NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the alliance will discuss this week its “next steps" in response to Russia's continued violation of a key Cold War-era nuclear arms-control agreement, as well as its presence in the Black Sea region in the face of Russian “aggressive behavior."
NATO foreign ministers will gather in the U.S. capital on April 4 to mark the 70th anniversary of the signing of Western military alliance’s founding Washington Treaty.
The talks are expected to focus largely on relations with Russia, which have been severely strained over a variety of issues including Moscow’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and its support for separatist militants in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has cost some 13,000 lives over five years.
Stoltenberg told journalists in Brussels on April 1 that the NATO ministers will “begin by addressing NATO's relations with Russia,” which he said “continues to violate” the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
The INF Treaty, the first of its kind to eliminate an entire class of missiles, banned the United States and Russia from developing, producing, and deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The United States in February suspended participation in the bilateral accord because of what it says is Russia's development and deployment of a missile system that violates the pact. Moscow, which denies the accusation, later followed suit.
“These missiles are hard to detect, lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, and make us all less safe,” Stoltenberg said. “Russia continues to defy our calls to return to compliance with the INF Treaty, and time is running out, so we will discuss NATO’s next steps."
He has said that the alliance has no plan to deploy new ground-launched nuclear weapons in Europe.
Speaking at a joint news conference with U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison, the NATO chief also said that he expects the ministers to “agree new measures to improve our situational awareness in the [Black Sea] region and to step up NATO's support for both Georgia and Ukraine.”
Stoltenberg said the measures will include the training of maritime forces and coastguards, port visits, exercises, and sharing of information.
NATO is “concerned by Russia's pattern of aggressive behavior, including its ongoing actions against Ukraine and the seizure” of three Ukrainian vessels and their 24 crew members near the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea and Sea of Azov in November.
NATO has demanded the immediate release of the detained crew members, as well as free access for Ukrainian vessels to the country's ports in the Sea of Azov.
Hutchison said the NATO foreign ministers will talk about “what Russia is doing to destabilize Ukraine -- most certainly from the Kerch Straits -- as well as the illegal invasion of Crimea and the militarization of Crimea.”
The ministers will also discuss “ways to continue to build our deterrence and defense against Russian aggression, whether it is hybrid, cyber or chemical warfare," the U.S. ambassador added.
NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism and the ongoing issue of defense spending are also expected to be high on the agenda of the April 4 Washington meeting.
On April 2, Stoltenberg is set to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump and address Congress.