rejected direct negotiations with the Western-backed government in Kabul.
The two-day NATO meeting is also expected to include talks on the heightened tensions between Iran and the United States and its Persian Gulf allies.
Last week, Trump approved military retaliation for the shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz but withdrew the order at the last minute. Iran says the aircraft violated its airspace; while the United States insists it was shot down over international waters.
The United States has also accused Iran of being behind explosions that have damaged six oil tankers in the region over the past weeks. Iran has rejected the accusation.
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he will bring up Iran in the talks, hoping to gather support for Washington's efforts to deter conflict with Tehran and "open the door to diplomacy."
Ahead of the meeting, Stoltenberg welcomed Washington's readiness for dialogue.
"We need to avoid escalation," he said. "We need to avoid miscalculations in the [Persian] Gulf, in the region, because we have seen that it is important to avoid us moving into a situation that can become even more dangerous and more difficult than the situation we see today."
Esper told reporters traveling with him to Brussels: "This is not Iran versus the United States. This is Iran certainly versus the region, and arguably the broader global environment."
He said he wanted allies to support "any range of activities" to help deter conflict with Iran.
"This is the reason why we need to internationalize this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table and talk about the way ahead," Esper said.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have increased since May 2018, when the United States withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and began reinstating sanctions to force the country to renegotiate the accord.
Stoltenberg said on June 25 that the ministers would discuss progress on "burden-sharing" among NATO allies, amid persistent calls by U.S. President Donald Trump for increased defense spending to the agreed level of 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Eight member states are expected to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense this year -- up from three allies in 2014, he said.
"Today, we are releasing for the first time figures for 2019 defense spending, and I can announce that the real increase for 2019 is 3.9 percent across European allies and Canada," Stoltenberg said. "So we now have five consecutive years of growth in defense spending."
By the end of 2020, European allies and Canada "will have added a cumulative total of well over $100 billion since 2016," the NATO chief added.