As NATO defense ministers went into their fall meeting, Russian warships on the periphery of NATO territory highlighted tensions amid allies and nervousness about Moscow's aims. DW's Teri Schultz reports from Brussels.
A convoy of Russian warships on Wednesday led by the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov did not just cast a black cloud over the waterways it passed en route to the Mediterranean. It also dimmed NATO leaders' hopes that their meeting would center on new details of the four battalions beefing up the deterrence factor along NATO's eastern borders.
Controversy arose over Spain's permission - granted a month ago - to allow a now-infamous convoy of Russian warships to refuel in the North African port of Ceuta. In the end, Russia itself withdrew the request, but not before it became clear that Spain had given little thought to the fleet's end game, outraging fellow NATO members such as Britain. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said his government "would be extremely concerned if a NATO member should consider assisting a Russian carrier group that might end up bombing Syrian civilians." Fallon suggested that action alone would be divisive to alliance unity, saying "on the contrary, NATO should be standing together."
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored that sentiment, saying, "We are concerned about the potential use of this carrier group to increase attacks against Aleppo," but balanced that worry by stating it's a "decision to be taken by individual allies whether they provide fueling and supplies to Russian ships."
No NATO voice had been as scathing as European parliamentarian Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE group. Verhofstadt raged in a statement that it was "scandalous" Spain would have signed on to last week's European Council position suggesting Russian actions in Aleppo could constitute war crimes, "yet today it provides assistance to a fleet that has one purpose: the annihilation of Aleppo and the harassment of EU and NATO forces."
Despite all the heat on the sidelines, a spokesman for the Spanish defense ministry, Diego Mazon, told DW that not one country had raised the refueling issue with his boss, Pedro Morenes.
Russia beefs up in the Baltic
Meanwhile, Stoltenberg confirmed that two Russian warships "recently" entered the Baltic Sea near Kaliningrad. News reports say those ships are equipped with cruise missiles, but officials won't speculate on whether Russia has also moved nuclear warheads to its western exclave - with Stoltenberg only pointing out "nuclear-capable Iskander missiles" were transferred to Kaliningrad earlier this month. He said NATO navies would monitor the activity "in a responsible and measured way," as they had with the fleet headed toward the Mediterranean.
Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz expressed more alarm, telling Polish news agency PAP the Kaliningrad reinforcements by Russia were definitely cause for concern. "Moving such ships on the Baltic changes the balance of power," he said.
But NATO has been gearing up for two years to have that balance in its own favor, culminating in Wednesday's announcement of what equipment and staffing will be provided by allies for the biggest reinforcement of NATO's military presence since the Cold War.
Battle groups and Black Sea boost
Britain, Canada, Germany and the United States will lead battalions of roughly 1,000 military personnel each in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, respectively. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen says Germany will send 450-600 troops, making up the majority of its battalion.
The US will not only contribute most of the troops itself for its battalion in Poland, but also have another force ready to boost NATO's presence to the South, part of land, air and sea reinforcements in Romania and the Black Sea region.
In addition to countering Russia's most recent escalations, Stoltenberg pointed out the alliance had pledged at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July that these battalions would be deployed by early next year. He confirmed plans are on track and NATO forces will arrive on time to strengthen rattled eastern allies whose neighborhoods just keep getting more nervewracking.
The Russians don't seem to want to talk things over. "Dialogue is even more important when tensions run high," said Stoltenberg. But officials say there has been no Kremlin response to NATO's offer to hold a meeting.