NATO defense ministers demand Ukraine's national sovereignty be respected and call for Russian integration in a solution to the Ukrainian crisis. Afghanistan was another topic at the ministers' summit in Brussels.
As a reaction to gibes from Moscow, NATO defense ministers declared during their meeting in Brussels that the alliance will "continue to support Ukraine's sovereignty and its territorial integrity." Such comments from NATO ministers are unlikely to be followed up with troop movements. Previously Russian President Vladimir Putin has put Russian troops at the border to Ukraine on alert. Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu said the Russian forces' maneuvers were not connected to the crisis in Ukraine.
In a joint declaration, the NATO defense ministers pledged their support for the implementation of reforms in Ukraine. "NATO stands ready to continue to engage with Ukraine and assist with the implementation of reforms. Defense reform and military cooperation remain key priorities," the document said.
Furthermore, ministers thanked the Ukrainian military for not intervening in the power struggle between the pro-Russian ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. "A sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security," the NATO ministers' statement said.
New German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has to deal with the crisis in Ukraine at her first a NATO summit. "It is very important for the daily life of the people that Ukraine finds its way back to stability," she said. Ukraine must not break apart, von der Leyen added.
"We not only have the NATO-Russia Council, we also have the NATO-Ukraine Council. That means that we have two lines of communication which are established and which we should link," she said.
NATO has special relations with both Russia and Ukraine that can be used, according to diplomats at the NATO headquarter in Brussels. Russia has to be in integrated in the stabilization process in Ukraine, the German defense minister demanded.
The NATO defense ministers are supposed to talk to a Ukrainian delegation on Thursday (27.02.2014). Ukraine is taking part at the summit as it provides troops to NATO's mission in Afghanistan. Ukrainian soldiers have been part of NATO's international missions. "They are a very important providers of troops," NATO diplomats said in Brussels.
Flexible schedule for NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan
The defense ministers also discussed how to organize the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the framework for a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has, however, so far refused to sign a security agreement with foreign powers despite it having already passed an Afghan tribal council. Karzai has said the agreement should be signed by his successor after presidential elections in April. But NATO has pushed Karzai to sign the deal sooner to provide NATO nations with planning security. Originally, NATO has set an ultimatum until the end of January 2014. That is not mentioned anymore and NATO suddenly appears flexible. A decision from the Afghan government is not needed until the end of October 2014, according to NATO insiders. Then NATO needs precise instructions how many troops should stay as trainers and advisors.
Not without pressure
The timetable is accompanied by threats to keep up the pressure on Karzai. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO will consider a total troop withdrawal by the end of the year if there is no green light given for the successor mission. He repeated similar statements from US President Barack Obama.
"We have the political will to continue to support Afghanistan with training, advice and additional assistance. Therefore it is important that the Afghan government invites us. We need to be welcomed there," von der Leyen added.
A deal for legal security
The United States and the rest of NATO need the deal with the Afghan government to protect their troops from prosecution in Afghanistan and to clearly settle the legal status of the NATO troops in the country. The Afghan government additionally has to explicitly invite to a successor mission to be on the safe side under international law. NATO also wants to secure its presence in Afghanistan after 2015 by a mandate from the UN Security Council. But it wouldn't be mandatory for a mission without combat troops.
Military planners in Brussels are acting as if the security agreement with Afghanistan already exists. Should it not be signed by October, experts have said, the alliance will still have other moves to make. NATO would like to station between 8,000 and 12,000 troops in Afghanistan from 2015. There are currently 53,000 foreign soldiers taking part in NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
The military in Brussels temporarily plans as if the deal with Afghanistan already exists. In case the deal is not achieved there will be other option in October, according to NATO. From 2015 on NATO wants to keep between 8000 and 12000 troops in Afghanistan. At the moment the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has stationed 53000 troops in Afghanistan. Every month the number of troops in Afghanistan decreases. The Afghan army has been formally responsible for the security in the country since last year.