WARSAW -- NATO signaled unity in support for Afghanistan and a mix of "defense and deterrence" with dialogue to handle an assertive Russia at a crucial summit, seeking to address an array of challenges faced by the Western alliance and the wider world.
At a two-day summit that NATO leaders said was a defining moment for the alliance, its members also agreed to step up its role in the fight against Islamic State extremists and combat terrorism and human trafficking with a Sea Guardian mission in the Mediterranean.
"In an unpredictable world of challenges from the south and east, NATO remains an essential source of stability," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on July 9, wrapping up the main results of the gathering at a Warsaw stadium ahead of a final meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
NATO must "project stability" beyond its immediate region and become "even more of a training alliance" to help other countries fight terrorism and other threats instead of sending large NATO contingents in to do so, he said, announcing a plan to begin a new training effort in Iraq to aid in combatting Islamic State fighters.
"Prevention is better than intervention," Stoltenberg said.
Day One of the summit was dominated by the formal authorization of plans for multinational battalions of up to 1,000 troops each to be stationed on a rotating basis in Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- a direct response to Russian belligerence and the biggest such move by the alliance since the end of the Cold War.
The battalions will be led by the United States, Canada, Britain, and Germany.
"The main message is that the alliance is united, that we stand together in our approach based on defense -- strong defense -- and collective dialogue," Stoltenberg said on July 9.
Asked by a Russian reporter whether he saw any imminent threat against a NATO ally, Stoltenberg said no, but added a "more assertive" Russia has built up its military capabilities, modernized its armed forces, and tripled its defense spending in recent years.
Moscow, he said, has been "willing to use military force against neighbors, against Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, and destabilizing eastern Ukraine."
Stoltenberg said NATO's enhanced response forces could be used not only on the alliance's eastern flank but also to tackle potential threats stemming from the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
He said that while NATO is not in a "strategic partnership" with Russia, despite what he said were efforts to build one after the Soviet breakup, it is also not engaged in a new "Cold War."
"We are in a new situation which is different to anything else we have experienced before," he said.
Russia stunned the West in March 2014 by seizing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and backing separatists whose war against Kyiv’s forces has killed more than 9,300 people in eastern Ukraine since that April.
The interference in Ukraine has increased concerns in eastern NATO nations such as Poland and the three Baltic states, which were under Moscow’s thumb until the Soviet breakup a quarter-century ago.
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In addition to military force, Western governments say that under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has used cyberattacks, propaganda, and other methods in an effort to destabilize European countries and undermine Western unity.
Addressing a news conference following Poroshenko’s meeting with NATO leaders, Stoltenberg reaffirmed the alliance’s support for Ukraine and called on Russia to halt its "political, military and financial support for separatists" battling Kyiv’s forces in the east of the country.
Poroshenko, meanwhile, hailed NATO solidarity with his country, saying he had secured from the alliance “a strong commitment to supporting Ukraine in increasing our defense capability” in the form of an assistance package.
The Kremlin said in a July 9 statement that Putin held a call with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the Ukraine crisis and that Putin urged his counterparts "to influence more actively the Ukrainian side" during their planned meetings with Poroshenko.
In downtown Warsaw, a few hundred anti-NATO activists protested against the planned deployments on July 9, carrying banners reading "Stop NATO" and chanting "NATO get out of here."
Russia, which has long accused NATO of jeopardizing security by expanding eastward, has criticized NATO’s deployment plans.
Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign policy committee in the upper parliament house, likened them to “building a dam in the desert,” and Putin’s spokesman said on July 8 that it was “absurd to speak of a threat from Russia.”
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that "NATO has begun preparations for escalating from a Cold War into a hot one."
"They only talk about defense, but actually are preparing for offensive operations," Gorbachev was quoted as saying.
NATO leaders dismiss such accusations, saying that the alliance is not seeking confrontation but that Russia's actions have made it necessary for the alliance to bolster its defenses.
Stoltenberg said during the summit that NATO will “continue to seek meaningful and constructive dialogue" with Russia.
The NATO-Russia Council, which was set up in the 1990s to address Russia’s misgivings about the alliance expanding eastward, is to meet next week for the second time this year. The council was suspended following Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
The NATO summit also produced an agreement to continue training Afghan security forces into 2017, prolonging a support mission in a country that still faces serious instability a decade and a half after the Taliban was driven from power.
Taliban fighters and allied insurgents have regrouped since the U.S. invasion in 2001, and by some accounts now hold more territory than at any time since then. That has prompted the United States and NATO to slow their drawdown of troops.
Speaking after leaders of the 28-nation alliance met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Stoltenberg said that Afghan forces will continue to be funded through 2020 "at or near" the current level of $5 billion a year. Most of the money comes from the United States, but Stoltenberg said other allies have promised to put up about $1 billion a year.
"Our message is clear: Afghanistan does not stand alone, and we are committed for the long haul," the NATO chief said at a news conference.
Stoltenberg said the number of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2017 will remain at about 12,000, but that exact numbers will be decided in the fall. Obama announced this week that the United States would leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan though the end of his term in January 2017 instead of cutting their numbers.
In an interview in Warsaw with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Abdullah said that around the time that NATO ended its combat mission, Taliban insurgents thought they could "win militarily" -- but that this "did not happen" thanks to the Afghan security forces and support from the international community.
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"The people of Afghanistan do not want the country Talibanized again," he said.
The government is keeping "the door open for negotiations," Abdullah said. "But unfortunately the Taliban have given us a negative response and are prolonging the conflict in Afghanistan."
On Iraq, Stoltenberg said NATO leaders agreed on the use of AWACS surveillance aircraft to support the fight against Islamic State extremists, who seized large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and have killed and abused uncounted civilians.That’s in addition to a new "training and capacity-building" effort there.
Stoltenberg also announced plans for an intelligence center in Tunisia and support for Tunisian forces, and said NATO leaders agreed to launch a maritime security operation in the Mediterranean Sea, to help fight trafficking, terrorism, and grapple with the influx of migrants seeking entry in Europe.
A French- and German-brokered peace deal known as the Minsk agreement imposed a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, but it is violated frequently and the Russia-backed separatists continue to hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Progress on political aspects of the Minsk agreement, which was meant to resolve the conflict and restore Kyiv’s control over Ukraine’s entire border with Russia, has been slow.
Ahead of the summit, Obama said that “even as our nations remain open to a more constructive relationship with Russia, we should agree that sanctions on Russia must remain in place until Moscow fully implements its obligations” under the Minsk agreement.
With reporting by Mustafa Sarwar of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Reuters, dpa, AP, AFP, and Interfax