The United States will permanently deploy artillery and tanks in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, announced on Tuesday in a move that is almost certain to upset their former Soviet master, Russia.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, announced earlier that the country would add more than forty intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal to offset NATO deployments in the east.
The deployments are meant to reassure NATO member states that joined the alliance after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The three Baltic states, which have few armed forces of their own, have been especially unnerved by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in the last year.
In Tallinn, Estonia’s Baltic Sea capital, Carter said the former Soviet republics as well as Bulgaria, Poland and Romania — three former Russian satellite states — had agreed to host American heavy equipment.
“That’s because the United States and the rest of the NATO alliance are absolutely committed to defending the territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,” Carter said.
Under the NATO treaty, an attack on one member states constitutes an attack against all.
Russia has accused the West of violating a post-Cold War agreement not to extend NATO to Russia’s borders. European countries and the United States deny no such an agreement was ever made.
Nevertheless, until Russia invaded Ukraine last year and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, the Western allies stationed no troops east of the old Icon Curtain frontier.
Since then, NATO has stepped up military exercises in the east, deployed fighter jets to the Baltics to defend their airspace and created a high-readiness force of 5,000 troops that can instantly react to threats on NATO’s border.
New command and control units are set up in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania to support NATO operations.
Estonia’s defense minister, Sven Mikser, welcomed the American decision on Tuesday, saying, “We have reasons to believe that Russia views the Baltic region as one of NATO’s most vulnerable areas, a place where NATO’s resolve and commitment could be tested.”
Estonia has among the region’s relatively largest ethnic Russian populations. A quarter of its citizens claims Russian descent.
Russia justified its military intervention in Ukraine by claiming a right to protect Russian speakers and “compatriots” in the former Soviet sphere. Russian diplomats last year raised concerns about the treatment of Russian speakers in Estonia, comparing the Baltic state’s policy to that of Ukraine.
Russia denies any intention to stir up trouble in the Baltics but NATO fighter jets have repeatedly scrambled to intercept Russian bombers and other airplanes in the area. Poland complained last year about “unprecedented” Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea region and said the country seemed to be testing NATO.
Poland, which has the eight-largest army in NATO, responded by moving the bulk of its armed forces to its eastern border under a three-year modernization plan.
The United States, which account for more than 70 percent of NATO defense spending, increased training activities and the deployment of “rotational” forces in the Baltics and Poland. Fifty American armored fighting vehicles and battle tanks were prepositioned in those countries earlier this year.